Distance running isn’t only Alyssa Williams’ forte, it’s her passion.
The Durant senior cross country runner has made a career of it, three times finishing in the top 40 at the Class 1A Iowa state cross country championships and twice winning medals at the 1A state track and field championships during her prep career in distance events.
Yet, when she crossed the finish line first at the Wildcats’ season-opening meet, the Bob Brown Invitational in Iowa City on Sept. 3, Williams encountered something new: No one was running with her.
It would be 1 minute, 16 seconds before Tipton's Kenzie Mente crossed the finish line to earn her runner-up finish in the 5-kilometer race, a fact that caught Williams’ attention.
“I didn’t expect that at all," Williams said of the win. "And I didn’t realize I had such a big lead on Kenzie Mente. I thought she was right with me the whole time. To see I was a minute ahead of her really put … in view of how far I’ve actually come this summer.”
The individual race title was just the second of Williams’ career, the first coming at Monticello in 2013 when she was a sophomore. The win put her on the path to reaching a goal she had set before the season of winning two individual meet titles during her senior season.
Little did she know she would reach that goal five days later and eclipse it four days after that.
After claiming the individual title at the Bellevue Marquette Invitational on Monday, Williams — who is ranked No. 1 in the 1A individual rankings by the Iowa Association of Track Coaches — has won all seven races she’s competed in so far this season in the state of Iowa. Her closest runner-up competitor this season finished 24 seconds behind.
“I would never see myself as being rated as first in the state. I never expected anything like that,” Williams said. “I always imagined people being in front of me.”
Williams put herself in this position by preparing for the change this season to 5K (3.1-mile) races, which is about .7 of a mile longer than the distance girls used to run in Iowa.
Durant coach Nolan Hovland said Williams ran over 600 miles this summer in addition to three 5K street races, two of which she won. She also finished as the 28th overall female finisher at July's Bix 7 in 46:15, another milestone effort for the Wildcat senior.
“Where other girls start to fatigue in that last mile, she’s got this pace that she keeps going steady through the race,” Hovland said. “She might not have the fastest sprint ... but she’s got a good finish to her race. That’s where she starts to pull away. If somebody can stick with her the first two miles, the last mile she’s going to pull away.”
She’s proven that repeatedly already this season, never running a race slower than 19:33. Her average margin of victory is by over a minute.
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“I go into every meet knowing I have the ability to win,” Williams said, “but I also know that if anybody else is on their ‘A’ game and I’m not, they have just as much of the ability. I don’t tell myself I’m going to win, but I know I have the ability to.”
There has been just one race that Williams wasn’t able to win this season, and that was in Lawrence, Kansas on Sept. 26. Running with her Durant teammates at the Rim Rock Classic on the home course for the University of Kansas, Williams finished third out of 256 runners in 19:13.
Though Hovland said Williams didn't feel she ran that well in Kansas, the experience was positive for a multitude of reasons, none bigger than it prepared the entire Wildcats team to compete in a big meet as they look to earn their fourth straight team state berth in two weeks.
Coincidence or not, Williams has ran even better than she started out this season since competing in Kansas. She wasn't able to break 19 minutes until she won the Western Dubuque Invitational last Thursday in 18:54 in her first meet after the Rim Rock Classic.
Her goal was to break 18:30, a time she met while running this summer. Williams broke that barrier Monday when she won the Bellevue Marquette Invitational in 18:20, 1:16 ahead of runner-up Camryn Reeg of Bellevue, who is currently rated No. 2 in 1A.
"I’m back to my 5K times during the summer with the road races,” Williams said. “I did better with the road races than cross country courses. Now that I’m back to the summer times I had, I figured I could stay there.”
She'll be pushed in the final weeks of the regular season, beginning Thursday when she'll compete against a field at Central DeWitt highlighted by 4A No. 8 Muscatine and 3A No. 1 Davenport Assumption and continuing through the River Valley Conference and state-qualifying meets.
Her coach thinks she'll be ready.
“Getting toward the end of the season now, we’re going to cut back the miles a little bit,” Hovland said. “Most of these races she’s run, she’s been running five, six miles in the morning before the race. That just shows you the level she’s at."
Coming off back-to-back 28th-place finishes at the 1A state meet, Williams is sticking to her goal of a top-10 finish despite her success this season.
Winning the state meet is something she's thought about, but she's just enjoying the ride and looking forward to extending it.
“I didn’t even want to run in college until this summer, then ... I started looking into it,” Williams said. “I was thinking just D-III, just do it for fun and keep it. I like it. I enjoy it, that’s why I would do it. But now that I’ve seen my times and I know where I’m at in the state, I know I can go up to D-II or even D-I. I want to make high goals.”