Tunstall’s Emily Wallace was somewhere around the 1,400-meter mark of her 1,600-meter race against Franklin County when the give up began to take hold.
Entering the final 200 meters, Wallace’s tired body and mind started playing tricks on her, telling her to throw in the towel.
“In my mind, I was running a 5:30, which was going to leave me a little short of pre-qualifying for states, so I just started thinking, ‘Do I really want to grind this out just for a 5:30?’” Wallace said.
Wallace, though, had too many 3 a.m. runs and in a foot of snow under her belt to surrender to the give up, so she kept grinding all the way to the finish line where she was met by a bit of a surprise.
She crossed the finish line a few seconds after her personal friend and Franklin County sprinter Kylie Cooper. Being the humble young lady she is, Wallace walked over to congratulate her friend and they both found out Cooper had posted a 5:14 in her first high school mile race.
“We both kind of looked at each other in amazement because that’s a great time for a freshman running her first mile,” Wallace said.
“I congratulated her and told her how great that was and then FC’s coach told me I had run a 5:19 and I was like ‘I’ll take it.’”
Little did Wallace know, her time was good enough to pre-qualify the Tunstall Female Athlete of the Year for the Region 3A track state championship on June 1.
“I was beyond thrilled,” Wallace said. “I’ve been dealing with some injuries this season and haven’t run as much as I did last year so it was really amazing to know I was going back to states.”
“Plus, it was my last home meet at Tunstall so to pre-qualify there, in front of the home crowd, it was really a special moment.”
Of course, it wasn’t Wallace’s first time qualifying for the state track tournament.
Wallace has a ring she only wears on special occasions.
It’s not a decoder or mood ring and it’s not something Wallace found in a Cracker Jack’s box. No. It’s something a little more special.
It has a Tunstall-red stone sitting in the middle of it, surrounded by a silver band.
For most high school student-athletes, their chances of making the state tournament are equivalent to their chances of winning the lottery.
Wallace isn’t old enough to play the lottery yet, so she took it open herself to defy some odds of her own.
That ring Wallace wears. It’s of the state championship variety.
Last June, Wallace edged out Broadway’s Jessica Cantrell in a photo finish for the Class 3 state title in the 1,600.
Mike Wallace, Emily’s father, pulled out his phone near the end of our interview and showed a picture of Emily crossing the finish line with Cantrell no more than a step or two behind.
The look on Wallace’s face tells the story of her emotions more than 3,000 words ever could.
“It was just unbridled joy,” Emily said. “When I pulled ahead, I kept looking back because I couldn’t believe I was actually in front and on the verge of winning with all the incredibly talented runners and athletes that were competing.”
With roughly 300 meters left in the race, Wallace made a mad dash to the front of the pack.
“When she made that move with 300 meters to go I said, ‘My gosh, she’s in the front and nobody’s really hanging with her,’” Mike said.
Cantrell, one of the top Class 3 runners in the state, was determined not to lose in blowout fashion, though, and made her push towards Wallace down the stretch.
With 100 meters left, Cantrell caught up with Wallace and the two ran neck-and-neck the rest of the way.
Fate was on Wallace’s side, however, as she nosed out Cantrell for the championship.
When Wallace becomes of age, she out to invest in a few lottery tickets because it’s clear the odds are on her side.
While Wallace is a runner, not a popular recording artist, she’s on the verge of making back to back her own personal theme.
“It was really amazing to even qualify, much less win states last year,” Emily said. “So to come back and qualify again this year, it’s been a really amazing experience and I’m glad I’ve gotten to experience with both my regular family and Tunstall family.”
It’s 3 a.m. Mike, along with his wife Amy and Emily’s twin, Tunstall softball standout Abby, are fast asleep.
Mike hears a little shuffling in the house and goes to investigate the situation.
Luckily for Mike, instead of finding a burglar rummaging around their house, he finds Emily downstairs, making breakfast, getting ready for her morning run.
“There have been plenty of times where I’ve gone down and found her wide awake, getting ready to train and I’ve been like ‘What are you doing up?’” Mike recalls, laughing.
“But her whole lifestyle is regimented. She knows when she has to eat. She knows what to eat. She knows when to run. She knows when to train. She’s more dedicated to her sport than anybody I’ve seen.”
Emily interjects, “I’ve got notecards that I put on my door, reminding me what I have to do each day and it drives me crazy if I don’t accomplish them.”
“I’m really bad sometimes with doing my core workouts so I post those cards and go to them when I need that extra motivation.”
Back in December, Danville and Pittsylvania County were rocked by an early winter storm that dropped more than a foot of snow on the region. Most people would’ve taken that as a sign somebody didn’t want them running, but Emily isn’t most people.
Despite the conditions, Emily hit the frozen tundra, determined to keep with the 60-mile a week pace she set for herself at the beginning of the season.
“To me, the most amazing part about Emily is her determination,” Mike said. “I can imagine when you’ve accomplished most of your high school goals by the time you’re a senior, that it’s hard to figure out what to do next.”
“I don’t think anybody really expected her to win states last year so when she won, I can imagine it was hard for her to keep that same motivation going into this season, but that’s exactly what she’s done.”
What’s most impressive, though, is Emily’s kept her work ethic despite fighting a myriad of injuries.
There’s shin splints, which can be absolutely debilitating to runners. There’s been a few stress fractures. She’s even had to fight low iron levels.
Her injuries have prevented her from keeping the pace she set last year, where she would sometimes run four races in a matter of two weeks.
“I haven’t run as many races this year because of my shin splints and other things, but I still had my goal of wanting to make it back to states,” Emily said.
“So, even though I wasn’t running as much this year, I’ve still been working out, setting and beating my paces this year. It’s been hard this season, but I’ve got a great family, great coaches and great teammates behind me giving me support.”
With her support system behind her and her work ethic and dedication driving her, don’t be surprised if Emily makes it back-to-back state championships when she competes in states on June 1.