Despite the exhaustion, Bussjager still enjoyed running the Peachtree. And the accomplishment of finishing the world’s largest 10K in downtown Atlanta eventually sparked her interest in being a cross country runner.
Once Bussjager joined Walton’s junior varsity team at the beginning of her freshman year, little did she know that she would become a Class AAAAAA individual state champion two years later.
Bussjager’s victory at the state meet in Carrollton — with a time of 19 minutes, 4.70 seconds — came as a surprise to some — and even to herself — because she was not a front-of-the-pack runner at first.
“I really didn’t think I would be anywhere close (to winning state),” said Bussjager, the 2013 Marietta Daily Journal Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.
As Walton coach Travis Gower remembered, his first impression of Bussjager wasn’t that of an individual state champion. When she did her first time trial, Gower said he thought Bussjager was “fine, but nothing special.”
Though Bussjager was promoted to the varsity roster near the end of Walton’s 2011 state championship season, it was as a sophomore when she started taking steps toward becoming the state’s top runner.
Bussjager increased both her speed and endurance last year by working out and competing with more experienced teammate Alexa Womack, who’s now running at Clemson. Although Bussjager found herself chasing Womack at the end of races, her primary goal was just keeping pace.
The teammates also worked out during track season last spring, training and running stadiums steps together.
“I just followed in her footsteps and tried to do everything that (Womack) did,” Bussjager said. “She was a perfect example and a really great leader, and she helped me the whole way.”
One of Bussjager’s bigger challenges going into the 2013 season was not having Womack around to push her in races. Bussjager said she had to adjust to working out on her own, but she eventually managed.
When the county meet approached, Bussjager’s times were dropping below 19 minutes.
“The willingness to take risks and try to get to that next level was one of things I worried about,” Gower said. “She went with it and took it to next level.”
In September, Bussjager clocked in with a second-place time of 18:46.08 at the Alligator Lake Invitational in Lake City, Fla. She then finished 10th in 18:24.48 at the Florida State Invitational and won the Region 5AAAAAA meet with a time of 18:19.80 at Boling Park in Canton.
Though, Bussjager couldn’t get below 19-minute mark on the hilly state meet course in Carrollton, she came close. She was pushed along by Marietta’s Mary Jeanne Assinzo and Brookwood’s Lauren Brennan, who went on to finish second and third, respectively.
Bussjager managed to use the hills to her advantage during the third mile, keeping her adversaries at a safe distance.
“I really like to use the hills to my advantage during a race,” Bussjager said. “My coach taught me how to use it as a race strategy, and that really helped me.”