When the Covid-19 pandemic started last winter, Jenna Gearing was trying to figure out the next stage of her life.
Gearing, who won two cross country and three track state titles during her prep career at White County High School, was nearing the end of academic and athletic career at Clemson University, where she was a member of the cross country and track teams and earned a bachelor degree in sports communications.
Like many recent college graduates, she was mulling over the job market during a tough economic environment, along with considering transferring to another school to start her master's degree work and continue her running career. She decided to pursue a transfer, eventually landing at the University of Kentucky. Turns out, the decision to head to the Bluegrass State was the right decision, especially for her running future.
On Saturday, Gearing lined up with some of the best runners in the nation at the SEC Championships in Baton Rouge. La., and did something even she didn't expect, finishing second in the women's race behind Alabama's Mercy Chelangat.
Gearing covered the 6,000-meter University Club course in 19:58, while Chelangat turned in a time of 19:46. Gearing was in sixth place with 1,000 meters remaining, when she used a strong kick to pass five runners and finish as the runner-up in the field of 128 runners. Gearing earned All-SEC honors with the second-place finish.
“Honestly, this is so unexpected,” Gearing said Monday afternoon. “I had a PR (personal record) in our first race, then another PR in the second, and another in the third race. I just kept getting faster (during the season), and I was running with girls that I never thought I would be able to beat. For the (SEC) individual title, we thought there were about 13 of us that had a shot, and I just wanted to make sure I was in that group.”
Gearing said standing on the podium at the SEC Championships wasn't something she would have ever dreamed possible just a few months ago.
“I didn't see something like this being in the cards for me,” Gearing said. “I'm thankful to still be running. I always loved cross country in high school, but at times, I thought that might have been my peak. At Clemson, I kind of focused on middle distances. Coming to Kentucky, I never really thought cross country was my event, but coming here really opened up opportunities for me.”
At the start of the race, Gearing went out quickly with Chelangat, and stayed among the lead pack until the final stretch of the race, allowing her to make a move in the sprint to the finish line. Gearing reeled in the five runners, passing Missouri's Sarah Chapman in the final 10 meters of the race. Gearing finished at 19:58, while Chapman came in at 18:58.8.
“It was kind of like high school when I wanted to get out quick and stay there,” Gearing said. “I wanted to be in the top pack when we got the final K (kilometer) of the race. We knew the Missouri and the Alabama girls would be the ones to beat in the final K. I started the kick and started catching people. My coaches believed in my the whole time. Mentally, when I got the the 500-meter mark, that's such a short distance, and I felt like I could do it, so that's what I did. I surprised myself a little bit. It was kind of fun being the underdog.”
Gearing gave credit to UK assistant coach Hakon DeVries and the rest of the coaching staff for preparing her for the race.
“We talked about a game plan,” Gearing said. “He (DeVries) was like, 'you know in your head you can catch anyone, and at 500 (meters) you just have to move.' So that's kind of what I did. This is such a feeling of relief. It shows me that hard work does pay off. If you're willing to put in the work, there can be so much more than you expected. You have no idea.”
Gearing had a handful of familiar faces cheering her own during the race as her mother Jeanette, and sister Lily, and brother Cole all made the trip to Louisiana.
“My mom has been good about traveling all year,” Gearing said. “It's fun for them to be here. I loved seeing Lily and Cole, they had just had their region meets, so it was special for me for them to come, and it means a lot to me to have them here. My dad (Bill), he would be here, he passed away my junior year. When I run, a lot of it is definitely for him. He really encouraged me to do cross country when I was younger and really attack those hills. So every race, that's kind of in my head.”
Thanks to the runner-up finish, Gearing expects to have a spot in the NCAA National Championship meet next March. The national finals were originally scheduled for November, but Covid-19 forced the meet to be postponed.
Gearing, who also competes in indoor and outdoor track for the Wildcats, isn't sure yet if she will compete in the national cross country meet due to the differences in training for track season compared to cross country.
“To be honest, I never thought it would be option for me,” Gearing said with a laugh. “I'll talk to my coaches about it, but I'm not sure what kind of shape I'll be in then. The coaches have told me they think I can do it, so we'll see.”