SHAFTSBURY — For any teenager, having high self-esteem is a priority.
For Sarah Umphlett, 13, and an eighth-grader at Mount Anthony Union Middle School, the sport of cross-country running gives her that confidence in spades.
She joined the Shaftsbury Striders, a local running group led by retired teacher Howard Herrington, as a third grader in 2010. Her parents, John and Emily, quickly realized that running was helping their oldest child deal with anxiety and other life events.
Talk to Sarah, an extremely well-spoken student, and it's not so much about the time on the clock or the placement.
"Being a younger runner made me feel really proud," Sarah said. "It really helped me with my self-esteem and when I got to sixth grade, I was helping the younger runners."
As the Patriot girls finished 10th as a team this year at the Vermont state meet, the leader of the next generation of MAU XC scored first-place finishes in the middle-school division at the Thetford Trail Woods Run and the state championship.
The future of Mount Anthony Union High School cross-country running is bright.
Starting in 2013 in her final year with the Striders, she started to compete in regional and even national events.
She even got her father and younger brother Sam into the sport.
"She's inspired us to run, we compete in all the local 5K events, the Running of the Turkeys, the Bennington Road Race," John Umphlett said.
Sarah has been running at an extremely high level for a few years and has really started to hone her skills in the past couple of seasons. At the end of 2013, running in the 11-12 age division, she finished 13th out of 141 competitors in a regional 3K event.
That year, she also competed at the Freestyle Farm in New Hampshire in a regional qualifier. Some of the runners were part of teams, with special uniforms, but not Sarah — competing as an independent with a Striders T-shirt, a pair of shorts and some regular sneakers.
"I didn't know anything about spikes or all that," said John Umphlett.
As the race started, Sarah started up a hill and into a wooded area, running around 20th or 25th. On the other side, a couple of the top teams had runners exit and then about fifth comes running Sarah in her Striders shirt.
"It was an emotional moment and when I knew this was going to be something special," John said. "She's a talented runner and she backs it up with a lot of practice."
Heading into the middle school, she joined the cross-country team, coached by Bruce Smith. Last year, after the school season was complete, Sarah raced in another qualifier for runners from New England and finished 11th overall, more than good enough to move on to the East region event that next week.
"Now it was adding runners from New Jersey, New York, people she's not familiar with," John said.
More pressure and more runners was no problem for Sarah, who completed the 3K course in 12 minutes, finishing 17th out of 130 competitors and qualifying for the national Junior Olympics event in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"She was rewarding herself too, she knew we would support her for that trip," John said.
While she'd never raced in South Carolina, Sarah and the rest of the family were very familiar with Myrtle Beach.
"All her life, we've taken vacations to Myrtle Beach," John said. "This time, we went on the strength of her running, which really puts things into perspective."
During a beautiful, warm day, Sarah competed against more than 400 runners in her age group (13 to 14) and finished 81st.
"It was an intense race, a wild experience," John said. "Watching the start was like racehorses coming out of the gate."
This season, Sarah has been even better. Growing past her classmates as a runner, she's practiced with the high school boys, who give her more of a push. That's paid off, as she won the Woods Trail Run at Thetford Academy and backed it up weeks later with a win in the 3K at the state championships. She finished the 1.8-mile event in less than 11 minutes and was the fastest in her class by nearly a minute.
"Bruce is an amazing coach and he can help you with anything," Sarah said. "This year, I started to realize this was my sport. I have all these medals on the wall and I think, these are mine. I'm accomplished so much over time — running makes me feel proud."
One of her main training partners is Asa Burrows-Crane, another eighth-grader, who was sixth at the Bennington Battle 5K in August and fifth at the Woods Trail.
"We trained really hard for the middle school races, this was his first year in cross-country," Sarah said. "He liked it and joined and right away, he was beating me, which made me train harder. In the races around Vermont, Asa and I were in the front by like a minute, but he'd always catch me at the end."
In her most recent race, the New England Junior Olympics qualifier, Sarah ran the 4K (2.48 miles) in 14 minutes, 51 seconds — finishing fifth out of 119 competitors. For the first time, she was part of one of those special teams, the Green Mountain Athletic Association. That solidly qualifies her for the East region event on Saturday and if she is in the top 30 in her event, she qualifies for the nationals again, this time farther away in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"With the [Green Mountain] team, I could talk to my [teammates] on the starting line as we're getting ready, I'd never been on a team like this," Sarah said. "I want to go to [Nationals], if I can get in the top five or 10, it might be something I can do."
Next year, Sarah will start her first year at Mount Anthony Union High School. Students younger than ninth grade can't compete in high school events in Vermont.
""What's important to me is that when she's around people that run, what I found is that most runners are positive people," John said. "They are self-driven, highly motivated. It's more about character, how to be strong and excel in school. She's excited to run at the high school level."
She'll be expected to be at the front from Day 1, but that's not a big deal, Sarah said.
"It's a bigger responsibility running with the high school, more pressure, but I train with them already," Sarah said. "I run faster with more pressure anyway. Everyone has a niche and this is mine," Sarah said.