Bekah Howard was approaching the finish line on a storied running career before the COVID-19 health crisis stopped the spring sports season in its tracks.

Her path has spanned three towns and resulted in numerous awards and achievements. The energetic and competitive Howard feels the race is far from over.

“I have goals and I want to be better,” Howard said. “I have prepared myself like I wanted to. I have made a lot of sacrifices through high school for my running and missing out on a lot of things that I wanted to do, trips and so forth to focus on my running. I am happy with that. With my times, I still have goals that I haven’t reached.”

Howard has accumulated 10 region championships in cross country and track and field since she started running at the varsity level in seventh grade. Her will to win has been as steady as her stride during competition.

“It was easy, most times, to determine before a race what the outcome was going to be as far as her competitiveness and drive,” Ashland superintendent and proud father Sean Howard said. “It’s like everything else, you will have on days and off days, but overall from third grade through the latest cross country season, she was one of the consistent runners in the state during all those years for her grade level and age group.”

Phillip Caudill has been Howard’s cross country coach all four years at Ashland and her track coach when she was a freshman. He called her one of the best runners he’s seen in his 20-year tenure.

“It was her work ethic,” Caudill said. “She always had a goal set and was always a team player. She wanted to run with the best kids on the team even if it was the boys. She just looked at all avenues to push herself. She was a consistent hard worker. It stood out and it transferred to her teammates.”

A runner’s legacy

Sean Howard became the only Elliott County athlete to win a state championship with his 1984 performance in the 1,600-meter track event. His dazzling display and his racing resume landed a scholarship at the University of Kentucky in both cross country and track.

Dad’s experience and love for the sport is something Bekah has leaned on as a guide to greatness. They often trained together when she was younger and the miles they have shared will be forever etched in her memory.

“My dad and I are super close, and I would say a lot of that is due to running,” Bekah said. “Since second grade, we go to a lot of meets, just me and him. We’ve spent a ton of weekends in Lexington, Louisville and Pigeon Forge, cool places like that to go and race.”

“He is very serious about running,” she added. “He makes sure to keep me in line with my running. He has always been like my own personal coach during summer or if I don’t have a practice with my team. It’s been so fun for us because we both love running.”

Sean Howard’s competitive running days are behind him, but he will cherish the memories he got to spend with his daughter and looks forward to the moments they will get to share together in the future.

“I was with her quite a lot when she was training,” Sean Howard said. “It has been something that is totally irreplaceable. It was the bonding that took place that was so special. She found a love of running on her own. I exposed her to it in second grade and she took it from there. We became really, really close as a result of the running bond. It has taken her places like it did me.”

A quick start

A young Bekah Howard watched as her father and her older sister went out on long runs. She kept wanting to join in. Her persistence finally paid off in second grade and she hasn’t stopped running since.  

“When I was little, my sister ran cross country,” Bekah said. “She is three years older than me. We used to go to Russell and she ran on their cross country team. I would ask my dad if I could run with her. He would say no because I was too little.”

The family moved to western Kentucky before Howard’s third-grade year, where she enrolled at Glasgow. It didn’t take her long to create distance between her older competitors at meets and on the biggest racing stages.

“When she was in third grade, she was challenging middle school runners,” Sean Howard said. “I think every year since third or fourth grade, she has been competing in the state championships in cross country for that age and she has competed consistently, finishing as high as second one year. I don’t think she finished lower than fifth through middle school. She has been very competitive since eighth grade.”

Bekah Howard won region titles in her seventh- and eighth-grade years for the Scotties varsity teams. She said she enjoyed her time there but didn’t see the same commitment from the program that she had hoped for.

Her first region victory is one she will always remember. She outlasted and finished ahead of four runners from Hancock County to pull away down the stretch for the win. For good measure, she did it again as an eighth-grader and stung a quartet of Lady Hornets runners, who were comprised of two sophomores and two seniors.

“I started my race and they were all running together in a pack,” Bekah Howard said. “I wanted to win so bad. I followed right behind their little pack and then one would drop off, then another. At the end of the race, there was just two of them and me. I thought to myself, I think I can win this one. I waited and passed the girls at the end that I wanted to beat the whole season.”

Ashland aspirations

The Howard family moved back to northeastern Kentucky before Bekah’s freshman year and that catapulted the young runner’s motivation. She found a program and teammates that had the same high level of speed, spirit and work ethic.

“They were just more serious about it, so it helped me get more serious about it,” Bekah Howard said. “I knew what kind of runner I wanted to be. To get there, you have to be serious about your training and about your practices. It was cool — even though you were younger than them, you still felt like a team and a family with people that were older than you and shared the same interest.”

The Kittens cross country team quickly felt the Howard impact. The freshman was the team’s top finisher in 11 of 16 races during her first season and helped Ashland ascend to its first region title in 18 years.

Before she arrived, Caudill recalled a young runner from Glasgow that stood out at a meet at the airport in Worthington a couple of seasons before.

“Once I knew her dad was going to be the Ashland superintendent and she was going to be on our team,” Caudill said, “I started researching her personal bests. One of the reasons for our team success was her leadership and her drive. It rubbed off on the girls and the boys.”

Howard was a member of the The Daily Independent’s cross country and track All-Area Team every year she competed at Ashland and was named Runner of the Year in cross country three straight seasons. Howard’s times have continually improved and she said her teammates push her every day to get better, including former Ashland runner Mary Alice Thornburg, who held her own share of racing titles.  

“I had teammates like I never had before,” Howard said. “Workouts by coach Caudill and coach (Chris) Bruner were planned out. They know what they are doing. They know if I need speed or hill workouts. It all comes together and helps me with my times.”

“Practices were just more fun,” she added. “It’s great to have a whole team that knows it can be successful and we knew what it would take. It gives you something bigger to run for. It’s not just yourself anymore. You have a whole group of people counting on you.”

Howard said she has more goals to achieve, but the Kittens’ track season was canceled due to the pandemic. The area’s top runner in the 3200 meters and a state championship contender had hopes to run in the Dream Mile, a prestigious event in Louisville, this year.

At time Howard didn’t realize it, but her final high school race was one of her best performances. She finished second in the Class 2A cross country state championship at the Kentucky Horse Park last fall.  

“I am thankful that I got to end my racing career with that race,” Howard said. “I was super nervous for that race like always. All the other races are practice for this one big race. That race meant a lot to me because all the races I had won and lost built me up to compete in this one race. Although I didn’t win, I felt proud. I trained hard for it and did the best that I could do.”

Earning the big Bucs

Bekah Howard’s biggest goal was running in college. Her performance on the grandest stages garnered the interest of several high-level programs. Howard and her father visited four Division I universities from North Carolina to Illinois.

Howard had eyes to return to the Bowling Green area and attend Western Kentucky. Dad was always willing to volunteer his valuable advice on preparing for college life.

“I wanted to run in college since I was little,” Bekah Howard said. “He encouraged me to keep my options open. In the beginning, I really wanted to go to WKU because most of my old friends were going to go there. He wanted me to look everywhere. This is an opportunity to go places we would never go.”

East Tennessee State was her final visit and Howard fell in love with the area and the campus instantly. After an informative chat with the director of cross country and track, George Watts, Howard felt she was in the right place. She plans on increasing her mileage during summer workouts to prepare her for the next level.  

“I told (Watts) I hadn’t run many miles,” Howard said. “I was nervous that would be a problem. I know in college they run a lot more than I run now. We discussed his thoughts on that, training as a whole and what I needed to change or keep the same. My little sister and my dad were with me. We talked for a long time. It was a good conversation. I felt comfortable and trust him as my coach.”

Watts coached at Tennessee before he arrived in Johnson City, according to Sean Howard. Her father also complimented the Buccaneers’ training facilities. Her primary coach will be Catherine Layne, who holds every running record at ETSU and missed qualifying for the Olympic trails by one spot.

“She is going to be around quality people that really have knowledge and love of the sport,” Sean Howard said. “The classwork comes first. She is not going to make a living off running. It’s going to be something that gives her a lot of pleasure at times and lets her experience things that she may not otherwise.”

Bekah Howard said she is ready to get to work. She signed her letter of intent in her dad’s office and will also keep her options open when she chooses a major.

Staying the course

Bekah Howard and the Kittens were hoping to win a sixth straight region track title this spring. She has achieved success on the track and the state’s biggest races. That determination she runs with every day will add to an improving Buccaneers running program. The ETSU cross country team won an event last year and finished no lower than seventh until the NCAA South Regional last fall.

“I’m not really upset about school and I don’t care about missing prom,” Howard said, “but the track season did make me sad. Finishing my cross country races, I never thought at the time that it would be my last high school race. The meets were the fun part.”

Caudill knew early on that Howard had all the characteristics of a top-level runner. Those attributes will serve her well competing in college.

“I can always tell when a runner hits the highest gear,” Caudill said. “I’ve probably had 10 to 12 runners who have hit that in their career and that’s when I believe they are putting the best effort in and they are getting their truest potential out of their abilities. After that sophomore year, I knew that Bekah had it.”

“She had a teammate, Mary Alice, that would push her,” he added. “Her junior and senior year, we looked to put her against the best competition. We put her in opportunities to be pushed and challenged.”

Sean Howard said his daughter thought she could win every race she entered. That belief came to fruition on many occasions, but it never stopped her from wanting to improve. She never became arrogant and always made sure she was a great teammate.

“She is so incredibly humble,” Sean Howard said. “She wouldn’t tell you half the things that I have told you unless you asked her and then you still had to drag it out of her. She was never cocky. She wanted to win and that was the way she approached every race.”

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