Author: Macarena Blando Demarco
Occidental women’s cross country runner Grace Bender (senior) is one with the forces of nature. When she is not dominating the running trails—as she did at the Stanford Invitational on Sept. 27, with a lifetime best time of 24:19 in the 6k—she is promoting environmental sustainability on campus.
Bender’s long journey in running began in middle school, after her mom handed her a pair of sneakers and told her to channel her energy into exercise. At the time, Bender mainly used running to train for her preferred sport—soccer—but she also ran for relaxation. It wasn’t until high school that Bender began to run competitively.
While she did not plan to run in college, and initially suited up for the Occidental women’s soccer team as a first-year, Bender yearned for the sport enough to join track and field the following spring. She quit soccer after two seasons in order to focus her efforts on cross country her junior year.
“I get to be out on the trails everyday with cross country, and to me that means a lot,” Bender said. “It’s a good dose of nature and endorphins.”
Cross country’s three upcoming league meets count toward points for the SCIAC season, and Bender believes she can achieve another PR to help boost the team’s SCIAC ranking.
“My goal is to place really well and help with the team as best as I can, and that should include PRs upward of 30 seconds,” Bender said.
Head cross country coach Robert Bartlett also sees potential in Bender’s performance and expects positive results in the upcoming races.
“Grace has had a great start to her season,” Bartlett said. “It’s still very early in our season and for Grace to be running so well already is a great indicator that she’s in good shape and will be very important for our team when we move on to the championship part of our season.”
Bender attributed her success to the small, eight-member team, which she described as a huge advantage to both training sessions and the team’s chemistry.
“Our captain likes to say, ‘small team, big heart,’ and it genuinely applies,” Bender said. “I think we get to interact and are so much more effective at pushing each other because there are so few of us. I really enjoy it, we get to know each other really well. There’s nothing quite like running next to your teammates.”
Claire Shellem (sophomore), one of those teammate about whom Bender spoke so fondly, praised Bender’s inner drive.
“Grace has an amazing work ethic. She is always pushing herself to be better and to get the most out of every workout. She challenges herself and she challenges all of us too,” Shellem said. “Grace has improved so much since last season, I expect her to PR in every race this season.”
For those interested in improving as a runner, Bender advises taking full advantage of the practices and consistently pushing the limit.
“Every year there’s been huge PRs, and it happens to every single runner on this team,” Bender said. “Training works, you get better. Following and trusting it is just really, really important, and just really appreciating how lucky we are.”
In addition to running cross country, Bender, a biology major and Urban and Environmental Policy minor, is also actively involved with Occidental’s various environmental organizations. She is the residential adviser of the Food Justice House, president of Sustainability Fund, head of the waste sector for FEAST garden and an Occidental Green Tour guide. Bender’s love for the environment transfers over to all her extracurricular activities.
“I think it all goes into loving to be outside, and connecting with my environment either through food or through running,” Bender said.
With the end of her college career approaching, Bender already has adventurous plans in mind for next year, including hiking the Appalachian Trail in May. She then hopes to find a job at a green company or volunteer in Spain for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an organization dedicated to promoting sustainable and organic farming worldwide.
Bender has made notable individual contributions to the groups she is involved in, but attributes her enjoyment of the sports and organizations to her fellow team and club members.
“The people that I’ve met have been incredible throughout all of my activities, and I think they’re the highlight … They will be what I remember here,” Bender said.
From friends to farming to fast footwork, Bender is as loyal to her values as she is to the trails. Following graduation, Bender plans to continue running and hopefully pursue a marathon or Iron Man competition.
“In one way or another athletics will stay in my life,” she said. “Hopefully I’ll be running for a long time.”
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