When Nevada Mareno was a freshman, she tracked older runners on Milesplit.com, which lists the ranks and records of North Carolina high school athletes in track and cross country.
Back then, she wondered how on earth she’d beat a senior’s time.
After her breakout season at Leesville Road this year, Mareno has no doubt about where she fits in the running world. She set records and won several championships in cross country and outdoor track as a junior to earn The News & Observer girls’ player of the year honor.
“It’s kind of special,” Mareno said. “I was on the outside looking in, and now I’m finally in.”
Mareno quickly rose to dominance last season after setting a personal record of 16 minutes, 36 seconds in cross country, while becoming the Cap-8 Conference individual champion. She went on to win the state meet with a 17:46 in November.
She took third at the Foot Locker Cross Country National Finals in December, earning all-American status.
After her success on the cross country courses last season, she decided to run outdoor track in lieu of playing soccer, a sport she had played for 10 years. She realized her potential to compete on a national stage.
Solely focusing on running, she said, attributed greatly to her breakout year.
“I really had a lot of fun in soccer, and it was really hard to watch the games from the sideline, but I know I’m pursuing something I’ll have more of a future in,” Mareno said. “It was the stereotypical, ‘Oh, you have a gift,’ kind of thing. Just having random people come up to me and say, ‘Wow, you really have something special with track.’ ”
Her peers were on to something.
Mareno made history during the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A outdoor championships in May. The meet MVP won three state titles, setting records in the 800 (2:08) and the 3,200 (10:17). She also took the 1,600 and was about a half second off from a record in that event.
“I have four siblings, and I just remember when I was little,” Mareno said. “Every time we would play like a board game, they knew they could poke at me because I’d get so into it. I’d be so upset if I lost, even if it was just luck. I think I’m just a really competitive person; that’s just something that can help someone be good in a sport like this. I think the fun for me comes out of knowing it’s such an individual sport, and I can get myself mentally to accomplish things other people couldn’t imagine.”
Mareno said people are often surprised to learn she only runs about 25 miles a week, which is low for a distance runner.
Her training includes a lot of threshold running, where every task is done with at least moderate effort.
I know that what I put into the bank, I’m going to get a return on it.
Mareno, like she suspects many runners do, questions herself during races.
“Should I just step off the track now, it hurts too bad?” she said. “You just have to get a rhythm. See if you can hang in there for one more lap. If you break it up and take it lap by lap, it becomes a lot more approachable.”
Mareno’s favorite race is the mile. She enjoys the combination of endurance, strength and speed required to succeed in that event.
The mental aspect is a major component of running.
Mareno feared she’d be behind coming out for her first outdoor track season after taking the indoor season off – but she finished outdoor with three state titles and two records.
“Everyone always asks me, ‘How you do you run? I hate running,’ ” Mareno said. “There’s not a single day where I want to be like, ‘I can walk for a minute,’ or, “Maybe I don’t need that last mile.’ I always try to remember the complete feeling of satisfaction or how proud I am when I finish a race or set a record.
“I always remember it was worth it.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan
Last 10 N&O Athlete of the Year winners
Bryse Wilson (senior), Orange; Nevada Mareno (junior), Leesville Road
Nyheim Hines (senior), Garner; Sydnei Murphy (senior), Apex
Marquavious Johnson (senior), Knightdale; Morgan Reid (senior), Cardinal Gibbons
Maura McDonnell (senior), Green Hope; Wesley Frazier (senior), Ravenscroft*
Tevin Hester (senior), Granville Central; Alexis Perry (senior), Jordan
Brian Taylor (senior), Harnett Central; Keni Harrison (senior), Clayton
Brian Taylor (junior), Harnett Central; Cassie Crawford (senior), Panther Creek
Adam Flur (senior), Northern Durham; Adrianne Soo (senior), Durham Academy
Thomas Wilson (senior), Leesville Road; Jacinda Evans (senior), Southern Durham
Trey Grissom (senior), Garner; Amy Dodd (senior), Apex
Note: There were two girl winners in 2012-13. This is the first year where each sex must have one winner.