Cross Country

After multiple derailed seasons, Sydney Leiher gearing up for breakout season

Jessica Sheldon | Photo Editor

Sydney Leiher has been through several obstacles during her Syracuse career but is prepared to break out in her senior season.

Sydney Leiher wants redemption. Redemption at the ACC championships that two years ago ended in a four-hour stay at the University of Virginia Medical Center. Redemption at that course in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she doesn’t even remember finishing the race. Redemption at the past three years in which she’s improved on the year prior but slowed late in the season.

That Leiher hasn’t run her best at Syracuse drives her. She came to SU to become one of the top runners in the nation. It’s why she quit the varsity boys’ hockey team before her junior year of high school — to focus on her All-American cross country ambitions. But an injury in her senior year of high school, mononucleosis two years later and now altitude adjustments and burnout have kept her from running at her peak. Despite battling through four years at SU, she’s still one of Syracuse’s top runners.

“I feel a lot of past seasons,” Leiher said, “I’ve plateaued in the middle of seasons just because I’ve been hanging on.

“I want when I race at (the NCAA championships in November) to feel like I’ve never felt better,” she said. “Even though now my first two workouts haven’t been that great, four years of training and a summer of fitness didn’t go away. It’s there.”

It’s been there for years. As a freshman at Beavercreek (Ohio) High School, Leiher wanted to run with the boys because the girls couldn’t keep up with her. She was a New Balance All-American her senior year. Leiher ran a 4:49 mile the spring of her junior year, top in the state.

Leiher was off to an undefeated start that fall, positioning herself for a dominant senior year.

But her foot began to agitate. She visited a doctor who diagnosed her with a stress fracture. When she found out, she punched a wall in her bedroom and covered it up with a poster. Leiher wore a brace while she was unable to run for a few weeks.

“She was definitely down,” said her mother, Loretta, who ran at Oregon State. “Those two weeks were kind of miserable.”

On the team flight to a tournament in North Carolina, she “was all depressed,” disappointed she couldn’t contribute, said Howard Russ, her coach at Beavercreek.

Moments before the race, the team met under a tent. Leiher couldn’t stand not running. She wanted to be out there.

“She looks at me and says, ‘I’m running today,’” Russ said. Leiher’s eyes lit up. “She ripped off her boot like a super girl.”

She finished the race, placing several slots behind the leader. Leiher wore the boot for another week and a half, and though she earned All-American honors, she felt she hadn’t reached her pre-injury performance until college, before the ACC championships her sophomore year.

As a freshman, she finished 48th in the ACC meet. Entering the race as a sophomore, she felt in top form. She was off to a quality start to the season and the UVA course is hilly, just the way she likes it.

But Leiher doesn’t remember finishing this race. (She placed 79th.) From fatigue, Leiher passed out upon crossing the finish line. She was taken to the University of Virginia Medical Center, where she stayed for four hours and was diagnosed with mononucleosis.

“It was the worst running experience I’ve had in my life,” Leiher said.

Syracuse University Womens Cross Country finished 24th overall at the 2014 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terre Haute, Ind. on Saturday, November 22, 2014. Photo by Lucas Carter / Syracuse University.

Courtesy of Syracuse Athletic Communications

She took the rest of the cross country season off. When walking up stairs, she breathed heavily. During finals, she felt ill. “Too sick” to punch any walls, Leiher took a break from running and received a medical redshirt for the outdoor track season.

She ran a 5:12 mile that winter, considerably slower than the 4:49 mark she posted in high school. That race at UVA still bothers her. On Sept. 23rd , she’ll get another chance at that course in Virginia. That date, and Oct. 28 — ACC championships — are her focal points.

“I’ve yet to have a good ACCs,” she said. “Freshman year was terrible, sophomore year was mono, junior year I bombed ACCs. I really want to have a good ACCs, finish strong.”

As a junior last year, Leiher finished 24th at ACCs. Her first and second years, she finished the NCAA championship meet in 21:58.6 and 21:55.8, respectively. As a junior, she trimmed her time more than 75 seconds, to 20:38.7.

This summer, Leiher looked to build on her improvement. While interning at the National Strength and Conditioning Association in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Leiher ran. And ran. And ran.

Toward the end of the summer, though, she grew tired and occasionally cramped. On weekdays, she interned. On weekends, she jogged or hiked in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Las Vegas. She ran 65 miles per week.

“I think I might have over-done it a little bit this summer,” Leiher said. “I’m not really happy with how I’m running … but I’d rather feel kind of sh*tty now than kind of sh*tty in November. I’m trying to push through this road block.”

Living in Colorado meant running at altitude, which decreases the amount of oxygen flow in the body, as the heart and lungs must work harder. The body can take months to acclimate to altitude and back to sea level. It’s relatively easy for runners to run too high, too fast without giving the body time to adjust.

For Leiher, the transition back to sea level has been difficult. But she’s viewing this adjustment not as a setback, just as a few rough weeks. Still, there’s some self-doubt. Why am I not doing well?

A recent blood drawing showed her mineral and vitamin absorption was slightly low, causing fatigue. But she’s trying to override that with optimism. She’s started a gluten-free regimen. She’s taking a day off each week. She has a cat and on one of her recent runs found a gecko to console her.

“She’s struggling right now,” Syracuse head coach Chris Fox said. “But she’s determined she’ll turn that around in a month. She’s our senior leadership. And we need her.”

“She’s got all the tools to be really, really good,” SU assistant coach Adam Smith said. “You’ve seen glimpses of that.

“We hope it keeps coming.”

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