Reese Dalton and Maddie Gardiner first met as middle school students on the Covenant cross country team.
They have been inseparable ever since and have blossomed into two of the top distance runners in Central Virginia. The two juniors have not only flourished as teammates, but have forged a friendship that is unlike any other.
“Without each other, I don’t think either of us would be where or who we are today,” Dalton said. “Having a teammate who you can constantly train with and talk to is such a blessing, especially when that person is your best friend. I think we always bring out the best in each other, whether it’s an easy run, long run, workout, on the track or out on the cross country course. There’s definitely some days where one of us really doesn’t feel like waking up at 5 a.m. to tackle a hard track workout, but having your best friend there to go through it with you is an amazing feeling.”
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Last week, Gardiner bested a field of more than 200 runners to claim medalist honors (11:01) at the prestigious Ragged Mountain Cup two-mile relay race at Panorama Farms, just ahead of Western Albemarle’s Sadie Adams (11:18) and Dalton (11:26).
“My favorite course is Panorama Farms. I have competed there a number of times given that we go there multiple times a season,” Gardiner said. “I have had my share of ups and downs on that course, but I still find it special for its beauty and challenge.”
Last fall, Gardiner and Dalton got their first taste of the Ragged Mountain Cup. Because Covenant didn’t have a four-person team at the time, the duo competed in the open division race, finishing first and second, respectively.
Later in the season, the duo returned to Panaroma to compete in the Albemarle Invitational. Gardiner led for most of the race before a fall less than 200 yards from the finish ended her race.
This fall, the Eagles have a full varsity squad and finished third overall in the girls division at the Ragged Mountain Cup, which was the highlight of the event for the both Gardiner and Dalton.
“It was great to compete in the relay as this was the first time we have been able to field a team,” Gardiner said. “It meant as much to come in third as a team as it did to come in first individually. Last year’s Albemarle Invitational was a hard day for me, but taught me a lot about running strategy and handling emotions on the course.”
A few days after the Ragged Mountain Cup, Dalton posted the best time in Virginia this season (17:59.7) while capturing top honors at Pole Green Invitational in Mechanicsville, just head of Gardiner (18:28.7) Dalton’s time ranked fourth all-time on the historic course at Pole Green Park.
“Pole Green is always usually our team’s first 5K of the season, so come race time, I think everyone is just excited and eager to compete again, which is definitely the case for Maddie and I,” Dalton said. “Having Maddie to race with definitely helps a lot, because together we work at trying not to go out too fast and we push each other when the course gets hilly or hard.”
Despite their success, Dalton and Gardiner are both relatively new to the sport of cross country. Dalton played lacrosse, basketball, tennis and swam before deciding to join her older sister, Ella, on the cross country team. Gardiner was introduced to the sport the same year after failing to make her travel soccer team.
The move has proved beneficial to both athletes.
“I met Maddie and Reese a little over four years ago, started working with them about three years ago and in that time it has been so fun and fulfilling to watch them develop as athletes and grow as people,” Covenant cross country coach Ann Dunn said. “The special thing about these girls is that they have each other to thank for their successes thus far.”
Dunn said both runners are tireless workers and are always searching for ways to improve. In a sport where it’s hard to train alone at a high level, Gardiner and Dalton are not just training partners and teammates, but best friends as well.
“In the past few years, the girls have been disciplined and stayed consistent in training,” Dunn said. “They have worked on all parts of their game: the fundamentals, stamina, strength, nutrition, sleep, recovery, mental skills, you name it. This past year, I have noticed all of these pieces coming together as they are physically maturing and the result is beautiful and impressive running.”
“Reese and I are best friends,” she said. “Whether in the school hallways or on the streets running, you’ll probably find us together. We have the same humor, which makes every practice and bus ride so fun. Reese is one of the hardest workers I know. She willingly pushes herself, both academically and athletically, which makes me want to do the same. She is also exceedingly positive, so when I’m feeling like I cannot get through a workout, she always is there to tell me I can. We are also able to push each other during workouts, which contributes largely to both of our training.”
While both Dalton and Gardiner are elite runners, their approaches are very different. Gardiner is a more cerebral runner that loves to put pressure on her competitors with her relentless drive to grind out results. Dalton, meanwhile, likes to push the pace.
“I love tempo runs and Reese likes more speed stuff, so when doing these different types of workouts, we are able to push and support each other,” Gardiner explained. “When competing at events together, not only are we able to push each other during it but joking around during the warm up keeps the sport light and fun.”
Dalton agreed and admits they are able to push one another when races get hard or uncomfortable.
“I think Maddie and I try to prioritize being best friends before anything else, including running,” Dalton said. “Maddie has such a hard and unending work ethic and the determination to tackle any workout or run to the best of her ability. She cares and puts time into the little things that running has to offer. Maddie spends a lot of time setting herself up for success. She always prioritizes fueling correctly and getting enough sleep so that she is able to run at her best. Seeing the effort she puts into the little things definitely motivates me in those things as well.”
The results speak for themselves.
Last fall, Gardiner went undefeated in the Blue Ridge Conference and captured the conference and VISAA Division II individual state titles. The 2021 Virginia Gatorade Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year gained national attention when she finished third at the Eastbay South Regionals and qualified for the Eastbay Nationals in San Diego.
“I went into last season with no expectations, so it was special to end my season on the national stage in San Diego,” Gardiner said. “It was an exciting experience to meet runners from all over the country and be energized by our shared love of running. Sometimes it feels like there is pressure to perform, but that is why Coach [Dunn] emphasizes to always come back to our love for the sport. I look forward to this season and would love to return to California. It would be even better to experience it with Reese.”
Dalton’s sophomore season was just as memorable. An all-conference and all-state performer, she finished second to Gardiner at the conference and state meets and placed 16th overall at the Eastbay South Regionals, posting her best time by more than 40 seconds.
During the outdoor track and field season, Dalton won the state championship in the 800 meters and was runner-up to Gardiner in the 3,200. That success has continued this fall with two big performances to start the season.
“It’s definitely been an amazing experience and I’m very blessed to have the best teammates and coach to push and guide me,” Dalton said. “Racing against the best in the country is definitely an amazing opportunity and just to compete against other girls my age is just really cool. I think we all support each other, whether we are racing against one another or not.”
Gardiner credits her increased work with Dunn and Dalton during the pandemic for helping springboard her love of running.
“It took the pandemic for me to take myself seriously,” she said. “There was a lot going on and running became my outlet. Distance running is largely cause and effect. I have always found comfort in being able to work hard and then see the results. Nevertheless, growth and flexibility are still crucial aspects of the sport that I am working on. I have had plenty of races I’ve had a hard time letting go.”
“I think cross country allows you to push yourself and see what you’re capable of, which is really cool,” she said. “I love pushing myself in workouts and races and when you’re able to do it with teammates, it make it really fun. I also love the team aspect of cross country and the way meets are scored. It always makes races more exciting.”
When they aren’t racking up blue ribbons for Covenant, the duo likes to spend time with family and friends.
Dalton enjoys camping trips to the beach or lake with her three siblings and three dogs. She was a member of Covenant’s state runner-up basketball team last winter and enjoys watching and listening to music, particularly signing Disney duets with her sister. Academically, she enjoys math and science and expanded her horizons this fall by taking psychology.
Gardiner is a self-proclaimed “foodie” and will take any opportunity to try a new restaurant or recipe. Her favorite class is psychology and literature and loves the feeling of getting lost in a good book, especially a mystery, in her down time.
They both hope to continue their running careers at the college level. Gardiner hopes to pursue a liberal arts degree in either journalism or writing. Dalton admits her or career aspirations are still up in the air, but lately has been intrigued by the medicine field, particularly sports medicine because athletics play such a big part in her life.
Regardless of where their paths lead, the two teammates will always be each other’s biggest supporters.
“I have had Reese in my life since I started running competitively and she has gotten me through all the ups and downs,” Gardiner said. “I truly do not know what I would do without her. I am so blessed to have someone in my life that brings out the best in me, both emotionally and physically. I feel like it is really unique to have someone that serves both as your best friend and training partner, but I would not want it any other way.”