Ah, so this is how a distance runner captures three state championships, establishes a national record and is recognized as Gatorade’s New York athlete of the year — in her first seven months as a high school student.
“Mentally I’ve always been able to push through when it got tough. I’ve always had a drive to not let myself give up during a race,” said Jessica Lawson, 15-year-old Corning East freshman.
“I always think about, how will I feel after this race? It’s only going to be a little bit of pain — it’s going to hurt, but I’m not going to die or something. So, just push myself through right now, and the more it hurts, the more I don’t want to do it, the better I’ll feel after the race because I’ll know that I put more effort into it than I thought I could.
“I always think racing is fun. When you’re in the race, it might hurt but it’s fun, it’s my kind of fun.”
But what’s the most fun? Getting out front and staying there, fending off any and all charges, running away from the rest.
Competitors had best not be hoodwinked by the exterior. This little blonde cutie, a 105-pounder as petite as she is polite and humble as the sea is salty, is about achieving excellence — and winning!
“She’s one of the most outstanding young talents to come along in Section 4 since Molly Huddle,” said Dave Cody, veteran Binghamton High coach and one of the most knowledgeable distance-running aficionados hereabouts.
Comparison that makes mention of the preeminent female distance runner with Southern Tier roots is a mouthful, to be sure.
There is a reason it seems Lawson splashed on the scene last autumn as if from nowhere.
A resident of the Town of Rathbone — in the Canisteo River Valley, between Addison and Cameron — Lawson is attending public school for the first time since spending her first two years in the Jasper-Troupsburg district. She was home schooled for grades 2 through 8, and enrolled at East High in the fall.
She is a farm girl, has seven cows of her own that reside at her grandparents’ larger farm nearby, where she visits 5-6 evenings per week to help milk. Six of her crew are registered purebred Holsteins, some of which she shows at fairs and Holstein shows, which requires that she fastidiously prepare them to be walked around a ring before judges. There are also her 10 or so pet rabbits to tend to, and for that she has assistance from her mother and younger siblings.
All the while she maintains honors-student credentials, with the aim of easing into the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program.
Jessica’s father, Ray, who coaches Corning’s cross country team, ran competitively in high school and college and introduced the eldest of he and wife Julie’s five children to running at a young age. Turns out Jessica Blair was a natural, with regard to proclivity as well as ability.
She competed in Junior Olympic cross country in 7th and 8th grades, twice qualifying for national competition– though having her first go-round derailed when a decorative brick was knocked from a shelf and broke a bone in her foot on Thanksgiving Day in 2011. She came back in December of 2012 to place 10th in the Youth Girls 4K championship in Albuquerque, N.M.
She formerly played youth soccer, but opted out of that after sixth grade to devote her attention to cross country. Similarly with running in mind, as well as the benefits of a team environment, came the return to public school.
Lawson had trained with Corning’s runners the summers following her 7th- and 8th-grade years, smoothing the transition. Her first competition of note, last Sept. 21 in Queensbury, brought not only a second-place finish but a confidence boost and affirmation that her recent and substantial upgrade in training mileage had paid dividends.
“It was amazing. I was not expecting that at all,” she said of the finish as well as the 17:57.25 clocking. “My previous 5K PR was in the low 20s, so to break 18 was incredible. My goal going in was to break 19.”
Next came fifth place in the McQuaid Invitational, seventh in the Manhattan Invitational, followed by wins in STAC, Section 4, New York Class B and the Federation, or, all-comers championship. She closed November with a seventh-place finish in Foot Locker regionals, and ran 27th in Nationals.
Her debut season of indoor track featured a winning 9:49.68 in the state 3,000-meter final, polished off with a 33-second zip through the closing 200 that only expanded awareness of this wunderkind on a statewide level.
“I wasn’t planning to do that. I just knew that I had to kick, that I had to go as fast as I could,” Lawson said. “I was already tired — I was dead tired — but once I was sprinting fast, I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel pain anymore. I think the adrenaline and the focus that you have to have when you put in such a hard and fast kick … I don’t know why, but for every race I’ve figured out a way to know what’s got to be done.”
Indoor season was capped with a 17:08.45 over 5,000 meters in the New Balance Nationals, all-time best by a ninth-grader, and she was saluted as New York’s Gatorade Cross Country Athlete of the Year.
The featured competition of Lawson’s initial season of outdoor track thus far brought a runner-up finish in the The Glavin 3,000, a showcased event of the 9th annual Runnin’ Cadet Classic at Hilton High outside Rochester. There, as part of a hand-picked field of top distance runners, she closed a substantial late-race gap to finish second in 9:57.95 — 12/100ths back of Penfield senior Katie Lembo.
Most meaningful of her running accomplishments to date? She’ll settle on a 1 and a 1A.
“Qualifying for Foot Locker Nationals, the coaches felt that I could do it but it wasn’t a certainty, by any means, and it’s a really prestigious meet, incredible girls race at that meet,” she said. “I had to pass 12 girls in the middle of the race to get into the top 10.
“Indoor states — going into the race I had a time that had me ranked 10th. In the back of my mind I was thinking it’d be cool if I could win. I wasn’t sure if that was reality, if that was a possibility.”
Striking as is the running resume pieced together so rapidly, to pull up a chair across from the young lady and chat her up for an hour or so is to be equally impressed. There is the obvious maturity, the articulate and authoritative manner of conversing. The pupils-to-pupils contact, precise annunciation and introspective nature are above and beyond age 15.
And the maturity clearly extends to the athletic realm, perhaps most apparently when she articulates her grasp of the essence of running: Mind over matter.
“I like racing, I like competing, I like pushing myself,” Lawson said. “And I love crossing the finish line and, if I’ve had a good race, seeing my time. That feeling covers up any of the pain felt during practice or the boring training runs, it just makes you want to do it again. And so you go out and you train because you know if you want to feel that way again you have to train, you have to push yourself in workouts.
“You know, I want to feel the way I felt when I won cross-country states, I want to feel that way again.”
Oh, she figures to revisit that sensation, time and again.
“She seems to be a very good teammate,” Cody said. “Obviously she’s overshadowing some junior and senior teammates who themselves are accomplished runners, but I don’t see any signs of resentment. It just looks like a very healthy situation. And they’re very well-coached. It just looks to me that all the elements are in place for her to keep going.
“She’s got a great body and great mechanics. She’s not tall, but she’s relatively high-waisted,” Cody said. “They say that it’s not the length of the legs but the length of the legs in proportion to the rest of the body. And she’s very mechanically sound, and very slender — just has the prototypical outstanding, teenage girl’s runner’s body.”
And the mind of a champion, to boot.