Sep. 24—Competing in her first high school cross-country race on Saturday at Hereford High School, Middletown junior Haille Otto was understandably struggling.
Otto is a sprinter — she won a state title with the Knights’ 4×400 relay team in June — who only took up cross-country to keep in shape for track.
She normally runs no more than 400 meters, and here she was trying to tackle Hereford’s challenging three-mile course, replete with hills and the dreaded dip, at the Bull Run Invitational.
“It was so hard. I have never experienced anything like that before,” she said. “I did a little bit of walking, to be honest.”
No one would dare criticize Otto for one of the breaks from running she took during the race.
Around the 2.5 mile mark, Otto stopped competing to aid a Northern of Calvert County runner.
“She kind of like passed out, she was down,” Otto said. “She was kind of in this ditch and her foot was stuck, and she couldn’t get out, she kept falling over.”
With the distressed runner’s arm around her neck, Otto helped move the girl to a clearing. A photograph of Otto doing this was snapped by a bystander and posted on Facebook, where a slew of people expressed their admiration for Otto’s spontaneous act of sportsmanship. The photo has been shared more than 33,000 times on Facebook.
“It was her first cross-country race,” Knights coach Alan Caldwell said. “It’s kind of tough to outdo that going forward.
“She’s probably just going to retire at this point,” he added with a laugh.
Given her lack of cross-country experience, Otto wasn’t a contender in Saturday’s race. And when she saw a runner who was down, she empathized.
“I just do cross-country to get in shape for track, I don’t really care about my times that much,” she said. “I would be so upset if I was in that situation, so I thought I’d help her out.”
While not commonplace, instances of runners stopping to help another competitor in a race have occurred. But no matter how many times it happens, such a selfless act tends to be surprising, although Caldwell wasn’t the least bit shocked to see Otto do it.
“She’s awesome, and it really is who she is,” he said. “It’s her nature.”
Long before he coached her in high school, Caldwell was Otto’s coach in the Middletown Knight Striders youth running program, which serves kids ages 4 to 14.
“She was the mother hen in seventh grade,” Caldwell said. “She had all the gaggle of little third, fourth and fifth graders following her around.”
Other coaches eventually told Caldwell what Otto had done for the runner, and social media — along with the photo — provided compelling details.
“I guess it didn’t really get out that I had actually helped her move and stuff until after, when that lady posted that on Facebook,” Otto said.
And once something so powerful hits social media, it spreads quickly.
“My phone was blowing up on Saturday, including the picture of the girl that she picked up,” Caldwell said.
Funny thing is, that picture might not have occurred if not for another photo.
Caldwell and the other three girls who ran on the Knights’ state champion 4×400 relay showed up at school one day to get their picture taken so it could be hung up in Middletown High.
“And it was at the same time as cross-country practice, and Coach Caldwell kind of convinced us [to try cross-country],” Otto said. “I was just like, ‘Yeah, I guess I’ll do it.'”
Aside from keeping in shape for track, her goals are appropriately modest for someone with scant experience in a sport that can be physically and mentally taxing for even the most seasoned veterans.
“My main goal in cross-country is just to run a 5K without stopping to take a walk,” she said.
But no matter how many distance races she completes without breaking stride or how many track titles she wins, stopping to help a distressed competitor will always be a part of Otto’s legacy as a runner.