It was dark when Caroline Wells stepped out of her car at Central Winds Park in Winter Springs, just like it is every morning, when a bird might be startled by her footfalls through the forest. By the time anything has a chance to react to the snap of a twig on the trail, she’s already long gone―a phantom in silent white running shoes.
By now she’s used to the solitude, even when she’s on a racecourse with more than 100 other runners.
“Last year I had two races where I was running with people, in the track season,” she said. “In cross (country) I was always by myself.”
These words are spoken matter of factly by Caroline, with no artifice or cockiness. In most races she can’t even see her closest opponent by the first mile. Her last best time is the ghost runner she’s chasing.
As of the start of this season, Caroline was already one of the fastest cross country runners in the country. She’s long since been the fastest at Winter Springs High School. That includes the boys team. She’s so much faster than everybody that she has to get up early to meet Winter Springs Coach Octavius “Ocky” Clark at Central Winds for special workouts in the hope she can keep elevating her speed over these hilly trails even more than she’s already done. Her training pace can be a whole minute faster per mile than the rest of the girls team.
“No one is going to be as completely dedicated as Caroline Wells. She’s a totally different beast,” Clark said of the most dominant runner he’s ever coached. “She’s made it seem like I really know what I’m doing, but it’s really Caroline. She’s an amazing athlete. Amazing.”
She can already easily crack into the 16s for the 5K. For the layperson, that’s running a sub-5:40 mile or so for 3.1 miles in a row, through undulating woods, over tree roots, sand, hilly fields, sometimes muddy bogs, a rapid-fire change of scenery until the finish line inevitably awaits her alone. It’s been that way since last year, when she inherited the mantle of the state’s fastest runner. Then she became the state’s fastest runner ever.
Say the name “Jenny Barringer” and she lights up immediately. When Caroline isn’t chasing her own records, she’s chasing Jenny. Jenny Barringer, now Jenny Barringer Simpson, held almost every course record on her way through districts, regionals and the state meet, setting the bulk of them in 2003-2004. Then she kept going. In 2008 she went to the Olympics for the first time. 2016 will possibly be her last.
“I look up to Jenny and all the success she’s had,” Caroline said.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because the best girls runner in state history and three-time Olympian went to high school less than a handful of miles away in Oviedo, when Wells was only barely crawling. Simpson’s records have long been the target for Caroline, though she’s already surpassed many of them.
A team losing a superstar
Coach Clark knows he has his work cut out for him this year. In order to understand the magnitude of his situation, it’s important to know how cross country race scoring works. On any varsity team there will be seven runners with a chance to score. In any race, you can have a dozen or more teams. Runners earn points based on their finishing place. First place gets 1 point, 100th place gets 100 points. Count up your five fastest runners and you have a score. Lowest score wins the team trophy for the race.
Every single cross country race in Florida that she’s been in, for the last two years, Caroline has finished in first place. In a race with 50-100 runners, that’s a very helpful number to add into the equation. Most of the time her next three closest teammates are in the top 15 or so. But when they get to the state series, with district, regional and state level competition, the pack starts to thin out. Scores go higher.
“This younger group of girls, they’re going to have to learn how to fight,” Clark said.
This is the final year Clark’s going to be able to almost guarantee a first place in every race. His next-best runners tend to be a distant two-to-three minutes after Caroline. That’s a big gap to cover.
“For this cross country season, they’ve got to learn to win without Caroline Wells,” Clark said.
During the first race of the season, that was exactly the lesson. Caroline, highly recruited in the cross country and track and field worlds, was gone on one of her final rounds of college visits.
As dawn broke on Sept. 4, the girls watched as Timber Creek High School’s Amber Schulz ran away from the field and the pack rapidly thinned out over the first mile. Winter Springs’ undulating course launches like a shotgun blast in reverse, dozens of girls spread 100 feet wide funneling down into a break between the trees. By the time they had veered onto the thousand-yard-wide training fields that comprise the race’s first and second mile, it was already looking like a top three finish wasn’t going to be in the cards for the Bears.
But by the time the last few runners broke out of the final half mile through a cavernous forest trail and crossed the finish line, the girls hadn’t done bad. Second place overall, behind Timber Creek. Three in the top 10. The boys finished second too, an agonizing single point behind Montverde Academy.
“Naomi (Flowers) I know for sure ran a personal best,” Clark said. “This time last year, it was somewhat of a disaster for her, but as a senior she’s been aggressive this summer with her conditioning and it showed today.”
The race to rebuild
Caroline came back from her last college visit and went right back to work, knowing that Stanford University would now be waiting for her. She’s doing two-a-day practices now. There’s the early morning runs at her ludicrous-speed pacing, then the shorter sprint work with the rest of the team in the afternoons a couple days a week and some weight room work. Most of the girls average about 20-30 miles a week training. For Caroline it’s more like 50-60.
“She just goes out and just…she loves to compete,” Clark said. “If practice starts at 6 o’clock in the morning, she’s here at 5:45. She’s ready to go.”
As the season has progressed, so have the Bears, bringing their times lower and lower. Every time Caroline has run, the team has won. Without her, they’ve vacillated from fifth to second place.
Sept. 11 – Astronaut Invitational
September 11 they took the early morning trip in the dark down to Titusville with the flatter course of the Astronaut Invite waiting for a new Bears team. Caroline was back, and it was blast-off time. She rips off an easy 17:53.30, very slow for her but nearly two minutes faster than second place. The field is tougher here. The next fastest Bear, Naomi Flowers, finishes 16th, more than three minutes later. The girls finish fifth. The boys are way behind Viera but good enough for second.
“I saw my teammates and that’s really all I was worried about,” Caroline said. “This race was really more of a training race.”
Sept. 18 – Lake Buena Vista Invitational
Caroline’s out again. This time it’s calculated. Clark wants her peaking later in the season, so he’s limiting her races. She’ll only do five races before the postseason begins. In her stead Winter Springs’ Ella Giambalvo finishes fifth. The team places second, just 11 points behind Olympia.
Sept. 25 – Hagerty Invitational
A relatively brisk morning at Hagerty High School/Seminole State College’s mostly flat, mostly grass course is a setup for what could be one of Caroline’s best races. She explodes off the line and immediately separates from the rest of the pack. She crosses the finish line with another state record, 16:40.2, a blistering 5:23 per mile pace. By the time the second place runner finishes nearly two and a half minutes later, Caroline has long since stopped breathing hard. The Bears’ Naomi Flowers finishes sixth, more than three minutes after Caroline. The Bears cruise to first.
Oct. 2 – Kowboy Invitational
In the dying breath of a rare early fall cold front the girls of the Winter Springs cross country team enter the Kowboy XC invitational at Kissimmee Osceola High School. Caroline’s out of the race again. Another strategic move. But Amber Schulz, who won the season opener at Winter Springs, is in it. Absent Caroline the race is hers, 18:19.85. Naomi finishes sixth again, but doesn’t break 20 minutes. For the third race this season the Bears finish second.
In a week and a half the girls travel to Tallahassee and things get serious. With their times falling slowly from their first race of the season, Clark knows they need to find some speed somewhere. He also knows he’ll have Caroline once things turn serious. Last year they won it all at districts, regionals and the state meet. This year they can only repeat that feat. Clark just wants to see what they can do starting with Bear number two.
According to Clark, most of his points-scoring girls have already set personal records this season. He also said he knows 20 minutes won’t be good enough. It’s just a question of finding someone to lead the team, to step up, he said. He’s hoping to see a faster pack of Bears up front, a few deeper into the top 10. He’s not asking for a miracle. He knows what he already has and knows it can’t last.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I’ve only had one Caroline Wells,” Clark said.
There are five more races in the season, assuming the Bears can make it to state again. But Caroline’s already looking ahead to beyond the state championship. The Saturday after Thanksgiving, the Foot Locker South Regional championships await.
She’s already run faster than the national champion did in 2019, the last time the race was held.
“I know it’s a very difficult task to get top 10,” she said. “But I’m confident in my training.”