NOBLESVILLE — Somewhere between the starting line and her Carmel cross-country team’s light blue tent, senior Sarah Leinheiser clasps her prayer-cross necklace and talks to God.
Sometimes it’s just for a moment, asking for speed and safety to the finish line. Other times it becomes a conversation. But always, even in her head after races start, Sarah is praying.
“Sometimes I worry about talking about it like (people) are going to think I’m fake,” Leinheiser said of her faith. “But I’m being honest when I’m talking about God. And if someone tells me they don’t want me to say that, I’d say don’t bother.
“Because I’m going to talk about God.”
Seeing Leinheiser turn from a decent runner into an out-of-nowhere state champion between her sophomore and junior years might seem like divine intervention, but the truth is much simpler.
After missing out on going to track nationals with her six other teammates in North Carolina as a sophomore, Leinheiser refused to be left out again and came into the 2015 season with a fire lit beneath her. By the end, she was not only an individual state champion with a time of 17 minutes, 30.8 seconds, but also a leader that helped lift Carmel to a state team title. She was named IndyStar’s girls cross-country runner of the year at the inaugural Indiana Sports Awards in April and took seventh nationally at the Nike Cross National Final in the winter, that time going 17:20.2.
“I don’t think anybody had seen anything like it,” Carmel coach Mark Ellington said of her improvement between seasons. “Just phenomenal (looking) one year to the next and how much faster she got in that one year. To say I saw that or expected that would be a complete falsehood.”
A runner since she was a fourth-grader, Leinheiser is set on running in college. She has an official visit this weekend with Iowa State and has been in touch with other Division I schools, including Notre Dame.
But Tuesday night’s cancellation of the Hamilton County cross-country meet in Noblesville put a slight damper in her senior season.
The Carmel coaches had decided not to run Leinheiser last Saturday to conserve her for a strong run in Tuesday’s meet, which Ellington said Carmel uses each year to show off its best runners. But between her college visit this weekend and a family wedding next weekend, Leinheiser will have not raced for three weeks by the time she runs next.
“She was pretty upset about it being this far out before she races again on the bus home,” Ellington said before adding how “tenacious” she is as a competitor.
Missing a few weeks might pile on the stress for some athletes, but Leinheiser already went through that last track season. She easily prefers cross-country over track, but the expectations from her breakout fall led to her feeling like she needed to be just as good at track — and she wasn’t.
So now she tries not to worry about it. At least not enough to ruin it for her. Because running to her is a sense of freedom she can’t find anywhere else.
“It just feels like you’re flying,” Leinheiser said. “Even if you’re feeling terrible, you’re moving so fast that you almost don’t feel your legs and are being lifted off the ground. It’s just a weird sensation I’ve always just loved for running.”
There is something else Leinheiser always asks of God before every race. Something she wants for herself more than just the “wings on my feet” to be the first over the finish line. Something that, frankly, is her greatest asset.
“I want to be happy at the end of the race no matter what the results,” Leinheiser said. “That’s the biggest thing I ask God to give me. Let me be happy at the end of the race.”
Follow IndyStar reporter Jordan Wilson on Twitter: @wilsonable07. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.