ATLANTA — Katharine Showalter runs to the beat of her own drummer.

Most cross country competitors are understandably exhausted after completing a 5,000-meter race, stumbling across the finish line, spent.

On the other hand, Showalter has enough energy, even after winning a race, to literally cartwheel across the finish line. That’s exactly what the Georgia State senior did after finishing in first-place at the 2012 Sun Belt championship on Oct. 27.

After completing the 5K course in a time of 17:41, Showalter performed the unexpected maneuver more likely to be seen at a gymnastics competition than a cross country meet.

“I told myself, if I win the race, I’ll cartwheel at the end to give myself a little motivation,” said Showalter. “Cross country is cool, but sometimes it needs a little spice. Doing goofy things motivates me.”

As if she needed more motivation, the Atlanta native led the Panthers to their first Sun Belt crown and most recent women’s cross country conference title since 2000.

“I’m not surprised by the success of the team,” said GSU Head Coach and 2012 Sun Belt Coach of the Year Chris England. “Since day one, our goal has been to win the Sun Belt championship. I knew they could do it. They knew they could do it. It was just a matter executing on race day.”

Despite these high expectations, Showalter doesn’t need any unconventional or goofy method to help her prepare for a meet.

“Before the race, I usually feel calm and confident,” she said. “I like to push myself in practice to prove that I can do it during a race. At the conference meet, I kept telling myself that they didn’t have anything on me.”

Led by Showalter in all seven meets this season, the women’s cross country team has registered five team victories and risen to a No. 8 ranking in the South Region polls.

In addition to the team championship, Showalter was named the Sun Belt Runner of the Year and a member of the All-Conference First Team. These accolades come as the culmination of a season that saw the senior rack up five conference Runner of the Week honors.

Part of her success this year stems from her dedication at practices, hard work in the weight room and commitment to improving her body composition.

“It makes a big difference,” Showalter said. “I have a feeling that most schools don’t emphasize weights as much because we’re runners, but we can’t be weak runners. I also worked closely with the sports nutritionist to change my body composition during the season.”

These areas have helped Showalter gradually improve on her finishes in the conference meets from year to year. In her first season at Georgia State, she finished 90th at the CAA meet; then she came in 32nd as a sophomore before earning All-CAA honors by placing 11th place last season.

“She was getting by on a lot of talent,” said England. “But she wouldn’t even be tired at the end of practice and wasn’t pushing herself to her full potential. I think after last cross country season, she realized how much better she could be and she began to refocus her energies to be more productive.”

That renewed focus and drive led to a strong performance during the 2012 track and field season. As a junior, Showalter won the CAA title in the steeplechase and finished second in the 1,500m.

Steeplechase seems the perfect event for Showalter — an odd distance of 3,000m, combined with a number of random hurdles and barriers, including the water hazard. In a word: unconventional.

“I’m excited for the steeplechase,” said Showalter. “It’s just fun, because it’s different. I like that.”

Despite her success last season, she has even higher expectations for herself this year.

“Last year, I wanted to make it to [the NCAA East Preliminaries], but I didn’t,” she said. “I had no steeplechase competition. This year, I hope to make regionals during the outdoor season. I would also really like to break the steeplechase record for Georgia State. That’s one way to leave a mark.”

That school record of 10:24.87 was set by Panther great Jenn Feenstra in 2001. Showalter would have to cut about 25 seconds off her personal best of 10:49.58, which she ran at the 2012 conference championship. But Showalter is confident she can reach her goal by continuing to improve.

“We think she can score in and potentially win as many as three events for us on the track this upcoming season,” said England. “We have high expectations for her, but more importantly she has high expectations for herself.”

Even still, the cross country season is not yet over. Georgia State will compete in the NCAA South Regional meet in Tallahassee, Fla. on Nov. 9. They hope to use the momentum gained in that Sun Belt championship to lead to some good results at the Region meet.

So does Showalter have any more unexpected tricks planned for the end of the Region meet?

“I’ve tried to do things like back handsprings,” she said. “That would be so cool if I could do a back handspring.”