MONTICELLO — It almost couldn’t be more quiet at Allerton Park & Retreat Center on a Monday afternoon in November.
No wind. Essentially no sounds from surrounding wildlife. No small gatherings of human individuals looking to make use of the natural habitat’s sprawling display of trails and roads.
It’s no wonder Mabry Bruhn enjoys making the short trip to the park from her family’s house — either by car or by foot — to log some running mileage.
“I come here all the time, especially in the summer and winter, when I’m doing my training on my own,” Bruhn said while sitting on a stone bench alongside the Allerton Mansion, a red-brick building that arguably serves as the park’s crown jewel. “I like to do it in the fall (too) because the trails are super-duper pretty. So being able to come out and run on the trails and enjoy the nature is really nice.”
This setting offers a stark contrast to the one Bruhn found herself in on Nov. 5 of this year.
Rainy, windy conditions at Peoria’s Detweiller Park. Plenty of mud to battle through. Hundreds of screaming spectators offering their support.
Turns out Bruhn can excel in both atmospheres.
The 2022 News-Gazette All-Area girls’ cross-country Runner of the Year — her second such honor after earning it as a sophomore in 2020 — captured the Class 1A girls’ state championship last month with a 3-mile time of 17 minutes, 8.43 seconds.
The Monticello senior gave the Sages their first-ever girls’ cross-country individual state champion, as well as their second overall in school history after Steve Schroeder in the 2011 Class 1A boys’ final.
Outside of a 17th-place finish in September’s Richard Spring Invitational, also held at Detweiller Park but including runners from all three IHSA classes, Bruhn was nearly untouchable on a cross-country course all season long.
Her time ranked third among all three classes’ state meets last month, behind only Class 3A champion Grace Schager (16:40.35) and Class 2A titlist Tatum David (17:05.06).
Quite the way for Bruhn to conclude her Monticello cross-country career, especially after experiencing what she described as a “lull” during her junior campaign.
“It’s really awesome,” Bruhn said. “Being able to come out and end it on a strong note in the best possible way is awesome.”
Finding a solution Bruhn crafted lofty expectations for herself during the COVID-19 pandemic-affected cross-country season of 2020.
She eclipsed the 18-minute mark seven times in 3-mile races as a sophomore, capping the stretch with a third-place time of 17:17.4 in the unsanctioned ShaZam Racing Division I state meet. Only three girls in the entire state defeated Bruhn in any race.
She ceded All-Area Runner of the Year honors to one of those individuals, Uni High’s Kate Ahmari, as a junior in 2021. Bruhn still was a standout competitor, placing ninth in the Class 1A state meet with a time of 17:56.13. But something wasn’t quite right.
That was more a mental matter than a physical one.
“I struggle with anxiety a little bit,” Bruhn said, “so that took a toll on me a little bit mentally. I got to a point in my racing where, instead of racing to win, I was racing not to lose.”
Monticello coach Dave Remmert recalls Bruhn becoming especially nervous at the starting line earlier in her prep career.
“It wasn’t something you could really plan for or train for, because she would never have these experiences in workouts or before practices,” Remmert said. “The strategy I tried to focus on over the years was redirecting her toward thinking about the process, not the outcome.”
Remmert said past experiences with the runners he’s coached has led him to believe the junior season is the most difficult one for high-schoolers.
“That’s when students are going through thinking about college, ACT tests. They’re taking AP classes,” Remmert said. “She grew over the four years.”
Bruhn feels there’s a 50-50 split between mental and physical strength when it comes to running a successful cross-country race.
And she began focusing more on the former area while continuing to put in her usual work in the latter realm.
“I just had to put my faith over my fear,” Bruhn said.
“I was given the opportunity to wake up every morning and go out and do something that I love to do. And so that’s what changed for me this year.”
Mapping out strategy for success
The intersection between mental and physical preparation in cross-country can be seen within how a runner plans to race on a certain course.
“You have to be mentally tough to go out there and run,” Bruhn said. “Every course is different. You never know whether it’s going to be sunny. Maybe the course is in rough condition. Maybe it’s dry. Maybe it’s wet. You never know what you’re going to get.”
Bruhn’s approach to a 3-mile event didn’t vary much across her first three cross-country seasons at Monticello.
“My plan was to go out fast and try to hold on until the end,” Bruhn said.
Remmert pointed out that this approach can become problematic at the state meet, when opposing runners are good enough to overcome one athlete’s especially strong start.
“She’d run it like she normally does,” Remmert said, “but toward the end she’d get caught. She was able to understand that this year.”
Bruhn said she began to recognize this during her junior track and field season, during which she placed sixth in the Class 2A girls’ 800-meter run state final and 14th in the 2A 1,600 run state preliminaries.
“During track season, my plan kind of changed a little bit,” Bruhn said. “I go out a little bit slower, but I have more to bring home at the end. So that changed into my strategy for this cross-country season.”
Remmert said Bruhn also had advanced enough physically as a runner to maximize this strategy in her senior year’s biggest cross-country meets.
“She’d deliberately run with the pack a little more that first half of the race,” Remmert said, “and she was tough enough at that point to take off. ... The second half of the race, she can pick it up and push her lungs better than what she has done in the past.”
Bruhn also was familiar enough with most of the courses she ran this season — as a result of the Sages’ schedule remaining pretty similar from year to year — that she could mentally map out her races even better.
“I know where to surge. I know when the halfway point is. I know when I have a mile left. I know when I need to kick,” Bruhn said. “Being able to have run the course before and knowing the different nooks and crannies of it is good.”
Rising to the top in final year
As Bruhn points out, however, knowing a course’s every nook and cranny only matters so much in certain situations.
Like a state-championship race contested in rapidly deteriorating conditions.
While some runners might’ve been bogged down by the rain and wind at Detweiller Park last month, Bruhn found a more positive headspace.
“I was like, ‘OK, if (my past struggles aren’t) going to take me down, I can work with it and we can overcome this. So that’s what I did. And this year, I came in with a mindset that I was going to have fun.”
One of Bruhn’s bigger state challengers was Marshall freshman Molly Farrell, who held off Bruhn in October’s Patriot Invitational at Detweiller Park. Farrell placed first in 17:17.3, and Bruhn ranked second in 17:22.5.
“(Bruhn) gave her a little too much rope, I think, in the first mile,” Remmert said. “And even though Mabry was able to close that gap, she wasn’t close enough to strike her down in that last mile. ... That was an opportunity for us to talk about that.”
Bruhn came through the state championship race’s first mile in 5:41, tied with three other runners and trailing Farrell and Pope County’s Ahry Comer by one second. Bruhn’s 8:33 clocking through 1 1/2 miles tied Farrell and trailed only Sandwich’s Sundara Weber.
At the 2-mile mark, however, Bruhn’s 11:28 time ranked first and offered more breathing room over Weber and Williamsville’s Louisa Wilson (11:36), who ultimately finished in second and third positions, respectively.
“I had fun with it. I went out there and gave it my all, and I enjoyed every minute of it,” Bruhn said. “All that I can do to set myself apart is to go out there and just accept (the conditions) and run.”
“She’s the most talented runner I’ve ever had,” Remmert added. “I’ve always thought that if we take care of the day-to-day, the results will take care of themselves. And she kind of embodied that.”
Bruhn’s athletic day wasn’t over after she finished her 3 miles and received her state-champion medal.
She hoofed it to Centennial Unit 4 Pool in Champaign along with teammates Katie Mesplay and Mylin Bruhn, the latter her sister. And all three proceeded to compete in the local girls’ swimming and diving sectional meet.
Mabry Bruhn placed fifth in the 100-yard breaststroke (1:11.08) and anchored a fourth-place 400 freestyle relay tandem (4:09.02).
“Since I didn’t do it last year, I wanted to come back and do it this year,” said Bruhn, who pulled a similar feat as a sophomore, traveling from a cross-country regional in Forsyth to the swim sectional in Champaign. “Being able to go out there with Katie and all my friends and my sister to swim, it’s really cool to be able to end my swimming career like that.”
Bruhn isn’t planning to end her distance-running career just yet.
In addition to preparing for a senior track and field season at Monticello, Bruhn hopes to run in college while studying animal science. She’s been in discussions with some schools, though she’d rather not reveal the names publicly.
As she waits for both of those ventures to pan out, Bruhn will be sure to spend some time at Allerton Park. Perhaps listening to music or a podcast while running to “help get rid of that quiet space.”
“I like the murder podcast (Crime Junkie). I like to try to figure it out on my own,” Bruhn said. “Sometimes it’s bad for doing while I’m running out here, though, especially by myself, because it scares me.”