A program that didn’t exist in Brown County three months ago is taking 11 kids to a national contest this weekend.

Thirteen local members of the Pathfinders youth running group qualified for the USATF National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships in Tallahassee, Florida.

Eleven of them are taking a road trip to compete in the Dec. 9 meet.

The Pathfinders are a youth division of the Columbus Running Club, said Chasity Smith, who coaches the Brown County runners with her husband, Dan Smith.

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This is Brown County’s first year participating in the club. It isn’t associated with Brown County Schools’ cross-country teams, but many of its members also run for their school teams.

When the schools’ cross-country season ended in October, Smith put the word out about an opportunity to keep training. More than 20 kids showed up ranging in age from 8 to eighth-graders, “and we narrowed it down to this solid group of kids that’s going to nationals.”

“These kids just love running,” Smith said, giggles floating from the course behind her.

The club has been practicing three times a week at Brown County Schools’ Eagle Park cross-country course and competing every Sunday at meets in Shelbyville, Noblesville, Seymour, Bloomington and Columbus.

To move onto the national meet, they had to place on a top-five team or within the top 30 individuals in their events at regionals, which took place Nov. 18 in Columbus. To get to regionals, they had to advance out of the state meet, which took place Nov. 11 in Shelbyville.

Of the 18 Brown County kids who raced at state, 13 qualified for nationals. Three of the five who didn’t make it were on a team that tied for fifth place but missed qualifying by 1 second in a tiebreaker.

“Hard lesson learned for those boys, but they have still been coming to practices to cheer push their teammates training for nationals,” Chasity Smith said. “I love that.”

Usually, the runners get goal times before they go into races. “I think on this one, it’s just going to be the experience of competing at a national level with all these other runners around you,” said Smith, who also coaches the Brown County Junior High School team.

“I know our junior high kids, when they come out here for the Eagle Classic, they get intimidated with 200 runners running this course. And with 400 kids (at the Florida races), I’m intimidated,” she laughed.

The kids are taking it all in stride.

“I’m ready to run, ready to go,” said Brown County Intermediate School sixth-grader Cord Smith, the coaches’ eldest son. He and his two siblings have watched their parents run for years and now they’re looking forward to getting their turn on a big stage.

Brown County didn’t have a competitive program for runners younger than 12 until 2013, when Brown County Intermediate School was established, Chasity Smith said.

In 2015, the Smiths and other adult runners helped to establish elementary running programs at Helmsburg, Sprunica and Van Buren schools for students as young as second grade.

Starting kids in the sport earlier is already making a difference, Smith said.

“Some of these kids … I have their times from junior high and Dan has times from their elementary program, and some of these kids have just been nonstop shaving time,” she said.

The elementary program was what got BCIS sixth-grader Livie Austin into competitive running. She ran her first 2K on the Eagle Park course as a Van Buren student and hasn’t stopped since. Sometimes, she and her siblings will go run with the Columbus club on the days the Brown County club doesn’t practice, she said.

“My whole family runs, except for my mom. My dad runs. All three of my siblings do. It just felt like a family thing,” she said.

This past summer, the Smiths also began leading a summer running program three days a week at Eagle Park, which ended a week before school started.

With all the recent expansions in running opportunities, kids as young as fifth-graders can train and compete nearly nonstop from March to December.

Long-term, the Smiths would like to see a separate Brown County youth running club, and to host a meet at Eagle Park which could raise money for the club. The families going to nationals are paying their own way or doing fundraisers on their own. “Ideally, I think next year we’re going to try to look for some Brown County sponsors to help with our kids and give some scholarships,” she said.

Nurturing their love for the sport is going to pay dividends when they get to the high school level, Smith predicted. On the high school cross-country team, they’ll run a 5K, and when they age out of the Pathfinders program, they will have already been running a 4K.

“This is a great feeder program for that whole program,” she said. “We have kids running right now on this extra team that probably never would have gotten into running if it hadn’t have been offered at the elementary level and then if we hadn’t had this. … There’s this excitement and this momentum with the young kids toward high school.”

The camaraderie has also made some good kids even better, she said.

“They listen, they follow directions, and they lead each other and they help each other, encourage each other … and when the top finishers finish, they always go back and help the little kids and cheer the little kids,” Smith said. “It’s just like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re good people too.'”

Brown County Pathfinders' national qualifying race results

USATF Indiana Association Junior Olympic Championships

Nov. 11

GIRLS 2,000M (8 and younger): 6. Kodi Smith 10:27.12 (PR), 12. Marleigh Mollo 11:10.55

BOYS 2,000M (8 and younger): 27. Preston McNeely 9:59.86

GIRLS 3,000M (9-10): 32. Sadie Hiatt 15:39.83 (PR), 35. Jordyn Nicols 16:34.95 (PR), 38. Alyssa Minor 17:51.28 (PR), 39. Zoe Jackson 18:46.64 (PR)

BOYS 3,000M (9-10): 18. Case Smith 12:21.53 (PR), 48. Eli Wrightsman 13:42.87 (PR)

GIRLS 3,000M (11-12): 35. Kayleigh Austin 13:05.99 (PR), 37. Leslie Austin 13:06.66 (PR), 50. Harper Mitchell 13:52.84 (PR), 63. Ally Hiatt 16:41.93 (PR)

BOYS 3,000M (11-12): 22. Cord Smith 11:29.47 (PR), 40. Corbin Brahaum 12:18.80 (PR), 49. Clayton Austin 12:37.66 (PR), 64. Will Hiatt 13:46.37 (PR)

BOYS 4,000M (13-14): 16. Chase Austin 13:43.52 (PR)

USATF Region 7 Junior Olympic Championships

Nov. 18

GIRLS 2,000M (8 and under): 3. Marleigh Mollo 10:25.80 (PR), 4. Kodi Smith 10:40.80

BOYS 2,000M (8 and under): 12. Preston McNeely 9:19.30 (PR)

GIRLS 3,000M (9-10): 27. Sadie Hiatt 16:29.50, 28. Jordyn Nicols 16:45.60, 30. Alyssa Minor 19:07.80

BOYS 3,000M (9-10): 14. Case Smith 13:04

GIRLS 3,000M (11-12): 29. Kayleigh Austin 13:35.30

BOYS 3,000M (11-12): 17. Cord Smith 11:52.40

BOYS 4,000M (13-14): 10. Chase Austin 14:31.10

Brown County Pathfinders

Chase Austin*, Clayton Austin, Kayleigh “Livie” Austin*, Leslie “Lexie” Austin*, Corbin Brahaum, Ally Hiatt, Sadie Hiatt*, Will Hiatt, Zoe Jackson**, Preston McNeely*, Alyssa Minor*, Harper Mitchell, Marleigh Mollo*, Jordyn Nicols*, Case Smith*, Cord Smith*, Kodi Smith*, Eli Wrightsman**

* National qualifier

** National qualifier who is not going to the national contest

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Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.