Both body and mind races for this Belmont senior

Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at 10:33pm

Brittany Thune’s mind races at the possibilities for the future, just as it would for any 22-year-old who’s intelligent, engaging and accustomed to achievement.

In her particular case, the options, generally speaking, include one of her two primary fields of study — business (her major) or political science (her minor) — and her passion — music — which was part of the reason she came to Nashville four years ago.

Often, she punctuates thoughts of what’s to come with: “We’ll see. I don’t know.”

But when the gun sounds to start a cross country race, the brain of the Belmont senior becomes crystal clear.

“When I’m really, really racing; when I’m out there really doing my best, I don’t know what goes through my head, honestly,” she said. “You’re so focused, I don’t even think you think about anything (except) ‘what’s going on right now?’ You have to be aware of the people around you.

“It’s just really being focused and having a vision of what you’re striving for.”

That focus helped carry her this fall to the Atlantic Sun Conference’s individual title and Runner of the Year award, both for the second straight year. In 2006, she was the A-Sun Freshman of the Year.

More recently she set her sights on a spot in the NCAA Championship, which will be run today in Terre Haute, Ind. At the NCAA South Regional at Tuscaloosa, Ala., she finished 16th in a career-best time of 20:52.80 for a 6K but came up just short of her goal.

The final individual qualifier from the field was 18 seconds ahead of her.

“I broke 21 minutes, which I definitely wanted to do,” she said. “But it was kind of bittersweet because I also wanted to qualify for the NCAA championship. There was a lot of talent there.”

A different kind of race

For all of their collective talent, it’s likely that few, if any, of the other 169 runners in the field that day had the kind of race experience — off the course, that is — Thune did.

She is a daughter of South Dakota Senator John Thune, considered by many a rising star on the national scene and a potential Presidential candidate in the future.

As such, she played a significant role in his groundbreaking 2004 run for office, when he unseated Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in a hotly contested and closely watched contest. It was the first time in 52 years a Senate party leader lost a reelection bid.

Brittany, along with her sister Larissa, starred in a series of commercials, which successfully portrayed their father as a strong, sensible and compassionate family man and convinced voters that those same characteristics would serve him well in Washington D.C.

“That was a big hit among South Dakota voters,” she said of the spots. “We travel with him and help him as much as we can. We work as a family.”

Given that, as of July 2008, the population of South Dakota was 804,194 or roughly 30 percent more than Nashville alone, the commercials and her father’s career have made Thune something of a celebrity in her home state.

Plus, the first-hand exposure to politics made her think that she might eventually trade in her running shoes for her own run at public office.

“There’s not a lot of people who get the experiences that I’ve had,” she said. “At the same time, there’s challenges and rough parts. People aren’t very nice to you, like people who don’t like my dad and his politics.

“I’ve thought about it. Sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh, do I want to follow in my father’s footsteps or do I want to try something new?’ At the same time, I find I have a lot of the same characteristics he does. We’ll see. I don’t know.”

Sweet sounds

Although she chose Belmont, partially because she wanted to be part of a competitive cross country/track program it actually was something altogether different that influenced her decision to come to Nashville from her hometown of Sioux Falls.

It was music.

Thune learned to play piano when she was 10 years old, and by the time she was in high school, she had started to write songs. In the last year, with the help of the Web site, she taught herself to play guitar.

“I just started practicing and just kept playing and playing. I’m obviously not a great guitar player because I’ve only been doing it for a year, but it’s kind of cool,” she said. “It’s cool to see how much I’ve progressed just from practicing so much.”

Given the campus’ proximity to Music Row and an alumni base that includes the likes of Brad Paisley, Melinda Doolittle, Pam Tillis, Lee Ann Womack, Trisha Yearwood and many others, the school offered the perfect opportunity to gain exposure to that industry.

As it turned out, her focus on running limited her pursuit of first-hand experience in the music business, at least for now.

“I haven’t completely jumped in to that, but it’s always kind of been in the back of my mind to see if I want to explore that as well because I do love to write,” she said. “I started in high school and then especially throughout college I just, with different experiences, started writing, and I really love that.

“When I got into running I ‘really’ got into running so I haven’t done music as much as I thought I would do. So we’ll see, I don’t know.” 

Moving on

Just as she has done with the guitar, Thune has made consistent improvement with her running.

This was the fourth straight year she competed in an NCAA regional cross country race, and each of the past three her finish was better than the previous one. Her 2009 time was 50 seconds faster than she ran in 2008.

Similarly, she finished eighth in her first conference championship race, then improved to third and won it each of the next two years, the last of which she accomplished in the fastest 5K time of her career.

“You just feel so … it’s a tough sport,” she said. “You do a lot of work, and everybody does. It sure is satisfying to cross that line and know that you did your best.”

Back in the spring, she qualified for a track and field regional for the first time when she took second in the 5,000 meters at the conference championship meet.

She also is a two-time conference all-academic honoree with a GPA just under 4.0 who has been a part of three A-Sun championship teams in cross country, and two runner-up teams in track and field.

All that remains of her running career is one more season of track and field, beginning with indoor events this winter and culminating with — if she can qualify — the NCAA outdoor championships, June 9-12 at Oregon.

“I’m excited about track season,” she said. “You always have to keep looking ahead to the next thing.”

Beyond track season, there’s no telling what that might be. But we’ll see.