MORGANTOWN — The phone call was, former West Virginia University track and cross country star Keri Bland gladly admits, one of the highlights of her life, the message being that she had been selected as a member of the 2021 class of the WVU Sports Hall of Fame.
But it was also one of those “good news, bad news” phone calls.
The good news was that she had reached a goal she had carried in the back of her head since she ran at North Marion High School, but the bad news was that it put her in an awful position.
“The date of the induction [Saturday, Oct. 30, before the West Virginia-Iowa State football game] is the same day as the state cross-country meet,” she said.
Bland is the boys and girls track and cross country coach at North Marion.
“I have a pretty good girls team this year. This could be the year I finally qualify an entire girls’ team for state and I won’t be able to go because I’m being inducted into the Hall of Fame. I had to make a tough decision there ... but my husband (Ben Richardson) coaches with me and he will take the girls team to state and I will go to the Hall of Fame induction.”
And so will her mother.
“’My mom was like, ‘Oh, if that’s the case, someone will have to accompany you to the induction ... like me,’” Bland said.
We spoke on Monday, a day after the announcement, and Bland’s voice was coming back from a thyroidectomy in which her thyroid gland was removed because “it kept getting bigger and bigger and got to the point where it wrapped around my wind pipe and esophagus, so I had to get it taken out,” she said.
I asked her if being named to the school’s Hall of Fame was the cherry on the sundae that is her life, which kind of made her laugh.
“This has definitely been a cherry on top of my running career!” she said. “As for the ice cream sundaes, I had a tradition for myself during my running career — Sunday Sundaes! I used to treat myself to an ice cream sundae every Sunday to celebrate my week of training!”
She not only admitted that, but to the fact that reaching the Hall of Fame was always something that helped drive her through the grueling and sometimes less than enjoyable work necessary to reach such heights in such a taxing sport as distance running.
“I have always been very competitive and self-motivated,” she said. “In high school, I did want to win my races and I wanted to win a state championship, but in the background of my mind it was to earn my picture up on the wall of fame in the gym at the school.
“When it came to college, Coach [Seab] Cleary had mentioned the hall of fame once and it was in the back of my mind as a possibility, but I wasn’t sure I could do enough. Throughout my college career, I took each season and even each race one at a time and didn’t always think of the big picture.
“Once my running career had ended, due majorly to injury, the hall of fame idea came back to me. I had accomplished a lot during my time at WVU and had this small hope that I would one day be inducted. I was surprised to get the call this year, as this is technically the very first year I was eligible to be voted into the hall of fame. I am so honored to be inducted at all, but especially to be inducted immediately.”
Bland earned it with nine All-America honors in cross country and track from 2006 through 2011, making her one of the most decorated track and cross country athletes in WVU history.
When you think of all the miles on the track and on the road that were put in, you wonder just how much she felt she had sacrificed to reach such heights.
“During my time at WVU, it didn’t feel like I was making sacrifices, as I was able and willing to do everything I could to be the best student-athlete I could be. Being competitive and self-motivated allowed me to just feel like it was normal for college athletes to do all of the things that I was doing,” she said.
“Looking back, after my running career, I did make some sacrifices here and there, like less time with my friends or family. I didn’t get to travel home much, as I was typically on the road, even during some holidays. However, with some slight sacrifices I was able to achieve so much!”
For Bland, the running began in middle school.
“Eighth grade, mainly because my basketball coach decided to coach track,” she said, but admitted that the training part of it never really became an enjoyable endeavor. “I stuck with it and liked the competitiveness of it, but not really the training that went into it unless I also got to be competitive at practice.
“I didn’t try cross country until my junior year of high school and didn’t really enjoy it right off the bat. Again, my competitive nature took over and I wanted to be the best at it and realized that I could get my picture up on the wall in the gym for track and cross country!
“I also saw the doors open to continue in college with financial support and that was going to be helpful to myself and my family,” she continued. “Competing on the team at WVU was difficult, but I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. Some days that I couldn’t get out for a run or if a little injury put me on the cross-training schedule for a few, I would get very down. Running and competitive racing had become a big part of my life, opening so many doors. I got college paid for, got to travel, got to share my successes with my family and my community.”
The highlight was probably when she took part in the Olympic Trials.
“Competing at the Olympic Trials was a big highlight of my career,” she said. “It was cool that there were athletes lined up beside me that I had watched on TV. Also, winning the Big East indoor mile with a time of 4:34. That was one of my favorite feelings on my favorite track.”
It wasn’t always the competitive part of being a collegiate athlete that rewarded her.
“Some of the things I remember most from my running career was the opportunity to travel. I used to always talk to my coach about the things we would do other than racing at places... I was excited to throw snowballs in July in Oregon at the Trials or to dip my toes into the Pacific Ocean when we visited California. We got to explore New York City and Pier 49 in San Francisco. I enjoyed getting to run through different campuses and going to different restaurants with my teammates.”
Her role has change now and she is the one doing the coaching, not the running. She learned a lot from running for Cleary at WVU, she said.
“Sean was a big part in keeping me motivated,” she said. “I didn’t like running that much, but I enjoyed competing. The runs during the week, I couldn’t care less about. But he kept talking to me about the next race, setting goals for me. That helped keep me going.
“It has helped me with my coaching because now I try to keep my practices competitive. In high school I ran a lot of practices with the boys.”
As a coach, she has applied what she learned.
“I have a lot of very young high school kids. I haven’t had a lot of upper classmen,” she said. “You have to keep the balance between it being fun and working hard. Sometimes it’s hard to keep that balance because there are times when I want to push them harder and harder, especially when you get one or two of them that are like really good and you know they have a lot of potential.
“I don’t want to push them too hard to where they stop liking it. That’s hard sometimes. I don’t want to say it’s about today’s kids now, but with freshmen and sophomores, it’s hard to get them to realize they can work a little bit harder. I’ve got one girl who pretty much gets mad at me when we do a hard workout and I say ‘Let’s do one more.’ She’s like, ‘I can’t do one more,’ and I tell her she can, she really can.
“She gets mad and pouts, but after practice she thanks me. ‘Thank you for pushing me. I want to get better.’ It’s hard to get them there, but once you do it’s easier.”
She understands what the kids go through and can call upon her own personal experience to get the point across as a coach.
“I worked hard in high school, but only as hard as I had to in order to be competitive and win things,” she said. “I was actually kind of lazy as a runner and spent most of my winter and summer on the couch or goofing off. In college, I transitioned into a more intense training regimen and my times improved drastically.
“I was able to see some of my other teammates where they had trained like that all along. In some instances, I noticed that they were mentally more drained and that their times didn’t always improve a lot. As a coach of high school student athletes, I vowed to push my athletes, but I don’t want to push them to the point where it isn’t fun for them or where they don’t enjoy it anymore. I like for them to have fun and be competitive, but as Coach Cleary did so often with me, we would chat about our goals and expectations and I like to do that with my athletes and students also. So that I can push them as much as they can go, without going too far.”
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