The position requires a certain dedication, a certain persistence. Even at less than 100 percent you give it your all, knowing that your finish will go a long way toward determining your team's place.
These were the realities for Cartersville's Roger Herrera and Woodland's Ashley Barrera, along with their Bartow County counterparts.
Unlike other county runners, though, Herrera and Barrera -- The Daily Tribune News All-County Cross Country Runners of the Year -- headed into the season as the best overall local runners. While their teammates were counting on them, rivals relished the opportunity to knock them off.
The two, however, elevated their teams throughout the 2011 season and each won their second Bartow County Championship -- a repeat win for Herrera, who won in 2010 as well.
Cartersville coach David Matherne noted that Herrera, the county's top newcomer as a sophomore last year, handled expectations well during his junior season.
"His consistency is impressive because there's a lot of pressure when you're a top guy," Matherne said. "You're expected to do well in every meet, and he pretty much did that. ... You have to be consistent in your preparation. You have to be consistently intense. He always ran to exhaust himself."
Herrera changed his offseason regimen entering his second year as a cross country runner. Instead of running 8 miles, he kicked it up a notch.
"He was doing some 10-, 11-milers, so that shows his dedication. He didn't even come to close to that last year," Matherne said.
The preparation seemed to be for naught early on as Herrera, fighting an injury, began the season with a 19-minute time.
"He got a little bit of a slow start; he started off actually in the 19s," Matherne acknowledged. "He got a slow start at Pickens, and he just continued to shave time off every meet, every week."
At the time of the Jesse Owens Classic in Oakville, Ala., on Oct. 1, Herrera had ascended to new heights with a personal record time of 17:07.
"He's matured the last couple of years and knows more about how to race and how to pick his points to [make his] move," Matherne said.
During the county meet at Gatewood Park, Herrera did not trouble himself with getting out to a huge lead, pacing himself the first couple of miles before going on to win by 45 seconds.
Matherne said it's hard to teach a runner everything he may encounter during a meet but Herrera, he said, is learning those things through experience, including when racing alongside a contender.
"If he's got another guy that he needs to try to beat or a group ... he knows better what to do with that," the coach said. "It's hard to equip a guy with all the different scenarios he might find in racing. He's a smart guy."
A serious student off the course, Herrera is well-liked by his teammates and grew into his role as a leader even more this season.
"He showed a little more leadership this year. He's surrounded by a bunch of juniors. They respect his talent, and he's also a good teammate," Matherne said. "He's humble. He's not flashy, from my perspective. He just takes care of business and then a lot of attention is paid to him because he does well."
Herrera has finished eighth twice at the Region 7-AAA meet -- two spots away from qualifying for the state meet as an individual -- while helping lead the Cartersville team to the state meet in his two years as a runner.
His coach thinks next season will be an all-important year for Herrera and a chance to take the next step.
"Next year will be an interesting year," said Matherne, whose team moves to Region 5-AAA. "I want to see him winning races next year and not just small meets, but bigger meets that will test [him].
"He got his PR down a little closer to 17 flat; he's smelling the 16s."
While Herrera hunts down a personal-best time in the 16-minute range, Barrera likely will turn her sights toward a time in the 19s -- a feat she has accomplished before.
It has been a couple years, however, since Barrera ran a 19:55 to win the Region 7-AAAA meet in 2009. Since then, the county champion has approached her personal record but seems to be a half-minute or so from breaking it -- her best time this season was a 20:23 at the Ridge Ferry Invitational, where she placed 10th.
"It was pretty good," Woodland coach Rob Forbes said of Barrera's season. "Her times were good. They are still not up to her freshman times, but she's working [hard]."
If not for a midseason knee injury, Forbes believes she may have had a much different outcome this season.
"I think she would have had a better year if she hadn't injured herself," Forbes said of Barrera's fall at a practice during the week leading up to the Cass-Cartersville Invitational on Oct. 4. "That kind of threw her off."
Still, her coach said, Barrera finished strong.
But even with a respectable showing at an ultra competitive region meet in late October -- 21:17, 29th place -- one can only wonder what could have happened without the midseason hiccup.
For a runner who has made it to the state meet before, Barrera should have plenty to fuel her as a senior after missing out on the trip to Carrollton in consecutive seasons.
"I know she does get disappointed when she doesn't do well," Forbes said of Barrera, whom he coaches in track and field. "This is the first year I've coached her in cross country. She knows she's gonna have to do a lot more training to have her best year next year.
"Next year we're gonna be in a new region, and she very well could qualify for state next year on her own," he added of Woodland's move to Region 5-AAAAA. "I think it's gonna be a lot more even playing field next year."
Forbes said it is not unusual for girls to take a step back after tremendous coming-out campaigns, though he does not believe that is what has happened to Barrera.
"It is hard to come by and it does happen to a lot of girls. They have really great freshman years and kind of go backward a little bit. She hasn't totally done that," he said.
Of his star junior runner, Forbes added, "She does have the possibility to have her best season ever."