THE PLAINS — Not long after the conclusion after Saturday’s Class 4 state girls’ cross country race at Great Meadow, Millbrook freshman Madison Murphy’s facial expression started out plain, briefly changed to astonished, then burst into brightness as a smile took over her face.
It had nothing to do with her performance, which saw her record the fastest state time in area history at Great Meadow (a span of 26 years). It had everything to do with the girl she wrapped in a long embrace as she said, “Oh my God, you did it! You did it!”
There were a lot of outstanding performances on Saturday at Great Meadow, and perhaps the most unlikely of them for any school was achieved by Millbrook senior Katie Borland.
The Pioneers senior entered the postseason as Millbrook’s No. 8 runner. She did not run at the Region 4C meet because only seven people from each school are eligible to participate, which is also the case in state competition.
But with one of her teammates becoming ill earlier this week, the team captain was placed in the lineup at the state meet by Pioneers coach Kevin Shirk. Borland responded with the second-fastest time of her career and fastest of the season.
Borland — who had struggled to find her rhythm this year after being diagnosed with an iron deficiency in early September — recorded a time of 20 minutes, 26 seconds over 3.1 miles to place 32nd. It was the third-fastest time of any runner on Saturday for Millbrook, which finished third with 116 points, eight fewer than fourth-place James Wood.
As James Wood head coach Mike Onda pointed out, the Colonels — who beat the Pioneers at the Region 4C meet — would have beaten Millbrook at the state meet if not for Borland. Throw out Borland’s score, and the Pioneers finish 16 points behind the Colonels.
Murphy wasn’t thinking about team scores when she hugged Borland, though.
“It’s been up and down for Katie this season,” said Murphy as the duo stood next to each other near the finish line. “When I saw her come in I was so, so happy for her. She’s been an amazing mentor. I can’t thank her enough.”
One of the reasons why Borland — the only senior on a team that also features six sophomores and three freshmen — is so appreciated by Murphy and Shirk is because she hasn’t let her own struggles prevent her from being completely supportive of her teammates.
But for Borland, it definitely felt good to put those struggles behind her when it counted most.
Borland said “she had a really bad” outdoor track season in the spring, but she was looking forward to the fall because she prefers running cross country.
Borland did not get off the start she was hoping for though. At the season-opening Central Invitational on Aug. 31 at Fairview Park in Woodstock, she ran the equivalent of 24:03 over 3.1 miles (the actual event went for three miles), a huge dropoff from her typical junior year performances. In seven races, Borland’s worst 3.1-mile time was 21:33 in 2018, and she recorded a PR at the Carlisle (Pa.) Invitational with a time of 19:59.
Borland — who had problems with iron deficiency her sophomore year — decided to get tested after the Central meet, and she said her iron levels were practically “non-existent.” Borland started taking iron supplements to get her levels normal, but she knew it would take a couple of months to achieve that.
Borland had an average time of 24 minutes in her next two races. She fought through the down times by trying to help her teammates have a good time.
“I tried every race, but it was just super painful,” Borland said. “Really what got me through it was sticking with my girls, cheering on my girls.”
Borland was able to run in the Class 4 Northwestern District meet, which permits 10 runners per team. Borland ran what was then a season-best 22:25.2, but with seven of her teammates recording faster times she was out of the running for the Region 4C meet.
But Shirk said the team’s normal No. 7 runner became ill last Monday, and when that illness lasted for a few days Shirk thought the best thing to do was to go with a healthy Borland on a day when it would be windy with temperatures in the 40s.
Borland said he she couldn’t have been more fired up to receive the news. She didn’t get to run for Millbrook as a sophomore or junior at the state meet because she was the No. 8 runner on both of those teams.
“I thought, ‘It’s a miracle chance. I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.’ I was stoked,” Borland said. “I always run better in cold weather, and everything worked out. I got an amazing last race.”
“It might not be her best race time-wise, but it’s probably the best race she’s ever had,” Shirk said. “I couldn’t have asked for any better than that. We were hoping, ‘Maybe she’d be a strong No. 7.’ She ends up being our No. 3. It was phenomenal. I couldn’t be any more proud of how she ran.”
As Murphy expressed her appreciation for Borland after the race in an interview, Borland followed by saying how much Murphy had supported her, and how much she loved her. In the awards ceremony, Borland cheered loudly when Murphy’s name was announced to receive her fourth-place medal.
“She’s an exceptional leader,” Shirk said of Borland. “We kind of joke around that she’s like the girls’ coach. She’s like the team mom for the girls. She’s the only upperclassmen and basically looks out for all the other girls on the team.
“She just does an exceptional job. She’s a great kid, great leader. Always positive.”
Borland’s mindset created an unforgettable day.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been much of a scoring member of the team,” Borland said. “Being able to be third for the team and have the team finish third, it really means a lot.
“I love running with these girls. It’s like my favorite thing in the world. Being able to achieve [third] again after all the girls we lost [the Pioneers lost five of their top seven from last year], and gaining Madison, who I love to death, it was just awesome.”