The Buffalo News' Runners of the Year have something in common besides terrific foot speed. They both started their high school careers in other sports.
John Flor of Albion and Elizabeth Schultz of Buffalo have overcome slightly late starts to become standouts in local running. They were both runaway victors in the 12-race competition, which celebrated its 20th year in 2006. Flor, 23, won four races, while Schultz, 26, won two and finished in the top five in seven others.
Schultz was a senior at West Seneca West when the running bug slowly bit.
"I started in high school in a minimal way," she said. "I was in track. I was a middle-distance runner, nothing very serious. . . . I had been on the volleyball team for five years."
After high school graduation, Schultz headed to Erie Community College's city campus to continue her education.
"I was in the Flickinger Center, and I noticed the track team was working out," she said. "I said to the coach, 'What's the longest distance in track?' It was 5K for indoor, 10K for outdoor. So I ran track and cross country. I was the only distance runner, and I was the only female cross country runner."
Schultz did quite well at ECC, winning JUCO All-American honors, and got a surprise call from a coach at Mount Olive College in North Carolina, a Division II school.
"I was very excited to have the opportunity," she said. "I felt so blessed. Without the scholarship I wouldn't have been able to go to a private college. There were 600 students there."
Schultz thrived in her new college's surroundings, winning two cross country conference championships and reaching the NCAA national finals twice (2002 and 2003). In fact, this year she was named to the all-time cross country team for the Carolinas-Virginia Athletic Conference (1995-2006).
Meanwhile, Flor was a junior at Albion High School when he received a tip to make himself a better basketball player.
"The assistant basketball coach suggested I try out for cross country to get in shape," Flor said. "I didn't run the whole summer. We ran for 30 minutes the first day, and I thought that was long."
But Flor adapted. In fact, he finished third in the sectionals and qualified for the states. Flor said goodbye to baseball, another sport in which he participated, the following spring and headed for the track.
After graduation, Flor spent two years running at Alfred State, and then headed to the University at Buffalo for two more years. After a slow start, his career went forward in 2004-05.
"My senior year I had some breakthrough races," he said. "I don't know what it was. Everyone was really surprised when I came back that I was in the front."
Both runners have managed to thrive in the years after college competition. Schultz has moved into the real world and has two jobs. She is a dietitian at St. Joseph's Hospital in Cheektowaga, and also sells footwear at Dick's Sporting Goods in Cheektowaga.
"I am thankful to be a runner," she said. "I can be a runner for the rest of my life. If I played volleyball, I'd join a team. In Buffalo, we're so lucky. We have the most number of races by population in the country. I think it's great. I still have the motivation. I do miss college, but it's nice to be able to continue running. It's a win-win. I love it and I give something back [by entering races that benefit charities]. I can contribute in that way."
Flor is studying civil engineering at UB and will finish up next summer. In the meantime, he's running with the Genesee Valley Harriers, which consists mostly of Rochester-area runners.
"We just got back from [last week's USATF National Club Cross Country Championships] in San Francisco," he said. "The team ran really well. We took 12th out of 42. That's the best ever for GVH. . . . I didn't have the best race. It had been a long season. I'm taking time off now. I was kind of burned out."
While the champs rest up for next season, they'll soon be able to look at their trophies for winning The News' competition, which will be presented early next year.
"Overall, I had a decent season," Flor said. "The only thing I wanted to do well in and didn't was the Turkey Trot [he finished fifth]."
"It's nice to be recognized," Schultz said. "I get a lot of support of family and friends. It's so nice to do something that people can be proud of you."