Harper McClain accomplished nearly every goal she laid out for herself in her first season of cross country.
The St. Helena High junior made it to the state meet, won a state title, and qualified to compete at the Nike Cross Nationals held last weekend in Portland, Oregon.
Her season officially came to a close on Saturday in wet, cold and muddy conditions at NXN, the most prestigious prep cross country meet in the nation, as she finished 65th overall out of 200 runners with a time of 18 minutes, 53 seconds.
While McClain considered her performance to be disappointing, she said the experience as a whole was something that she’ll never forget.
“The fact that over summer I said that I wanted to go to state and possibly compete at NXN, and just kind of thought NXN was a crazy goal that could happen but was a really, really slim chance, it was cool to see that goal be fulfilled,” she said Monday.
She went into her season finale with one goal in mind: breaking 17 minutes. She had come close several times earlier in the year, but wanted to push her limits against some of the top high school runners in the country. Unfortunately for her and the rest of the field aiming for season-best times, Portland’s inclement fall weather had other plans. A cold rain had soaked the ground at Glendoveer Golf Course, turning the soft grass and trails into mud pits.
Competing as a team with several other runners from California, McClain said that one her teammates even slipped and fell at the beginning of the race, setting the tone for the rest of competition.
“When we were doing warmups, I felt my feet – well, I didn’t feel my feet because they were very cold – but it was definitely raining and muddy and wet and cold,” McClain said. “I’ve never really experienced anything like that for a race, just physically. But when it came to training in the mornings when it was like between 32 and 50 degrees, I was used to the cold but I had never experienced a race or training with rain or the footing that we had, also with the amount of girls we had running all at once.”
Even the winner of race – Katelyn Tuohy, senior from North Rockland High School in Thiells, N.Y. – finished with a time of 17:18, well short of breaking the 17-minute mark.
McClain found some solace in that.
“I guess it kind of goes to show that the conditions were really difficult,” she said. “It definitely was a different experience race-wise.”
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Despite what she considered a disappointing end to her season, McClain has had a historic inaugural season of cross country. She won the Coastal Mountain Conference crown, had the fastest time for all divisions at the North Coast Section Championships, and won the Division V state title, all by wide fairly margins.
“I don’t consider that race to be a defining point of my season,” McClain said of NXN. “I was just super happy to be there.”
The entire event as a whole was special, too, she said. She got to tour Nike Headquarters, witness professional athletes training on the campus, and attend talks from several professional Nike running athletes.
She called that experience “inspiring,” especially as an athlete who has dreams of reaching that elite level someday.
Following her race on Saturday and in between Nike-hosted events, McClain took some time to reflect on her young, whirlwind racing career. She’s gone from a complete newcomer to the sport to competing at the highest stages in a short amount of time.
“I was thinking about where I started at and where I got to at the end of the season, accomplishing both my goals of going to state and going to NXN, and then thinking about all the hard work it took to get to those two major events,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been running cross country forever even though it’s only been a year. I feel like I have a bunch of experience built up now under my belt.”
She’s hoping that experience leads to more personal-best results when she runs on the St. Helena track and field team during the spring. She’s already coming off a top-10 finish in the 3200-meter race at state and will enter the upcoming season with aspirations of bettering her previous accomplishments.
“Having that experience last track season and this cross country season, I feel a lot more ready and a lot more prepared for what’s to come,” she said.
McClain seems poised to do so as well, having just completed the best individual cross country season in school history.
“I feel like I have another edge, a new mental edge I guess,” she said. “I’ve built my mental grit to push through on my own and I feel like this season has definitely helped with that.”