By most any measure, Maura Henderson’s budding running career at Lehigh has been a smashing, if entirely unexpected, success.
Henderson was Lehigh’s undeniable breakout cross-country star last fall, earning First-Team All-Patriot League honors after a season that saw her lead the Mountain Hawk pack in five of six races and take first place overall at the Ted Owen Invitational. Only a sophomore, she was named the team’s Athlete of the Year, and then continued to impress during winter track season, setting a new school record in the 5K during the Armory Invitational in early February.
Just a year into her Lehigh running career, the English major had already established herself as a star in the making, a potential future All-American and, perhaps, one of the finest distance runners in Lehigh history. But what makes her story just that much more remarkable is this: When she was recruited to Lehigh in the first place, it wasn’t as a runner.
“I came here as a lacrosse player,” she explains. (Her twin sister, Jane, plays lacrosse.) “I became very competitive in running late in high school, during my senior year, but by then I had already committed to playing lacrosse at Lehigh. It wasn’t really something that I thought about, but at some point I realized I really missed it.”
Fortunately for Henderson, all levels in Lehigh’s athletic department—from administrators to coaches—were supportive of her interest in getting back onto the course and the track, even as she tried to balance running against her scholarship sport. After playing fall lacrosse her freshman year, and with the support of her coaches, she ran winter track. Her success was immediate, and by the time spring arrived, everyone was in agreement: Her future at Lehigh would be in running.
“I was just a lot happier with the running aspect of my athletics career,” she says. “I had a really hard time leaving my lacrosse teammates. They’re still my family. But everyone in athletics was amazing throughout the process, and they’ve been nothing but helpful throughout.”
To say that Henderson has repaid their support would be an understatement. The Narberth, Pa., native made an impact for the Mountain Hawks in her first season of outdoor track, earning four Top 10 finishes at the 2016 Patriot League Outdoor Championships, besting a field of 76 runners in the 1,500 meters at the Bison Outdoor Classic and finishing second in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at both the Lehigh-Lafayette dual meet and the Muhlenberg Spring Invitational.
By the time cross-country season hit, her confidence was soaring—and her times were dropping.
In just the second race of her collegiate career, she took home first place—out of 156 runners total—at the 5K Ted Owen Invitational, with a time of 17:43.50. She would go on to place first among all Patriot League runners in the Paul Short Run Gold Race, first among all Lehigh runners at the Penn State Nationals and fifth overall at the Patriot League Championships, helping the Mountain Hawks to a second-place finish. She capped her season by placing 14th overall at the Mid-Atlantic Regional, earning her All-Region honors.
Coach Debbie Utesch praised Henderson afterward, crediting her with running a “tremendous race.”
There’s no question that Henderson has taken to the sport, as her passion for it is obvious. Asked why she so connects with a sport that even she admits is nothing less than consistently “grueling,” Henderson says that there’s simply something about the cut-and-dried competitiveness in running that she finds thrilling. The goal of getting better, and faster, is something that continues to drive her, week in and week out.
“It’s definitely grueling,” she says. “There’s nothing slow about it, and you’re out there running fast for a really long time. But there’s something about the sport that is just so rewarding. You get out of it what you put into it. It’s kind of an analogy for life.”
Moving forward, then, she says her goals are simple: to work as hard as possible, with the hope of achieving even greater things, bigger honors and more team success. It’s a process, she says, that will certainly pay off on the track. And off it, as well.
“I honestly believe that running has changed my life,” she says. “It’s made me a better person.”