By Rich Fisher
The Reena Zhang track andcross country story may be worthy of a Disney Channel sitcom. Here we have a brilliant high school student showing up for her first track and field practice and being very un-brilliant.
And yet it’s all come to fruition in a positive way.
As a freshman at Bordentown Regional High School, Zhang decided to try out for the first athletic team of her life. She opted for track since a lot of her friends were on the team.
Best to let Zhang—on track to be this year’s BRHS valedictorian with a 109 weighted GPA—tell it from there.
“I didn’t know whether to do sprints or distance,” she said. “The first day of track I remember walking out of the high school, and the first group I saw just happened to be distance. I was like ‘There’s a group of people here, I’ll just go with them. They’re in track, I’ll just do what they do.’”
She had no idea what they did, of course. And she didn’t find out for much of the first practice.
“The first thing we did was dynamics, which was a lot of form exercises and I remember feeling completely out of place,” Zhang said. “They were doing all these weird things with their legs and I was like ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ After that, I think we did a slow jog. The first day it wasn’t crazy.”
Still unsure what she had gotten herself into, Zhang decided to speak up after practice.
“I was like ‘What is this group for?’ and they said it was distance,” Zhang said, laughing at the memory. “I’m like, ‘OK, I guess I’m doing distance now.’ I didn’t know I could switch over if I wanted, I kind of just stuck with wherever I was. I was too scared at saying anything about trying other things. I thought ‘OK, I guess I’m stuck here.‘”
Four years later, Zhang realizes that her unawareness is the best thing that could have happened to her, as she is the No. 1 runner on the Scotties cross country team.
“It turns out I’m probably better in distance than sprints, so it worked out,” she said. “I feel like honestly, it was just pure luck that led me there. I think if I joined sprints, I definitely wouldn’t be running cross country.”
Zhang is enjoying her best cross country season to date. Earlier this year, she ran a personal record of 21:04 at a batch meet at New Egypt. Probably equally impressive was her 22:54 in the Shore Coaches Invitational at Holmdel Park—considered the state’s most difficult course. Zhang finished 21st out of 300 runners in the Girls JV A race.
A week later, on Oct. 14, she placed 29th in the Burlington County Open meet in Willingboro with a time of 21:31. Back at New Egypt on Oct. 18, Zhang finshed second in the Burlington County Division Meet, taking second place in the Patriot Division with a PR time of 20:17, earning her first-team All-Patriot Division honors. Her time was nine second off the school record.
“I did not actually think that was my time when he told me,” Zhang said. “I said, ‘I think that’s a lie.’ I was really excited about it.”
Zhang feels she has a shot at lowering her new PR at the team’s next race, the Haddonfield Invitational at Pennypacker Park—known as a “PR course,” she said.
“Once she got that work ethic, you could absolutely see she had potential,” Scotties first-year coach Brian Wheeler said. “The hardest thing was getting her mentally ready. She’s now mentally ready. She really wants to do well. She’s putting in the practice and putting in the time. I didn’t get to know her and coach her until this past spring. She wanted to do well and run on the weekends and put in some long runs. You can see it’s paying off right now.”
Zhang, who spent the first few years of her life living in Manitoba, Canada, moved to Bordentown at age 4 but was never really interested in rec soccer, softball or other similar sports.
In middle school she pondered going out for a running sport at Bordentown High, but initially shied away.
“I was actually too scared to go on the cross country team as a freshman,” she said. “I never did a sport before. It was really intimidating to me, so I chose not to.”
Zhang conquered her stage fright by the spring and unwittingly wandered into the distance group.
“That was the first time I’d ever done any kind of intense running,” she said. “I was doing the 800 and that season I got injured halfway through. I didn’t really run much. I don’t think I became serious about running and didn’t really start realizing I could be any good at this until I was a sophomore.”
First, she had to get over some more nerves, as she admitted to being “very, very scared” for the cross country season-opener.
“I had had never run a full 5K before that and just thought getting under 30 minutes would be really awesome,” Zhang said. “I ended up being under 30 and finishing first on our team. I was very surprised, I thought everyone else was going to be super, super good and be so much better than me. That’s when I thought ‘Maybe there’s something in this.’”
Her PR that year was 23:55 and in spring track she ran the 1600 and 800 but with no great results. That summer, Zhang put forth intense study for SATs.
“I really did try to train, but I definitely could have trained a lot harder that summer,” she said. “My times last season were about the same as my sophomore year so I was a little disappointed in that.”
In spring track she set a goal of beating 6 minutes in the 1600, and finished with a PR of 5:15. Bolstered by that, she embarked on an ambitious training regimen this past summer. Zhang ran six days a week, anywhere from five to seven miles. She took Sunday to rest.
“I was really trying, even though it was really hot out I really tried to push myself over the summer,” Zhang said. “I was in crunch time mode. I just wanted to push myself this year. In the past I always had the attitude that I can try hard now, but I’ll have more time later. This season I really had this goal I wanted to get under 21:30.”
She has done that on several occasions and was upgrading her goals toward the end of October heading into the Central Jersey Group II sectional meet. Her average times have improved over three minutes from last year.
“She’s very consistent,” Wheeler said. “She doesn’t’ go out hard or go out slow, she tries to pace herself. She normally slows down at the end. She does well when she runs with people. She knows her competition very well and knows what kind of times they have. She knows if this person does a 20:30 she’s going to stay with them. She’s a student of the game and studies real hard. She’s always on (NJmilesplit.com) two or three times a day checking out times and stuff.”
The coach feels Zhang has a chance to advance from sectionals if she improves on her speed and on running hills. The foundation was already in place and those aspects were the focus throughout October.
Zhang is putting all her focus into cross country right now. Wheeler noted that, “She really wants to do well. I think things just come naturally to her in the classroom, and at cross country she has to work a little harder and it’s a challenge she wants to meet.”
The fact Zhang finds time to train so fiercely is impressive. She is also vice-president of the BRHS Theater Club and plays the role of lawyer presenting her case to real-life (volunteer) judges in Bordentown’s mock trials. She is also involved in the school’s musical concerts as a pianist.
Her first choice in colleges is Vanderbilt University, and she is also applying to Rutgers and Northwestern along with a few others. She hopes to major in neuroscience.
“It’s interesting and there’s so much to know about the brain, and there’s so little that we know,” Zhang said. “It’s weird, because it’s so close to us but we know virtually nothing about it.”
With all the great things she has going for her, Zhang takes great pride in being part of the cross country program. She wants people to know there’s a lot more to it than just taking a jog.
“People don’t know much about it, so I just really want to bring awareness to it,” she said. “I feel it’s so underappreciated and people don’t know how much work goes into running 5Ks. I’ve heard people literally tell me ‘That’s easy,’ and I’m like ‘Are you serious? I run like eight miles a day, what are you talking about?’
“A lot of people don’t know what we race or what we do. I want to show people it’s an actual sport and it takes a lot of work and a lot of commitment and a lot of discipline.”
And in some cases, not knowing exactly what group you’re in.