MOUNT PLEASANT — Sierra Howardson just wants to run.
Howardson spent her freshman year of high school in Tennessee. She moved to Fort Madison for her sophomore through senior years, where she lived with her legal guardian, her aunt Ashley. Even when she moved to Danville for her senior year at Fort Madison High School, Howardson made the 30-minute commute every day.
Howardson hoped to join the military and run at an NCAA Division I school. But when those plans didn’t work out, she enrolled at NCAA Division III Iowa Wesleyan University, where she has quickly become the top runner for the Tigers’ first-year program.
The one constant through it all was running. It is when Howardson feels free from all the burdens of life, where she feels most at home, where she just gets to be herself.
Howardson already has made a huge impact at Iowa Wesleyan. She won her first collegiate race, taking the title at the Bill Buxton Invitational at Simpson College. On Saturday, she finished 19th in the Cowbell Classic at Elsah, Illinois, traversing the 6k course in 25 minutes, 8.14 seconds while competing against a field loaded with NCAA Division II runners.
Howardson continues to make impressive strides and in the process is helping to put the fledgling program on the map.
“I really like it because I like getting the word out, telling people Iowa Wesleyan does have a cross country program. I like telling people that run, ‘Hey, you can come out for the team if you want.’ It’s pretty cool seeing their excitement. They think it’s pretty cool that the local college has a team and we can go run and stay home,” Howardson said. “I am very surprised at how well I have been doing. I feel a lot better now than I have in high school. I feel like I am racing better here.”
For Iowa Wesleyan cross country coach Chris Creal, there is no one better to build a program around than Howardson, who has a true passion for the sport.
“Just getting here in January and trying to help build a program, I really had to look high and low and all over the place to find people who I thought were going to be the best fit for our program. Getting in contact with Sierra was kind of like being in the right place at the right time,” Creal said. “I remember the day she came up I was asked, ‘What do you see out of me?’ I remember telling her I have seen your times. I have seen you race. I saw your senior year wasn’t the best but I know what you are capable of. I told her, ‘You are going make a big statement in our program. In the conference you are going to be very competitive.’ My goal with everybody is I am going to give you my full attention to make sure you get out of it what you want to get out of it. I think that’s where our coach-athlete bond really kicked off and started. Once she decided she was on board, it made it very exciting and worthwhile to me.”
Howardson, a four-time state qualifier in high school, had wanted to join the military and run for Army West Point, a dream she still clings to, although she came up just short of the qualifying standards. Instead of being just another Division I runner, Howardson now is blazing new trails for the Tigers, helping to build a program for Iowa Wesleyan, which just began competing at the Division III level this fall. And Howardson is flourishing in her new role.
“I missed my ACT score by a few points, so I didn’t get accepted. I was going to apply for the Prep Academy, but it was too late. I chose to come here for four years, hopefully to join ROTC or the Army and go to a medical school,” said Howardson, who is majoring in biology with an emphasis on pre-med and who is working to become a surgeon when all is said and done. “This wasn’t really my first choice, but it was my second choice for all the colleges I was looking at. I like the coach here. He’s a good coach and he was telling me about the plan for the team he was hoping to have in the future. I really liked everything he was telling us with the workouts and the program in general and where he sees us in the future.”
Howardson just wants to run, and she gets plenty of opportunity to do what she loves. Howardson and her teammates — Joana Gonzalez, Lindsey Johnston, Katie Martinez, Allison Morris and Maggie Thomure — get their own personalized workouts from Creal. It is the exact opposite of high school, where training is geared toward the team. The personalized workouts have brought the best out of Howardson.
“I don’t know what the difference is. I think it might be the practices we have, like the tempos are more personalized and more focused on you as an individual. Our team is really close compared to high school,” Howardson said.“We do a workout every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and they are usually high tempo, speed workouts. Tuesdays and Thursdays are long mileage and lifting. You can never have too many miles. It’s good to have a good base. In high school we never did personalized workouts where you focused on yourself and your tempo. We always did it as a team and groups. Whereas Coach Creal has a time for each individual that they need to hit for each interval. It pushes you to be mentally tough enough to run by yourself at your own pace.”
Howardson has made a seamless transition from the 5k runs in high school to the 8k runs in college, along with the more independent living now as a young adult on campus. The small, cozy, friendly atmosphere at Iowa Wesleyan makes Howardson feel at ease, like she is home. She is in her element. So much so that she earned the Iowa Wesleyan Student-Athlete of the Month award for September, her first full month of college.
“That was a shock to me. I didn’t realize that was going to happen because I’m a freshman and there are upperclassmen here who want that. I was working so hard for that. When I found out I got it I was really shocked. I was really happy because it was my first semester in college and I got Student-Athlete of the Month. That was pretty cool. Now I have to set my goals even higher to get another one, hopefully next year,” Howardson said. “I love Iowa Wesleyan. The community is great. The atmosphere here is really nice. The teachers are amazing. They always check up on you, email you and say, ‘How are you doing? What can I do to help you?’”
“Having somebody like her who never questions anything going forward has really helped us build a team cohesiveness. I’m a person that believes that as long as you give 100 percent, you are going to walk away successful. I think she really believes that and buys into that. She leads by example and does the things that need to be done. That’s something that bringing to a first-year program is like finding a gold mine. You have to appreciate it as much as you can,” Creal said.
Howardson hit the ground running. And she hasn’t stopped. The St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Championship is set for Oct. 27 in Litchfield, Illinois. The NCAA Division III Regional is set for Nov. 10 at Waverly.
Howardson just wants to run, and she will get at least two more chances to do what she loves most.
“I won our first race. It was a 4K. The first two girls beat me, but they were alumni for Simpson College, so I worked on trying to stay with them. I didn’t know they were alumni at the time. I thought they were other Simpson runners, so I wanted to beat them. I didn’t realize until after the race that I got first out of all Division III runners. That was pretty good. I like having that, ‘I’ve got this. I can do this’ mentality. I was scared going into college because I didn’t know how I was going to compete. I had DI school tell me I wasn’t fast enough. Having that first meet and winning my division was like, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ I just have to believe in myself and that I can do it,” Howardson said. “I am hoping to race against another girl in our conference who is faster than me. I want to stay with her and get my time down and then at conference I’m hoping to get first. We hope to place high at regionals and then go to nationals.
Matt Levins (2018). Siera Howardson just wants to run, Retrieved from http://www.thehawkeye.com/sports/20181015/howardson-wants-to-run