An Amazing Sporting Year in America

Tuesday 31 October 2017

Mark Ellison, a Secondary School Exchange Alumnus from the class of 1983, tells us about his year as an American high school student

Growing up in England I had two dreams; to become a great long distance runner and to go to America. After winning an ESU Scholarship to Saint James School in Maryland, USA, I was lucky enough to experience both of those dreams together. This is the story of that amazing running season.

Developing My Running at Sedbergh School, Cumbria

Having shown promise in middle and long distance running at age 13 my parents sent me to Sedbergh School, Cumbria, which is famous for its long-distance running, specifically for the Ten Mile race. Sedbergh's Ten Mile is the toughest School race in Great Britain at 10.2 miles long, with two thirds of the race run over fell sides and over a huge boggy peat moorland with enormous ravines. I had the good fortune to win the Ten Mile race twice. Also, recently Andrew Fleck, the Headmaster confirmed that the record I set in 1981 for the Mile, on the track, still stands as the Sedbergh School record to this day. That record has gone unbroken for 36 years.I was eager to continue this running success at my new school in America.

Saint James School via the ESU Scholarship

On arrival at Saint James I was given a warm welcome and was immediately asked by the Senior Running Coach to try out for the running team. So just 48 hours after arriving in the USA the starting gun fired and we were off!

Shortly after crossing the winning line that day, I remember the coach saying to me, "That was quite some run. You arrived with jet lag on Wednesday, and by Friday you've already broken the course record!"

In the days following our first Trial I began to get to know many of the Saint James runners. They were a great bunch of guys who all made me feel very welcome. There is no question that Americans greatly value sporting success, and so the running really did help to provide a good reputation in the school.

Taking on our Toughest Rivals... Mercersburg Academy

Our season could not have got off to a better start. After our first 3 races, the Saint James Team was unbeaten, and I had come first in all 3 races, setting new course records in two of them. But up next was our toughest rivals, Mercersburg. Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania is renowned for being excellent at sport. And with nearly three times the number of pupils as Saint James, they typically had plenty of talent to draw from.

Nevertheless, undaunted we were keen to take them on. Saint James took the first 3 places, and our top 5 runners finished in the first 8 places. The Mercersburg runners were clearly not too pleased with the result. Their lead runner had not run in this race, but he would take part in the return match a few weeks later. Not surprisingly they let us know it would be a different result once he was back running for their team.

A Showdown with One of Virginia's Best...

Having beaten Mercersburg so convincingly, morale in the Saint James team was high, and so was our determination to train and race hard. Training that season was a delight. What could be more enjoyable than running in the fall around the Saint James grounds or along the towpath by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Potomac River, or along the Appalachian Trail, or around the Antietam Civil War battlefield?

Our run of victories and setting new course records continued throughout the majority of the season. With just two races left, we were on track to achieve the great prize in American Sport; an undefeated season. To this point, both the team and myself were unbeaten, and I had set 5 new course records. Neither the Team or myself wanted to lose our winning record, but our last two races would be the most competitive by far.

Next we were scheduled to race Randolph Macon Academy from Virginia, a Military School that greatly values sporting excellence. The lead runner in this team was a Senior named Simar, who was the Virginia State Schools Cross Country Champion. The Randolph Macon runners were expecting Simar to comfortably win the race, however my coach had a big smile on his face as I crossed the winning line 1 minute and 7 seconds ahead of Simar, knocking another 13 seconds off the School Record. With our team also soundly defeating Randolph Macon, it made me wonder why we hadn't entered the State Championship.

Striving for the Unbeaten Season

From a personal perspective, I had come first in all the races of the season including the trials, and set 6 new course records. As a team, we had won all 8 races so far with just one last one to go. With just one Meet left to go, the prospect of an Unbeaten Season was truly within our grasp

Saint James vs. Mercersburg - The Season's Decider...

There's no question that Mercersburg came to avenge their defeat earlier in the season, but they were going to have to put in quite some performance if they were to win.

As the race progressed, and with their lead runner back, the Mercersburg team were performing really well indeed. In fact, they were running the Saint James course faster than any other opposing team had run it that season. Without doubt, Saint James were up against their toughest test to date.

But the Saint James runners were up for the challenge. We put in our fastest Team performance over the 2.7 mile course that season, and we convincingly beat Mercersburg for the second time. We'd done it... we had achieved an Undefeated Season!

When I look back at our season, there's one question that keeps coming to mind... How could we have possibly done better?

The Saint James Team went undefeated, convincingly beating very fast opposing teams such as Mercersburg and Randolph Macon. I had the good fortune to win all 9 races and set a new course record in 7 of those races.

Looking Back

My best memories were the huge sense of comradeship in our team, as well as the fun and inspiration that comes from having a charismatic passionate coach. Together we shared the great sense of success from the individual and team victories and new records. Together we worked hard in training, and as a team we enjoyed the celebrations at the end of the unbeaten season. The friendships I formed from that team are still in place today.

All in all, I feel that my year in America was hugely enriching. It gave me a far greater understanding of life, people, the world, etc. In short, I think that my ESU year in America greatly accelerated the gaining of an adult and a global perspective on life.

These days it is virtually impossible for me to imagine my current life without the impact of my ESU year in America. It is almost a part of me as a person.

Mark Ellison, Class of 1983.


Did you go on a Secondary School Exchange? We would love to hear from you! Email our Alumni Officer Alex Orpin with your story.