FOXBOROUGH — Liz Holmes didn’t have a whole lot of fun this winter.
After making a splash on the Massachusetts high school running scene as a Foxborough High School freshman, and quitting soccer last fall in favor of being coached by her mother in cross-country, and taking the Hockomock League girls’ cross-country title in October as a sophomore, she seemed primed for another big track season.
But that Oct. 28 Hockomock meet — a 3.1-mile race she won in 18:39.15, a full 40 seconds ahead of second-place Shelby Cuddeback of Attleboro — is also her most recent. She missed the entire indoor track season with a stress reaction in her left femur.
“It was tough to handle,” said Holmes, sitting in the bleachers at Ahern Middle School on a recent warm-but-windy afternoon, “but in the end it just makes you a smarter runner. It’s helpful, in some ways. You just learn from it.”
Three weeks into her training for the outdoor season, Holmes is cautiously optimistic, slowly building intensity in her training while also playing it smart. She doesn’t know what, exactly, caused her injury in the first place, but she knows one thing for sure: She doesn’t want to experience it again.
It’s hard to pinpoint a date when things went downhill, but Holmes said she ran through pain throughout the fall. After snagging the Hockomock title that October day, she made what could be the most important decision of her young running career: “Shut it down.”
Some rest, she hoped, would rid her of the pain in her hip and knee. Then an MRI in late November yielded bad news.
‘It was tough to handle, but in the end it just makes you a smarter runner . . . You just learn from it.’
The first week of indoor track, when her mother and Foxborough’s long-distance running coach, Ellen Gallagher , came to a practice with the results, Holmes got the diagnosis: a stress reaction, essentially a less severe form of a stress fracture, in her thigh bone.
In a way, she got lucky — a full-blown stress fracture could have kept her out a year, Gallagher said — but her season was over before it even began.
“I started to cry,” Holmes said, laughing about it almost four months later. “It was so upsetting because it didn’t hurt to walk, so I was really confused. How could a stress [reaction] not hurt? In no way did I ever expect it.”
So instead of competing, she made the best of her downtime. She attended most practices and meets to support the Warriors, as well as pass along tips on various stretches and exercises she learned during physical therapy.
“She shared her experience with people,” Gallagher said. “And I think that helped her feel like she was adding value even if she couldn’t be out there running.”
However disappointing the injury was at first, Holmes found the silver lining. She had been running competitively for nearly a year when injury forced her out of action, and whether or not she wanted to admit it then, she was worn down.
“Even though it wasn’t the break I would’ve liked, it was good to have a break,” Holmes said. “It gave me time to step back and watch all the races and cheer on my teammates. To run one race after another, it gets tiring.”
With a newfound emphasis on health, Holmes is running an average of 20-25 miles per week, on grass as often as possible. She will slowly increase her mileage, though probably not past 35 per week.
There are still some mental hurdles to overcome, though. How much is too much? Should she tone it down? Take days off? Any hint of soreness can set off a momentary panic.
She’s not alone in those worries.
“We told her to take it slow,” said Foxborough track coach Myles Eldridge . “No reason to rush. . . . You just have to get through’’ the initial soreness of starting to train again, “and she knows that. I think she’s a lot more comfortable now.”
Whether Holmes can catch up to where she was as a freshman remains to be seen. She set the bar pretty high, concluding her indoor season by winning the freshmen girls’ mile last March at the New Balance Indoor National Championships in 5:02.49.
She followed that up with a 4:54.24 — her personal best — performance in the 1,600 at the prestigious Loucks Games in White Plains, N.Y., last May.
Two weeks later she won the state Division 3 girls’ mile, and finished second in the All-State mile 10 days after that.
Despite her standing as one of the top runners in Massachusetts, this season is a bit of a mystery to everyone involved. Holmes’ main objective is to keep tabs on her workout mileage, unlike last year.
Eldridge, acknowledging that running a sub 5-minute mile after a season off would be difficult, thinks Holmes could blossom if she has one strong race that gets her over all the mental hurdles.
Gallagher, herself a former Bridgewater-Raynham Regional and Harvard standout, has more concrete hopes.
“I expect her to match or exceed her fastest time,” she said bluntly. “That’s realistic. She’s stronger.”
Holmes, though, is just happy to be back. It had been more than six months since she ran without pain.
“I don’t have that many high expectations’’ for this spring, Holmes said. “I’m hoping I can come back and be stronger.
“It’s weird to run and like it. I’ve always liked running, but to not feel any pain feels good.”Tim Healey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @timbhealey.