COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Like all top-notch distance runners, Mary Reiser is constantly testing how far she can push the limits.
The South Carolina sophomore was a three-time team cross country MVP and also garnered All-County honors three times as a runner for St. Mary's High School in Annapolis, Md.
Knowing that she wanted leave the Mid-Atlantic region for a warmer climate and an institution that combined elite athletics and academics, Reiser turned to the University of South Carolina and recognized instantly it was the place for her.
"I looked at a lot of schools in the South," Reiser said. "I'm from Maryland and I wanted to go to a warner climate. South Carolina met my criteria for running and academics. When I was touring South Carolina and visited the Horseshoe, I fell in love with the campus. It's why I came here and I've always thought I made the right decision. I love everything about it."
In selecting South Carolina, Reiser chose to attend a school not historically known as a powerhouse distance program. The opportunity to compete for a Southeastern Conference institution with a strong commitment to its track and field program coupled with the opportunity to help revitalize the distance discipline was appealing to Reiser.
"I think, right now, we're heading in a positive direction," Reiser said. "We have a really strong group of girls and a solid group at practice beyond our top-five. A lot of people are working hard and working to improve. I know how hard we work at practice and how dedicated we are, and we have a great opportunity to be better as a team."
Reiser had a standout freshman year on the cross country course. She earned SEC All-Freshman Team honors and finished second on the team in six of the seven races in which she competed. She had a star performance for the Gamecocks at the SEC Championships last season and finished 29th overall at the NCAA Southeast Regional. In the classroom, she also earned a spot on the SEC First-Year Academic Honor Roll.
Reiser embraces the challenge of competing at the sport's highest level.
"In high school, I never competed on this big of a stage," Reiser said. "When I got to college, all of the competitions and meets were very new and that was very exciting to me. I am really happy to be here and to be on the team."
As impressive as Reiser's accomplishments were during last cross country season, it was during the outdoor track season when a fluke experience shaped her new outlook.
With Reiser specializing primarily in the 3,000- and 5,000-meter races throughout her first collegiate track and field season, her coach, Andrew Allden, felt his pupil could be successful at the grueling 10,000-meter event at the SEC Outdoor Championships in Lexington last May.
"I was afraid of the 10K, but my coach wanted me to run it at the SEC Championships," Reiser said. "By the time the race came around, I was really invested in it."
Reiser was ready for the race when the starter's gun went off, but not for what transpired shortly after.
"Between miles one and two, I was running in a huge pack," Reiser said. "My foot got stuck and my shoe came off. One the next lap, someone clipped my ankle and my sock came off. I kept going because I was so invested in the race."
It would have been easy for Reiser to drop out of the race after that occurrence. Not only was she without her sock and shoe, but she was also running her first collegiate 10K. But to understand Reiser at the core would be to understand that such a misfortune would only fuel her desire to succeed.
"I was pretty nervous that someone was going to step on my foot and I wanted to stop because it was so painful, but that didn't happen," she said. "I was so invested that I was not going to stop. I got to the last 200 meters and saw that my time was just a little over 35 minutes. I sprinted and remember finishing, and I collapsed on all fours. It was painful, but the feeling of accomplishment was incredible."
Reiser finished 12th overall in the race and clocked a time of 35:42.96 - good for third-fastest in South Carolina school history.
"The SEC is one of the most competitive conferences and the athletes are so talented," Reiser said. "If you do something in the SEC, I feel like it's a real accomplishment."
Reiser left Lexington with a time and finish in which she could take great pride. But it was the lesson she learned from her experience over the course of those 10,000 meters that will stay with her forever.
"I learned that I'm a lot tougher than I think," Reiser said. "I look back to it a lot when I'm doing workouts and they're getting hard. I think about how I ran a 10K without a shoe on. In the moment, it felt very natural to keep going. After I finished the race, people said 'Wow,' and that's kind of when it hit me."