By Andrew Wiebe
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Shattering a personal record with a top-five finish would justify success in a cross country meet. Lauren Bonds doesn't feel that way.
Perched around a high-top table in Kansas' unfinished cross-country lounge, the Jayhawks' top runner is discussing race and training strategy with assistant coach Michael Whittlesey and junior Amanda Miller.
Only few days after beginning her senior season by surpassing her career-best 5K time by more than 40 seconds at the Missouri Cross Country Challenge, Bonds is still thinking about lost opportunities and what could have been.
"It was my rust buster," Bond said. "I kind of just went out there, didn't know what to expect and tried something different. My competitive instinct wasn't real sharp yet."
Making her fourth-place finish even more disappointing was the fact that the top-three runners all hailed from a conference opponent and Kansas arch rival Missouri. Bonds said she didn't prepare for the meet the way she will for the make-or-break events later in the season, but she still can't shake the feeling that she should have broken up the Tiger triumvirate at the front of the pack.
"Running a fast time is great, but in cross country it's really about who you can beat," Bonds said. "Going out there and getting beat by three girls who are in my conference and I have to race later in the season, that's never a good feeling."
Despite not living up to her own lofty expectations, Bonds said she took some valuable lessons from the course Kansas will return to for the Big 12 Championships on October 31. She will need to put that knowledge to good use if she hopes to better the 12th place finish from last year that netted her All-Big 12 honors. It won't be an easy task. The conference is stronger, and two of the three Missouri runners who finished ahead of her were freshman new to the college circuit.
But this is also a much-improved Kansas squad, and Bonds has been happy so far with her times in workouts. She wants to finish in the top eight this time around, a logical jump for a runner who has steadily improved from year to year. One thing is certain - Bonds won't shirk from the work required to accomplish her goals.
"I think all the girls on the team look up to her," Miller said. "You know, 'Bonds, she is so good. I want to be just like her.' They try to match her work ethic, and it makes everyone work harder."
With the mantle of top runner squarely on her shoulders and facing the urgency that comes with being a senior, Bonds knows it's also her responsibility to keep her teammates working hard and focused on the day's workout.
"If I am kind of having a bad week and I think, 'I don't want to do this run. It's really hilly. It's really hot. I don't want to do it,' I can't complain," she said. "You really have to be as positive as you can for your teammates."
Her consistency, the development of the underclassmen and a strong recruiting class have helped give Kansas its deepest squad since Bonds arrived on campus a little more than three years ago. Sophomores Rebeka Stowe and Kara Windisch are expected to fill the third and fourth spots in the Jayhawks hierarchy while Miller is the unquestioned number two. Team scores are based on the times of the top four runners.
Miller said Bonds manages to combine the right amount of goofiness without sacrificing intensity when the time calls for it.
"Sometimes there are those people who are so focused and kind of weird," Miller said. "We goof around, but at the same time we will be serious. She knows when the right time for both is."
Bonds will graduate in May with three degrees and then plans to apply to law school. Her academic and competitive role model is Morgan, Bonds' older sister who was a cross country and middle distance standout at Kansas State. When Morgan was a senior and Bonds had a disappointing meet at Stanford during her sophomore year, sis provided some valuable perspective.
"She had a really good race, and I had a really bad race," Bonds said. "She was just jogging and cooling down with me and gave me some really good advice. She said 'Just stick with it. I had these really rough patches and you just have to push through.' I saw how when things were going bad, she just put her head down and kept working and how she came out of it."
The sisters spent the summer together. Morgan is in medical school in Baltimore and Lauren was working in Washington D.C. for a lobbying group that champions emigrant refugee rights. Each day before taking the train to work, Lauren was up at 4:30 a.m. for 70 solitary minutes of running in the dark.
Those 70 minutes were the first steps towards making her senior year the proper culmination to a superlative-laden career in crimson and blue. The final steps are yet to come as her performance in Missouri indicates, but Bonds said she will be prepared when her teammates need her most.
"I'm ready to go back there for the Big 12 meet," Bonds said. "We just have to put some more work in first."