by John D. Hubbard
Betsy Cunningham '97 has rocks in her head and wings on her feet.
The rocks, primarily Lyonsdale granite, have led the geology major into a field of research with which she is openly fascinated. The wings have carried the middle distance runner to Patriot League championships.
It hasn't always been rocks and running for Betsy, though. In high school she played basketball, and her sophomore year varsity candidates had to run the mile. Cunningham beat everyone and turned to track. When she wasn't competing as a power lifter, that is.
"My sister is a year and a half older and extremely strong. I got tired of getting pummeled," says Betsy, who became a featherweight power lifter, maxing out on the bench, squat and dead lift.
"I like being strong." She no longer competes with weights but continues to lift as part of her training.
Apparently Cunningham likes being fast too. She was a high school sprinter and hurdler who planned on running the 400 hurdles and maybe the 500 meter race in college. "The 800 sounded long to me," says Betsy. She tried it once in high school and swore she'd never run it again.
That changed, of course, and by her sophomore year what had been horrible -- distance running -- became enjoyable, thanks in part to proper training. "I need high milage -- which gives me confidence -- with low intensity," says Cunningham.
"I think I'm a miler and 3,000 meters runner." In an effort to find out for sure, Cunningham runs 70 miles a week. "You get into a rhythm. Get up in the morning and go for a run, then in the afternoon go for another. Same thing with lifting. I love to lift. Your body gets used to the pressures you exert on it. The more you demand, the more it will give you."
The returns have been impressive. Cunningham is the first Colgate woman to win the Patriot League cross country championship. She won three meets and never finished lower than fourth.
During the indoor track season Betsy was named the league's Outstanding Female Performer of the Meet at the conference championships where she was first in the 1,000 meter and the distance medley relay and second in the mile. She holds five school records, including the triple jump, and is a member of six record-holding relay teams.
In outdoor track Betsy was named the league's Out-standing Freshman Performer, was a two-time pick for the Patriot League Academic Honor Roll and last spring was selected Colgate most outstanding performer. She has set Colgate records in the hurdles and 3000 meters.
The real benefit of running is not measured in records and rewards for Cunningham.
"It makes me strong mentally and emotionally," says Betsy "and gives me confidence in other areas of my life."
Those areas are vast and varied -- music, for instance. Betsy has played the clarinet for 11 years and often used to go directly from high school cross country meets to band competitions. She has also given lessons and is now working on a Mendelssohn sonata. And while she misses being in a symphony ("That was my joy in high school."), she plays for her roommates or in church. "Music is more something I do for myself now."
Cunningham is also applying for a Watson fellowship with a proposal to investigate why some countries produce great athletes. She cites Irish milers and Kenyan distance runners as intriguing examples. "I'd like to study that phenomenon, and elite training as well."
And then there's geology. "I have such a fascination with rocks," says Betsy, typically excited. "You realize what actually happened. The rocks I'm working with are PreCambrian. There was nothing here. It puts everything into perspective."
For the past two summers Cunningham has worked with professor Jim McLelland, studying rocks in the Port Lyden area of the Adirondacks. Once known as Lyon Mountain Gneiss, the rocks are the focus of an abstract McLelland and Cunningham have submitted to the National Geological Society of America meeting, and a paper will be published by the organization.
It is the kind of collaboration that feeds Cunningham's interest in geology. "The faculty have been astounding," says Betsy. The department has been supportive of her athletics and she in turn has fulfilled that trust.
"You have to be focused and dedicated, committed to the goals you set. Eat right, train, find a balance between academics and athletics and a balance in life."
Sometimes it all fits. "I find myself, when I'm running hills, noticing rocks. I saw a nice piece of granite one day. The runners I was with weren't nearly as excited."
Matching Betsy Cunningham's excitement isn't easy. Being impressed with her is.