It’s a crisp Friday in October, and Bailey Hertenstein is focused. The sophomore’s eyes dodge the spectators lining the home stretch. She does not see 2018 Big 12 cross-country champion Cailie Logue to her left. And Hertenstein isn't looking for the iconic Notre Dame Golden Dome on the horizon.
The only object in her gaze is the finish line, racing toward her.
Logue, an Iowa State junior, sees Hertenstein. The Cyclone’s gait is deteriorating as she nears the finish line. In obvious discomfort, she glances to her right at Hertenstein as the Hoosier approaches her with mere meters left in the five-kilometer race.
Hertenstein — her pace rapidly increasing — appears calm as if she has just started running. She speeds past Logue right before the finish line.
The sophomore finished seventh at the meet — the Joe Piane Invite in South Bend, Indiana. Hertenstein was the second-youngest runner in the top-14 of the race that is one of the most competitive in the country all year.
In a little more than a year Hertenstein has gone from the Tampa suburb of Lithia, Florida, to exploding onto the national scene after three top-20 finishes at some of the most prestigious races in the country.
This included being named the National Athlete of the Week by the U.S Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association after winning the Commodore Classic in her first race of the season.
The accolades have started to pour in from the cross-country world, but even normally soft-spoken IU head coach Ron Helmer has been impressed by Hertenstein.
“The level she is working at right now is really an outstanding level,” Helmer said. “It’s a level of which I have had only a few people make it to and never in the second year of running at the collegiate level.
Hertenstein's sophomore season has been a meteoric improvement from her first year when she finished 127th at the NCAA National Championships and 28th at the Big Ten Championships.
Hertenstein at times ran as the third-best Hoosier woman behind two seniors, All-American Maggie Allen and All-Region Katherine Receveur. However, the freshman sometimes appeared lost, unfocused and raw on the course, such as being the fifth Hoosier to finish at the Great Lakes Regional.
So what changed in her second year in Indiana? Familiarity and rigorous summer training.
“This year I really worked hard this summer and took every single workout seriously,” Hertenstein said. “I made it a goal of mine to never miss a workout, and I am really happy for where the results have gotten me.”
Unlike most other sports, cross-country summer workouts are essentially optional and done individually. Therefore, it is up to the athlete to decide how much work they want to put into their summer.
The training under a humid summer sun transformed Hertenstein as a runner. Working long days and often driving hours to find workout partners, she became more devoted to the sport than any time before in her life. The grueling workouts grew her endurance and mental fortitude.
However, it was not just the summer that changed Hertenstein. Last year, Hertenstein joined the Hoosiers all the way from Florida when nearly every IU runner was from the Midwest. Adjusting to a new lifestyle and being far from home was hard for the freshman, both on and off the course.
Hertenstein said she struggled to find who she was in her daily life of being in a new environment, and this mental struggle translated onto the course. With that came inconsistency and not the results the talented freshman said she was expecting.
With the familiarity of being at IU this season and a rigorous summer workout schedule, Hertenstein said she felt she was more prepared physically and mentally for year two.
With Hertenstein now able to run with the top pack, much of her acclaim has come down to what she showcased at Notre Dame, racing past Logue. An elite kick.
Hertenstein’s kick may be even more memorable from the Commodore Classic in September. With Hertenstein and Georgia All-American Jessica Drop side by side coming down the stretch in Nashville, Tennessee, the previously nationally unknown Hoosier found a massive burst of energy.
Similarly to the Joe Piane Invite, Hertenstein had a remarkably clean stride down the stretch. She beat out Drop by half a second. With Drop nearly falling over the finish line, Hertenstein appeard as if she had barely broken a sweat as she crosses the line.
“I’ve always had a kick even through middle school and high school,” Hertenstein said. “When I see the finish line, I tell myself I need to give everything I have.”
Hertenstein’s killer kick does not just show her maturity but will also be vital as the season turns toward the postseason.
The Hoosier sophomore has proven herself as one of the best young runners in the nation, but she has not yet faced the pressure of running with a bull's-eye on her back in a championship meet.
“If I tried to see them as anything more, I would stress myself out,” Hertenstein said. “I am super excited for those races because there is a lot of potential right there.”
That starts with the Big Ten Championships on Sunday in Columbus, Ohio, where the sophomore will be a favorite to finish in the top three of the women’s championship race.
However, Hertenstein isn’t looking to finish behind anyone. Confident in herself and with a brutal kick, the Hoosier is only viewing every chance as an opportunity to work toward something greater — potentially even a national championship.
“I could be a national champion if I really worked hard and worked well with my teammates,” Hertenstein said.
This may seem like a stretch for something that has been done just twice in IU women’s cross-country history.
However, as only a sophomore, time is on the side of the Hoosier to stun opponents, create history and become a champion.
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Its plan was announced Wednesday afternoon.
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