COLUMBIA - At 4 in the morning Madelyn Hereford, a Stephens College cross-country runner, is rolling out of bed and getting ready to run four miles for a 6:30 a.m. practice, one of two optional practice times. Depending on scheduling, the girls also have the option of a 4 p.m. practice. For those who take part in the morning practice, the predawn hours become part of a daily ritual.
"It's really not that bad," Hereford says. "You kind of get used to it."
In the case of Kelsi Simpson, another freshmen runner at Stephens, there's been more of an adjustment from her high school practices in La Grange, Ky.
"My practices in high school were after school, so I'm not used to it (morning practice) yet," said Simpson, who hopes to run a 21-minute 5K this season.
Juggling classes and practices is something Simpson and Hereford will likely get used to, but they're also about to compete at the collegiate level for the first time.
Dane Pavlovich, Stephens cross-country coach, said he hopes to slowly develop a more strenuous regimen over the next few weeks to help his newcomers get acclimated.
"We want to ease our way in by working on splits and improving our times as the season moves along," Pavlovich said. "Our main focus is the AMC Championships at the end of the year."
This will be Stephens second appearance in the American Midwest Conference meet after placing fifth last season. Before, Stephens College athletics operated as an independent program in the NAIA. They moved into the AMC last fall as the conference's second-smallest school by enrollment.
Pavlovich tempers his concerns about the inexperience of his team with hopes that his five seniors will provide leadership for the younger runners. For the freshmen and sophomores, Pavlovich said he would like to develop a strong work ethic and sheer willpower.
"It's that middle mile that presents the biggest challenge for our girls," he said. "If we can push through mentally and maintain a pace through that middle mile, we're on our way to getting to where we want to be."
Hereford's biggest challenge to this point has been running with collapsed arches in each foot, requiring the use of orthopedic supports. The condition sounds painful, and at this time Hereford doesn't know how severe it is. For now, it hasn't hampered her running.
"I'm not sure when, but it probably happened within the last month," Hereford said. "So far it hasn't really given me any problems."
Hereford and Simpson, who are at Stephens on scholarship, plan to pursue cross country for the rest of their time at Stephens.
"I've always enjoyed running, but I'm not quite sure what to expect yet," Hereford said of the competition she will face this season.
Given her experience in high school cross country, it's no wonder Hereford enjoys the sport. At Mountain Brook High School in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala., Hereford was a part of teams that captured four consecutive state championships. Stephens College was one of two schools to offer her a scholarship, but it was the only one to have a deep family connection with Hereford's family. Her mother, grandmother, two aunts and grandmother's cousin all went to Stephens.
Mountain Brook was a big fish in a little pond, but it's the other way around at Stephens.
Stephens finished in fifth place out of six schools competing Saturday in the Maryville Cross Country Classic. Its top finisher was freshman Gracie Boelsems, who finished in 11th place overall in 21:58.
As the season progresses and the predawn alarms keep going off, Boelsems and her teammates expect each meet to be an improvement over the last, the kind of growth that Pavlovich wants to see. Their next opportunity will be the Missouri Southern Stampede next Saturday in Joplin.