The Start Of It All: The Story of New York's First Foot Locker Finalist, Sue Girard
First it was Kinney. Now it is Foot Locker. It's the longest running High School National Championships in existence today. First run in 1979, the Foot Locker Cross Country National Championship was the first major step in bringing the sport of High School running to a National Stage. This year, Foot Locker will celebrate it's 40th Anniversary, a time span that has seen four Champions hail from the Empire State, seen rival meets adapt the core concepts in all three seasons of HS running, and has seen the USA reclaim the moniker as one of the most successful countries in the world for the sport of Athletics.
But it all had to start somewhere. For New York, it started with Suzanne Girard.
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The memory of a particular December day, long, long ago remains with Girard (now Eberle). The photographs in her mind are not grainy or blurred, they are as vivid as they were in 1979, a year when both Eberle and girls' cross country in New York were just beginning to flourish.
Eberle, 56, was one of the sport's first big names in New York as the Seventies drew to a close. Cross country was in its infancy, having been introduced in 1975 as a result of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. The then Maine-Endwell senior took advantage of that ruling and helped lay the foundation for the hundreds of young women who have since made New York a hotbed for high school distance running.
Eberle too, was in a sort of her own running infancy. Through Junior year, she had been strictly a long sprinter, specializing in the 400m and 800m. Distance running was her sisters' thing, as Maine Endwell was ripe with talent in the longer races. Cindi Girard and teammate Pat Tomek would trade Section 4 Records numerous time during their senior year. Sue Girard, who had played Field Hockey for three years while her Sister ran, but only made the jump to cross country when her sister graduated, heading to St. John's University.
A Quick Learning Curve
It didn't take her long to pick the sport up.
Through September and mid-October, Eberle had rocketed to the top of the local conversation, setting course records on well established terrain. Not only was she winning races by minutes - not meters - but she was also surpassing nearly all of the boys times from the previous race. In fact, by the end of her short-lived high school cross country career, in only three instances was the runner-up within 60-seconds of her.
Eberle, who could be viewed as the Katelyn Tuohy of her time, even told the local media that she was "bored running against the clock". With all of her meets coming against local competition in Section 4, it was time to branch out, and have the rest of the State see what was brewing up in Binghamton.
"There weren't all these websites then and you didn't go and look up everyone's times. By then I had won the state meet in three or four different track events so I'm sure some coaches knew of me."
Hearing About The Race
As could be expected in a time before the internet, the sport was not as organized as it is today. If not for some encouragement from her sister, Eberle likely would not have run at all. It was only by chance that Cindi, now a College Freshman, would be attending a University in close proximity to this "new exhibition." The Regional was held mid-season back then, about three weeks before the State Meet, so it would be a good way to find competition that could keep up, something Eberle would see at States.
"The qualifier was at Van Cortland Park and I didn't know anything about it," said Eberle, who now lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, John, whom she met at Georgetown. "I don't remember my coach knowing anything about it, either. I had never run there before. My sister was running at St. John's and working [at the meet] and said you should come down here and run in this qualifying race."
Eberle drove down from upstate New York with her father and stayed at her aunt's house the night before the race. When she arrived at Van Cortland Park the following morning, the whole scene proved to be a bit unfamiliar.
"I had no idea who anyone else was," she said. "I didn't ever run in the Junior Olympics or any of the other events [that were around at the time] but I knew this was a big deal. There were three girl's races and I was in the first race.
"I just ran. I always had a good sense of pace and I didn't go out crazy. I loved the course; anything with hills. I'm pretty sure, though, that I had never run the course before. On one of the hills, I remember some kid yelling at me 'You can go to San Diego'. So I just ran. I won my race and then just sat down and kind of waited around."
Eberle wound up winning the regional qualifier in 18:01.7, six seconds ahead of Ann Gladue from Bayley-Ellard, NJ. She topped a field of 900 girls from 13 states. Three weeks later, she won her first ever State title, clocking 19:56 at Green Lakes State Park in Syracuse, the only girl under twenty minutes that day.
As mentioned before, the sport was still very new. Even newer was this idea of a High School National Championship. There was some confusion in between about whether she was allowed to run in the Kinney qualifier during the high school season. Because the qualifier fell before the state meet, Eberle said that school officials had gotten a call from the state informing them that she could be disqualified for the remainder of the high school season. It was the first High School event of it's kind. Nobody was quite sure how to handle it.
Her parents were aware of that possibility, too, but didn't tell Eberle until after the matter was settled. It proved to be much ado about nothing, though, and Eberle found herself heading out to California for her first trip on an airplane and her first national race.
Girard was entering a brave new world of interstate competition, alongside 39 other female athletes deemed to be the best in the Country. But while the idea of a true National Championship was new for everyone, the environment and race conditions were to be like nothing Eberle had seen before.
"It was hot," Eberle said. "I was a good heat runner, not great, but I was coming from upstate New York and we hadn't experienced that sun or heat in months. I remember thinking, 'This is really warm.' We previewed the course the day before the race and I remember being very nervous.
"Parts of the course were on grass, parts of it ran along a grass sidewalk; it was like concrete, kind of artificial. It would have been better for me if it were a classic [Northeast] cross country course, where you go through the mud and up and down hills. I wish they held it at Van Cortland Park or a true East Coast cross-country venue. I always think how a lot of us from the East Coast who dealt with hard courses and crappy weather -- to me that's what cross country is all about -- would have done. All in all, I had fun."
Editor's Note: While the course was run at Balboa Park, the layout is not the same as used today. A flatter course was used the first two years, before the event moved to Orlando for two years. When Kinney returned, it ran the more traditional course.
A Whole New World
Prior to the race, Eberle got a taste of what a national competition was like. She said the East team "stayed in a fancy hotel and had a big reception", which proved to be quite a different experience than running the average race in upstate New York. The participants - 35 boys and 35 girls each earning a spot from five regional races - visited Sea World and were encouraged to spend time together at the hotel pool and share their experiences running around the country. She roomed with Gladue, whom she had bested in the Regional qualifier.
Eberle was seen by some the favorite. She had run the fastest time of all the qualifiers, barring one athlete from Iowa, Ellen Lyons, who had run 16:30 to win the West Region. However, it was determined at her qualifier, that the Regional course was short by an eight of a mile. No Speed Ratings back then, and very few had seen each of the courses to compare terrain, so no way to convert the time. Oh well, it was to be settled on race day, time comparisons no longer mattered, demonstrating the true power of the inaugural event.
"It was a beautifully run event," said Eberle, who traveled to California without her parents. "They treated us very well and made us feel special. It wasn't that big of a field, though, and I don't remember anyone coaching us or even serving as the East team coach. We all had uniforms identifying us East, West, North and South but I don't think there was anyone coaching us per se.
"They were playing up the team competition rather than the individual. I didn't even really know my teammates or the girls I was running against. I was a pretty intuitive racer. I would learn that California girls always ran fast. I think I would have been a bit more relaxed if I had had a coach with me, though."
Eberle may not have been familiar with the field and didn't seem to need much coaching, though. She had continued running in the days leading up to the race, tapering off her workouts as she got closer.
"It wasn't like I was training with a personal coach or anything," she said. "It wasn't all technical where someone laid out splits and told me what to expect. People were supportive and all but you did it on your own."
December 8th, 1979 - Race Day
Eberle did fine on her own once the race began. She was near the front of the pack for most of it. The course was largely grass, pavement and dirt tracks with several switchbacks and precious few hills, the one thing that would have given Eberle an advantage. Still, she led at the two-minute mark and was battling for the lead with 1,000 meters remaining before Idaho's Ellen Lyons took control of the race.
"I was leading up the hill," she said. "I was a very good uphill runner. Then there was quite a long stretch when we were on grass. I felt like I maintained, though. These were really good girls I was running against. I don't remember too much of the last part, though. I know I was glad to see the finish line. I ran the best I could and all in all, I had fun."
Eberle finished fifth at San Diego's Balboa Park, running the course in 17:56.
Lyons [17:28] may have taken the title that day but it was an experience that has stayed with Eberle, who went on to a spectacular collegiate and professional running career.
The event provided a foundation for Eberle. And while she may be viewed as a pioneer by some for what she did to help jumpstart girls cross country in New York, she doesn't view herself that way. She points to the fact that she was a student-athlete with the emphasis being on student. Eberle also says she wasn't treated any differently than anyone else on her high school team so the idea of being a groundbreaking runner just didn't cross her mind.
The success didn't end in San Diego. That Spring, Girard would run to a 4:51 mile, as well as a 4:33 in the 1500m. The latter lasted as the Section 4 Record all the way to 2002, when Molly Huddle ran 4:27 to win the State Title. The College scholarship would come, as Sue began her collegiate career at North Carolina State before transferring to Georgetown.
Even after college, the success continued, running and winning all around the world for Team USA and for Puma. She was the 1985 U.S. National 5,000 meter champion and was a member of the US squad that won the team championships at the 1983 IAAF World 15 Road Race Championships. Additionally, she was on the US team that won the 1987 USA World Cross Country Championships and was a member of the bronze-medal winning team at the 1986 IAAF World 15K Road Race championships.
She doesn't run competitively anymore having shifted her focus to competitive cycling and playing soccer.
Where Is She Now
And that student part of the student athlete, well, that came in handy as well. She is a sports dietician and nutrition therapist, in addition to being an author, working with athletes of all ages. She provides one-on-one, private nutrition counseling as well as custom workshops/talks for large and small groups.
Eberle also does a public speaking and is considered an expert in many fields, including sports nutrition, weight management for teens and adults, eating disorders, intuitive eating/non-diet approach and women's health issues.
"I'm glad I did it [running as a teenager] the way I did it," Eberle said. "I'm glad I didn't travel madly and be involved in all these high-level meets. I was never injured in high school and never missed any time."
Eberle simply ran and ran and it was that warm December day at the Kinney Nationals that served as her introduction to a larger cross-country world.
"No one was directing me. This was very intrinsic and internal. No one made me run, I wanted to run."
And run she did.