FAIRVIEW VILLAGE — Throughout all four years of her high school career, Methacton cross country standout Kara Steinke never lost that edge, no matter how easy the dual meet wins seemed to get as time went along.
Not once did anyone even come close to challenging her in any Pioneer Athletic Conference dual that entire four-year span.
She would usually be so far ahead of the rest of the field, spectators could often be heard asking "Isn't the Methacton girl running?' as they would watch the runners along the trials.
This fall, Steinke closed out her high school cross country career undefeated for four straight years, winning all four PAC-10 cross country championships, always the area girls' highest finisher at the District 1 Championships and PIAA Championships throughout her career.
And for the fourth straight year, Steinke is The Mercury's All-Area Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.
It's quite amazing that from her first PAC-10 dual as a freshman to her final one and then her last PAC-10 championship race at Heebner Park a number of weeks ago, Steinke never lost a single one.
Four years ago it would have been hard to envision that kind of sweeping success possible.
"I didn't really know what to expect coming in as a freshman,' she said. "But I know that after my freshman year, I saw my potential of what I could do if I just kept working hard.
"It was one of my goals, after the freshman cross country season, to stay undefeated all four years. But I didn't really think it was actually going to happen. Obviously, after my sophomore year stayed the same, and then junior year too, it was, ' I can't stop now. I'm so close to it.''
Nobody had to drive her on. Her will power to get it done did that.
She is also the starting point guard on the Methacton girls varsity basketball team. The tough basketball practices and games would be enough of a workout for most. Not for Steinke. As much as she loves playing basketball, cross country remained on her mind all year and through each basketball season.
She would make time daily to get in some long runs, right after school and before she went to basketball to practice at 5:30 p.m. If her Warriors were playing a game, she would run afterwards. If she got home late from game, Steinke would jump on the treadmill to get her miles in.
On weekends she would go out for those long runs, loving the solitude. Running miles and miles all by herself is what she loves most. Maybe that is why she always took off right from the start of a dual race, running all alone, way out front, through all those years.
It had to become harder to get herself all pumped for the duals as the years went on when she had to know no one would be there to challenge her.
"I wouldn't say that I was less hyped,' she said. "Obviously, dual meets aren't as big as invitationals, but to me, a race is still a race. I treat dual meets like any other race. And I still get nervous when I'm towing the line for a dual meet, feel the same as when I'm towing the line for an invitational.'
Being a fast starter always suited her preferred style.
"I like to get out hard and fast so that if something like I don't feel good is going to happen, I have a cushion,' she said. "I don't like strategizing in races, like ' run with this girl for 2.5 miles and then, just at the very end, start going.' I don't like doing that because it doesn't leave you any room for errors or if don't feel right or something.
"This year, in the championships, if I hadn't gone out as hard as did, the way I was feeling at the end, it would have been very easy for some of the girls to pass me.'
The PAC-10 championship meet this year was her toughest test yet, a bout with illness nearly derailing her fourth straight title.
"Normally, I know what I should do, that if I just run normally everything will go the way it was planned to go and that gave me the confidence that I can win the race,' she said. "This year, though, at the championship meet, I had confidence and knew, obviously, what I wanted to do and that was win the meet and keep my undefeated streak.
"But during the race I did get quite nervous because I wasn't feeling well. I knew when I was going through the splits, like the mile and the two-mile, that my time wasn't that great. And there are honestly some very good competitors in the league that, if you have a bad day, they can easily come up, have a great day and beat you. I was very nervous about not feeling good at all, trying to focus on just finishing, and kept pushing through. If I would have slowed up, I could have been caught. They were pretty close.'
Closer than in the years before.
"I just trusted my instincts and used every little bit I had left in me,' she said. "It was a bit nerve-wracking. Luckily, I crossed the line first. And then collapsed.'
For the first time ever after a race.
She had started feeling poorly a couple of weeks before the PAC-10 finale. A trip to the doctor revealed she was iron-deficient. When it didn't go away, Steinke again went back for another checkup though the doctor did not find anything serious.
Petite and slim, Steinke felt, and still feels, that the many races cross country runners participate in these days took too much of a toll on her body as the season was winding down.
"I was just so exhausted, so tired and just drained,' she said. "It was a little depressing knowing I still had the biggest meets of my season coming and just wasn't feeling good. Looking back on it, I think I would have tried to change some things.'
Thing like talk to the coaches about taking some time off from racing or skipping some invitationals.
"Just to kind of rejuvenate myself, start fresh again,' she said. "I wonder if that would have helped me do better at districts and states? Because every single season, my first race in August I have run my PR (personal best). But what can you do now? It's all over.'
Nevertheless, her four-year PAC-10 standout career will be tough to match.
"Kara's reputation had preceded her to the high school, but I am still amazed with all of her accomplishments,' said Methacton coach Steve Mahan, who has coached the Warriors cross country team for 31 years. "She has set a very high standard of distance running excellence at Methacton by going undefeated in the PAC-10. She has been able to accomplish so much because she is single-minded to the task at hand.
"Kara has helped to raise the visibility of the program which I hope will encourage more girls to try cross country as an activity. Next year will be different without Kara leading the team. But I hope her example has been learned by the other team members.'
And Steinke will continue her cross country career at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, Colo., come fall.
First, though, she will try to have one last terrific high school basketball season, then close it out with an equally great final spring track season.
It remains quite a journey from those early days at Arcola Intermediate School where Steinke first became a distance standout.
"Both middle school and high school cross country programs definitely taught me everything I need to know about running,' she said. "Just the experience of what to do and what not to do.
"If someone doesn't do cross country, doesn't run the early years, you're missing out on the experience of knowing what to do when you do when you do go on to run for the big leagues in college.'
Follow Rosemarie Ross on Twitter @RoseRoss31