LEXINGTON – In her journey to high school stardom, Lexington senior Dominique Clairmonte has followed in coach Denise Benson’s footsteps.
Sometimes painstakingly so.
“I tell her ‘Dom, I think you’re my daughter,’” Benson joked.
Like a good mother, Benson tried to warn the distance running dynamo that her need for speed on training runs could ultimately stop her in her tracks.
But Clairmonte had to find out for herself — the hard way.
She came to Benson just before the start of her sophomore cross country season in the fall and said her foot hurt. Benson felt along the pressure points of the foot and when Clairmonte leaped out of her seat knew immediately it was a stress fracture.
“I said, ‘Dom, you tell me the truth and you tell me the truth now. How long has the foot been hurting you?’” Benson said. “She said, ‘A whole month.’”
Clairmonte, blossoming into one of the top runners on Lex’s state powerhouse team, was sidelined for the entire season.
The devastating news hit too close to home for Benson, who had suffered the same foot injury when she, too, was a high school sophomore.
She’s speaking from first-hand experience when she constantly preaches to her runners that they must strike a balance between running hard and proceeding with caution.
“I always tell them, ‘It’s not what you can do, it’s what you should do,’” Benson said. “You do it your way, in two weeks, you’ll be hurting and probably be sitting out some significant time.
“You really have to watch as far as overuse. It’s not just mileage. You can run junk miles and never get injured if you’re running easy. It’s a balance between mileage and the pace of the run of the workout.”
Researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center conducted the first comprehensive study on overuse injuries among high school athletes in the United States. It was published in the June Issue of the Journal of Pediatrics.
Of the sports studied, girls track and field had the highest risk of overuse injuries.
Benson has spent so much time examining this topic over the years, she probably could have authored the study.
“I see sophomore girls are most prone to stress fractures and it makes total sense to me,” Benson said. “They have so much ability as a freshman and they want to do more and more and more, and their ability is ahead of where their base is — their endurance, their core, their strength, all of that.”
Benson is able to keep fairly close tabs on her runners during the school year since she oversees the entire cross country program at Lex and is the boys and girls distance coach during track in the winter and spring.
It’s hardest to monitor them in the summer when coaching is restricted by OHSAA rules.
“There’s a lot of times, they’re hammering away (in workouts). I tell them once, I tell them twice, I tell them three times … you’re running two fast too many days a week,” Benson said. “I want my runners to listen to their body. If it’s a recovery run (after a hard run the day before), turn your watch off and listen to your body.”
Clairmonte admits she’s gotten better at pacing herself.
“Once we knew I had a stress fracture, I started listening to (Benson) more,” she said. “I was running with Ellen Isaac (a former teammate) a lot and she was in college and we were doing all of our runs together really fast and that caught up with me.
“It wasn’t like I was going out and doing more (mileage) than (Benson) wanted me to. All of my runs were really fast. I was overdoing it in that sense.”
Even in her lowest moments, Clairmonte could use Benson’s comeback from injury as an inspiration.
Benson won 11 state championships in cross country and track her last two years of high school in New York, where there were state meets for public schools and then federation meets for elite public and private school athletes.
Benson became a sub-5-minute miler, but her specialty was the 3,000 meters and she parlayed that into a scholarship to the University of Kentucky, which at the time (late 1980s) had the top distance program in the country.
Kentucky is one of the major colleges bidding for Clairmonte, who saw her road to recovery follow the same trajectory as Benson’s career.
Clairmonte is set to defend her state championship in cross country, coming off a storybook 2014-15 school year that saw her win five state titles. In addition to being named the Gatorade Ohio Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year after winning the Division II crown by nearly 10 seconds, she also swept the Division II 1,600 and 3,200 meter runs in indoor and outdoor track.
She set the state meet record in the indoor metric mile (5:03.01) and, after going wire-to-wire in that race outdoors (a school record 4:53.08) came back to win the 3,200 as the only girl to crack 11 minutes (10:50.09).
“Dom listens to me; she does not want another stress fracture,” Benson said. “I’ll let her run with my top boys and she did a 10-mile run at a 6:38 pace because her body can handle that. But then I have to restrict her on her recovery run and tell her, ‘Dom, you’re not allowed to run faster than a 7:20 pace.’
“If she keeps running hard all the time she’s not going to hang on. Everything is going to break down and she’s going to get injured.”
Restraint isn’t really in Clairmonte’s DNA, but it’s something she realizes she has to practice.
“It’s especially hard in the summer because we’re not racing and our bodies aren’t tired yet,” Clairmonte said. “Definitely in season, with the workouts, I’ve learned to slow it down on recovery days and try to judge how my body feels.”
Benson is a big stickler about shoes, especially since part of Clairmonte’s problems stemmed from being fitted with the wrong shoe for her gait.
She requires all varsity runners to have their foot strike analyzed by Road Runner Sports in Columbus before lacing up new shoes.
“Running is the highest impact sport,” Benson said, explaining her approach to shoes. “Football players wouldn’t play without a helmet.”
Lex’s cross country team, which includes other veteran runners like Nick Stricklen (a two-time state medalist in cross country and track), Abby Miller and Mackenna Curtis-Collins, recently returned from its annual preseason camp at Mohican State Park.
For 15 years, Benson has held the four-day, three-night camp, where her athletes run the trails and form a bond for the upcoming season. It’s hard to argue with the results. The girls have finished as state runner-up three times since 2010. The boys were fourth last year.
“With her experience and knowledge, it’s really great,” Clairmonte said of Benson. “She’s been through so much, with injuries and winning state titles … she just knows everything there is to know, I guess.”
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