Seniors are cheering on freshmen. Freshmen are cheering on seniors. It’s hard to tell who belongs to the older class and who’s a newcomer, but if you spent enough time at a West Forsyth cross country practice you’ll leave with a new definition of what it’s like to build a family through friendly competition.
As one girl in a bright blue tank top bolts off the fence and takes off around the track, a pack of runners cooling off under a tree suddenly cheer.
“Come on, Liz!”
It’s clear, even in the daunting heat, that Liz could do without the extra motivation — she flies around the lap.
West senior Liz Galarza is two days removed from running her personal best time in a 5K race after logging a second place finish at the Warpath Invitational in Canton over the weekend with a time of 17 minutes 57.82 seconds. She finished, for the second weekend in a row, just behind South runner Kaylee DuPont—one of the best in the state. At the Marist Double Dip on Sept. 10 she finished third, just six hundredths of a second behind DuPont.
This a big deal for Galarza, who has undoubtedly been a team leader at West even before she came one of the elders in the group. Unlike some of the others, she’s been racing uphill.
Galarza wanted to be a basketball player growing up. She found out in the seventh grade that, while she loved it, she wasn’t very good at it—she admits with a smile. To improve her conditioning, she picked up running on her own and in the process met some of the young runners in the West cross country and track programs during the summer before her first year of high school.
It was an early August morning when she convinced herself to wake up before 6 a.m. to run hills with the West runners at Fowler Park. She said that, just on the way there, she was wondering what she was doing.
“I was like, this is ridiculous. There’s no way I’m sticking with this,” she recalls thinking.
Then the team started running hills—not fun. But the comradery was. Not even officially a freshman yet, she felt immediately accepted and, despite the inability to walk later that day, had a lot of fun. From that moment on Galarza obsessed over running.
A little bit too much.
Between her sophomore and junior year Galarza started to notice pain in her foot. She thought it was nothing and, determined to improve on her times, continued to run on it. But things got worse, swelling took over, and with her junior cross country season on the horizon Galarza visited the doctor, who discovered a stress fracture in her foot. Her junior season on the paths was over.
Sitting on the sideline was difficult, but while doing so, Galarza believes she discovered everything she needed to know about who she was moving forward.
“I spent countless hours asking why me? Why me?” Galarza said. “But it was worth it because I was getting into the motion of running before and felt like I lost the purpose. When I was injured I kind of realized what my purpose was. It made me want to work harder. It made me want to commit more.”
Galarza thought back to the way the team inherited her as a freshman, and even though she couldn’t run she applied that treatment to the younger runners on the team, while simultaneously working twice as hard to get back.
“It’s my time to give back now,” Galarza said. “I want them to stick to running for the same reason that I got into it to begin with.”
Galarza bounced back in time for track season in the spring, but she knew she had a long way to go. She went from top-20 finishes in the 3,200-meter run to finishing fifth at the state meet. Now, with top-5 finishes popping up seemingly every weekend, she’s ready to get to the top of the hill she’s climbed for so long.
“I want to win state this year. And I want to qualify for the Footlocker Nationals,” she said. South runner Savannah Carnahan made the Footlocker Nationals as a senior last season—she was one of the best runners in the entire state of Georgia.
“I was kind of hoping last year that if I was healthy, I’d be up there with Savannah,” Galarza admits.
Now, with a state title in the balance, Galarza is more confident and less focused on herself—in a good way. Instead of over-doing it, she’s trying to be the team’s anchor physically and emotionally.
“The environment here is everything,” Galarza said. “I want us to build that connection where we can support each other, just like so many have supported me. If we can all come close together and build strong friendships, that’s what matters. It doesn’t matter where we finish. It’s all worth it.”