Photo by Abby Huber
Penn Manor's Taraje Whitfield has become one of the state's best hurdles and he has some big goals for the 2017 season. Currently, the junior is PA#2 in the 110 meter hurdles and PA#4 in the 300 meter hurdles. Last year, while at Manheim Township had a bittersweet state meet that included a medal in the 300 hurdles, but an exit in the semifinals in the 110 hurdles. He's at Penn Manor this season and ready for big things. He talked with our Abby Huber about his change of schools, is progression in the hurdles, and his friendly rivalry with Conestoga Valley's Aanyah Bermudez, among other things.
PennTrackXC: What got you into track and field and when did you start hurdling?
Taraje Whitfield: I started running track and field in seventh grade, the earliest that you can start in most schools. I have always been pretty fast, even at a young age, which is what sparked my interest in joining the track team. Both of my parents ran track as well, so it just seemed right. I remember my friends and I always talking about Usain Bolt being the fastest man on Earth during the Olympics and it amazed me how fast he was and how everyone knew who he was. I always used to imagine what it would be like if that were me, and those fantasies drove me every year because I strive to be the best I can be at whatever I do.
After starting track, certain days after practice my junior high school team would walk up to the high school track to watch the high school track meets and I always thought that the hurdles was by far the coolest event! I wanted to start them since the first time I saw them, but they were not allowed until varsity track. A little upset by the news, I would sometimes play around with the hurdles on my own and sometimes even ask the older kids to show me how to get over them. When the varsity coaches discovered my speed and love of hurdles, they allowed me to move up to the varsity level a year early, so I started to hurdle in ninth grade.
I was fairly new so I lost a lot of races, but the one that was most memorable was the one against Conestoga Valley which I still remember clear as day. We started the race on the opposite side that we usually do because we had two finish lines at Manheim Township and the wind was a strong head wind using our normal finish line for the 110 meter high hurdles. That was the first time I met Aanyah (Bermudez of Conestoga Valley) and it was a close race, but he beat me. He was a very cool kid and I looked up to him, but at the same time, I think shaking his hand at the end of that race is when we both declared each other our rivals, and we have been ever since, always pushing each other past our limits.
Whitfield competes the prelims of the 300 meter hurdles at the 2016 PIAA Track & Field Championships as a member of Manheim Township (Photo by Don Rich)
PTXC: Last year you competed for Manheim Township. How have things been different thus far at Penn Manor?
TW: Moving to Penn Manor from Manheim Township was one of the most difficult changes that I have ever experienced in my life. I found it very hard leaving all of my close friends that I have grown up with for the majority of my life, but now that some time has passed, I am starting to really like the change after being so much against it. Penn Manor is not as luxurious as Township was, but I do feel like I stand out more and kind of even fit in more at Penn Manor. I do not know as many people, but I feel like I have created some closer relationships with the few people that I do know than I had at Manheim Township with everyone as a whole. For example, Derek Jennings, McCaskey's coach, called (Penn Manor teammate) Theoren McElheny and me one of the best one-two combinations in the L-L league. Theo and I were happy to hear Jennings say this because we both definitely do have a strong unbreakable bond.
There are definitely pros and cons to both schools, but Penn Manor has had some pretty important things to offer that I would have missed out on at Manheim Township such as the ease of dual enrollment at Millersville, the Attollo program, and friends. Things that I am missing out on are things like going to Penn Relays (which I will really miss), having a pool in our school which allowed us to get off of our feet, and friends again.
PTXC: At the state championship last year, you placed 10th overall to many seniors in the 110 meter hurdles. You were seventh in the 300 meter hurdles. How did you feel about both of these performances? How did this experience impact you?
TW: Last year, states was another very memorable experience for me. I went into the state meet with the fourth fastest time in the 110 meter high hurdles and I believe the 12th fastest time in the 300 meter intermediate hurdles. My big rival last year was Billy Cooney (of Solanco) who I always trailed behind. My goal all of last season was to beat him, and I remember my wish came true in the 300 hurdle trials when I looked on the board to see times and mine was 0.1 second faster than his. I did not do it when it counted, and we were in different heats, but knowing that I ran faster than he did made me so happy. I think that it was because of him that I even made it to the finals and medaled because I was not expected to place from the start, I just tried to keep up with him and he pulled me into finals with him. I owe part of it to him, but I think the main force that drove me into the seventh place spot in the 300 IH was my anger from the 110 hurdles. Again, I was seeded with the fourth best time, but I had really bad shin splints which kept me from performing my best. I just barely made it into the semifinals, then I was knocked out there from making it into the finals. Listening to the announcers say the names of everyone who made it to finals and not hearing my name was one of the saddest moments I have ever experienced. Especially because I knew I should have been there.
Whitfield (center) takes fourth in his semifinal heat of the 110 meter hurdles at states in 2016, just missing qualifying for the finals (Photo by Patty Morgan)
Afterwards, I was so upset and did not want to talk to anyone. I just started mentally preparing for the next race because I was not going to let that happen again. I knew that I worked hard to get to where I was and I did not want that to go to waste. There was nothing I could do about the 110 hurdles at that point but I had a chance in the 300 hurdles, so I really owed it to myself to do my best. And I did! I ran my personal best time of 39.4 seconds. Too bad the 110 hurdles did not turn out well.
This year, I will need to be in the right mindset right away. It was my first time at a meet as big and important as states last year, so my nerves may have gotten the best of me. Looking back at it now, I definitely did way too much of a warm up before the race because I wanted to do well, but that was unnecessary. Especially because I was hurting. I should have stuck with my normal routine and did what I have been doing to get me there.
I left states with a medal last year, so I could not be too upset, but still to this day I think about what it would have been like to have a second state medal. I am kind of glad that I experienced this because maybe this way the lesson will stick more so that I will be ready this year's states.
PTXC: Both of your performances at Hempfield rank you as one of the top hurdlers in the state. Do you have any goals for yourself at Districts and States in 2017?
TW: My goal for this year in the 110 hurdles is first place at both districts and states. I also plan to run under 14.0 seconds FAT at States. In the 300 hurdles, my goal is first place at districts and then top five at states with a time under 39.0 seconds
PTXC: Do you prefer racing the 110 meter hurdles or the 300 meter hurdles?
TW: I very much prefer racing the 110 hurdles over the 300 hurdles. I have never really been a fan of the 300 hurdles and that is just because of the curve. I am very fast on the two straight aways, but I lose a lot of speed and ground hurdling on the curve. This is mainly a result of being a right lead leg hurdler. This is a disadvantage because I cannot go over the hurdle while following the curve. Another reason that I really like the 110 hurdles better is because of how systematic it is. The race is the same for everyone and you are definitely taking three steps between each hurdle so you can really focus on your form and not worry about anything else, whereas in the 300 hurdles, I have to count my steps the whole time and make sure I take enough steps to make it to each hurdle because fatigue can change a runner's stepping pattern and I am not the best at hurdling with my opposite leg.
Whitfield and Bermudez race at the Hempfield Black Knight Invitational in the 110 meter hurdles (Photo by Abby Huber)
PTXC: Last weekend, you and Conestoga Valley´s Aanyah Bermudez competed head to head in both the 110m and 300m hurdles. How has this competition affected both of you?
TW: Aanyah and I are very lucky to have each other in the same league because we face each other often and it really keeps us both at the top of our games. We are both so close in time so we know that if either of us slacks, even a little, the other will win. Then when we do run, we both go into a special zone where we are at our best and we both surprise ourselves. Each race is so intense. At least we have each other because it usually does not work out this way. Usually a fast runner will not meet any true competition until states.
PTXC: Do you have any goals this season for the long jump?
TW: In long jump last year my best jump was 21 feet and 2 inches. I only jumped over 21 feet one time so this year I would like to be able to consistently jump 21 feet and get a new personal best jump of at least 21 ½ feet.
PTXC: You have succeeded in getting faster in both hurdling events over the past year. Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for young hurdlers trying to improve their times?
TW: Hurdling should not be any different from running the 100 meter dash (with 10 more meters). I was not a fast hurdler when I first started. It took a lot of time and hard work, so it may suck at the beginning, but keep working at it and it will come along. Hurdling is definitely not easy, so do not quit! If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. It is pretty obvious that most events have multiple heats and hurdle races do not. It takes a special person to become a hurdler, so embrace it. Learn the hurdle inside and out. Get comfortable with the height. Go over as many as you can as often as you can because I did not start running fast until I stopped being afraid of the hurdles and really started to attack them. Once that fear is gone, it is a lot easier to lean more into the hurdle which keeps your center of gravity low and moving forward. Becoming flexible will really help as well. Stretch thoroughly and frequently.
Another thing is to learn how to hurdle with both legs. I wish I was taught this when I first learned to hurdle because that can really help in the 300 hurdles when you can just run as fast as you can and attack each hurdle whenever and however it is approached. One other thing to keep in mind in the 110 meter hurdles is that everyone takes the same number of steps, so really work on making those steps quicker because that is how the race in won. Finally, have fun! Everyone knows what it is like to run but few are given the thrill of hurdling.
Whitfield is slated to appear at Saturday's Shippensburg Jack Roddick Invitational, entered in both the 110 hurdles and the 300 hurdles. Read our meet preview HERE.