Hard to imagine a better first season of cross country for Harper McClain.
If it wasn’t clear before, it was irrefutable after this weekend: the St. Helena junior is one of the best distance runners in the state, if not the entire country.
At the CIF State Cross Country Championships at Woodward Park in Fresno on Saturday, she added to an already jaw-dropping running resume, winning the Division 5 title by 44.9 seconds. She ran the 5K race in 17 minutes and 13.4 seconds, the fourth-fastest time of the entire day out of 996 girls across all five divisions.
It’s the first cross country state title in St. Helena school history, and qualifies her to compete in the Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Ore. on Dec. 7 against the top prep cross country runners from around the nation.
“With winning the state title came a lot of hard work and time on the track and on the road and on trails,” McClain said over the phone on Sunday. “It’s kind of crazy to think that over the summer I was thinking about, ‘Oh, let’s see if I can qualify for state as an individual and go from there.’ The race itself was just a great way to end the season, but it was also amazing to know officially that it allowed me to qualify for running at Nationals for Nike at NXN.
“I’m really happy to represent St. Helena. We have a lot of really good athletes in our town and it’s just cool to be able to kind of put our town athletics on the map for the rest of California and the country.”
Like she has almost all season, McClain ran alone for most of Saturday’s race. She wanted to set an aggressive pace early and did so. By the two-mile mark, 25 seconds separated her and the second-place runner.
“I kind of wanted to make a statement when I was running to everyone else in the pack that when we start I’m going to go out really hard to try to see who could hang on,” she said. “I was just trying to make sure I didn’t get stuck in a pack just because somebody decided to go out extremely fast and I decided to stay back. The plan was just to go out really fast, and I did.”
Her goal going into the race was to break 17 minutes. She came up short of that mark and was somewhat disappointed with her performance as a result.
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“I feel like the first mile was really good. The second mile I didn’t push hard enough and I felt like I definitely could have, and then the last mile it was all just basically reeling it in and finishing it out,” she said. “Finishing it out in that last mile was pretty decent and coming away with a decent time was nice, but I definitely felt it wasn’t my best race. It was a lot harder to do it on my own than have somebody else behind me or in front of me, but I kind of knew coming into the race that I’d be running alone just from looking at the pre-race sheets.”
Saturday was McClain’s second time running at Woodward Park. She finished third overall at the Clovis Invitational in October, running what was her first 5K in 17:10. The biggest difference from that race to Saturday was the presence of other runners who could push her.
Having that prior experience definitely helped, she said. With that knowledge in mind, she and teammate Jordan Reilly – who also competed in the state meet Saturday – created workouts that recreated some of the challenges that Woodward Park offers.
“I think I have a new appreciation for the course,” McClain said. “Before, I didn’t like how there were sudden downhills, but I’ve learned with running at Bothe Park. Jordan and I would go out there and practice and there would be a lot of uphills and downhills and I feel like that helped us prepare for state. Replicating the course at Woodward Park with other trails in St. Helena or at Bothe was really also helpful.
“I think that without having run at Clovis, things might have been a little more difficult. I wouldn’t have experienced that feeling and that exposure to the running community because once I had been there, I kind of got noticed by a lot more people. It was also just a really great experience itself.”
Heading into Saturday’s race, which was run in wet and cold conditions, McClain said nerves weren’t really a factor. Lack of confidence wasn’t either.
“I was more excited than nervous,” she said, “I think because I knew that if there was somebody out there that could challenge me, I knew I could beat them.”
That mindset has helped McClain rack up win after win on the cross country circuit over the last few months. Her win Saturday was just the most recent of a string of wins by wide margins, a growing list that includes individual titles in the North Central League I, Coastal Mountain Conference and North Coast Section.
She’ll look to add to that list this upcoming weekend at Glendoveer Golf Course in Portland, where she’ll wrap up her cross country season with one last attempt at breaking 17 minutes.
“I feel like this will be the perfect opportunity because I have no other races after this,” she said about hitting the personal benchmark at NXN. “Not many people have broken the 17-minute barrier at Nike Cross Nationals and I feel like I’ve put in a lot of training and I’m running against a lot of people who will be ranked nationally and who I’m really close to in that ranking.
“I feel like I can push myself really hard and feel comfortable going as hard as I can to try to reach that goal, breaking 17 minutes, or getting as close to that as I can.”