WASHINGTON TWP. (Morris) _ The Water Warrior 5K held on Saturday, Aug. 30 was a laid-back event, an opportunity to raise funds for a worthwhile cause.
West Morris High School junior Sierra Castaneda went into the race, which boasted 700-plus runners and walkers who traversed the streets of Morristown, with a light heart. She viewed it as a warmup for the upcoming cross country season and a chance to be with her teammates and coach Jay Herrigel.
Somewhere along the way, Castaneda turned it up. She went into overdrive and finished first overall in a time of 19:56.4. Morristown sophomore Caleb Chiarello was second in 20:08.44.
"I just went to have fun. I wasn't thinking of it as a race," Castaneda said. "The competitiveness kicked in. I was in the moment."
Castaneda, 10th at the Meet of Champions last fall, figures to experience plenty more victories this season. As a sophomore running cross country for the first time, she was still learning. Castaneda, though, was in stellar company with Kylene Cochrane (UPenn) and Brennan Sharkey (Bucknell) on the team.
"Sierra was kind of in the shadows," Herrigel said. "Now she's coming into the spotlight."
Castaneda, also an exceptional swimmer, said she misses Cochrane and Sharkey "because they made me push myself."
"Ky and Brennan never gave up," Castaneda recalled. "They never stopped a workout. Last year, I'd see them on the trails in the distance. It's tough that they're not around. I look for them and they're not there. Thinking of them gets me through."
According to Herrigel, Castaneda balked when he asked her to join the cross country squad after she showed promise during spring track as a freshman.
"It didn't seem like Sierra was interested," Herrigel said. "She was on the fence. I told her I'd work with her and her swimming schedule. I thought she had a lot of potential. Sierra really benefited from having Kylene and Brennan around."
Four days after the Water Warrior 5K, sponsored by the Liquid Church of New Jersey for the purpose of raising money for clean-water projects in countries like Haiti and Africa, Herrigel remained in awe of Castaneda's performance.
"Sierra did very well," he said. "I've had many hard workers over the years but she brings it to the next level."
That work ethic became more and more evident as the fall of 2013 wore on. Castaneda was third at sectionals and sixth in Group III. At the Foot Locker Regional, she was the 22nd girl across the line.
Despite all of her success in cross country, Castaneda is equally devoted to swimming. She swims the 500 freestyle and 200IM for West Morris and the 500 freestyle and 400IM for her club team.
Her hectic schedule has caused her to become an expert at time management. Getting from destination to destination is important as is staying healthy and having fun.
On a typical day, Castaneda will attend cross country practice until 5 p.m. Her mother then picks her up for the 25-minute ride to Centenary in Hackettstown, where swim practice is held. After several hours in the pool, Castaneda goes home and begins her homework. She makes her best effort to go to bed by 11 p.m.
"That sometimes doesn't happen," she said.
Four hours of running and swimming are tough on Castaneda's legs yet she perseveres.
"Swimming gives me endurance," she said. "I think running and swimming go hand in hand. I really, really like both sports. I'm passionate about them."
Castaneda began swimming when she was 9 years old. She took part in track and field in middle school. Deciding which sport to pursue in college will be a challenge.
"Right now, I don't know," Castaneda said. "This school year will determine what I do. It's good that running became an option. I do enjoy it but I can't imagine picking just one."