Marlee Starliper believes Saturday was really her first true "race" of the season.
Her closest win of the season was by 12 seconds at Carlisle, and that's where she ran 16:50, one of the nation's fastest 5Ks of the season. The Northern sophomore, who has spent the fall captivating onlookers in the state of Pennsylvania, was ready for some competition.
"Going into this race, I was really anxious because I've basically been running alone all season," Starliper, who won the PIAA Class AA state title by 52 seconds, said. "I knew mentally it would be a challenge to accept the fact that there are going to be girls with me."
The Foot Locker Northeast Regional at the historic Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, New York was bound to give her that competition she craved. The field would feature the reigning meet champion Alyssa Aldridge from New Jersey, the 2016 meet runner-up and fellow sub-17 Jacqueline Gaughan from New Hampshire, and Katherine Lee of New York, who placed tenth at Nike Cross Nationals last season.
Not only was there talent, but also plenty of experience to go against the sophomore Starliper, who placed 30th at Foot Locker Northeast last fall.
"I had gotten sick last year and I just died halfway through the race," Starliper said with a laugh about her first experience at Van Cortlandt. "(This year) it was a totally new mindset. It was nice being more familiar with where I'm at."
The story was much different this year in the Bronx. The race went out a bit slower than she expected, but Starliper seized control of the race shortly after the mile and extended her gap on the field in the back hills.
"I knew the second mile is an important part of the race and I just wanted to push it," she said.
Starliper came across the bridge at the 4K marker in the lead. Lee, who won the NXR New York Regional last year and decided to switch to Foot Locker this season, made some moves late. Lee past Gaughan with about 600 meters left and was gunning for the leader.
But Starliper has a strong kick and she brought it home for the win by three seconds, making her the third girl from Pennsylvania to win at Foot Locker Northeast in four years. Her time---17:47---is also the fourth fastest time by a Pennsylvania girl at Foot Locker Northeast since 2003.
2017 as a whole has been much different for Starliper. She went from a strong state runner-up as a freshman to one of Pennsylvania's best distance runners in state history as a tenth grader.
It started with the addition of the assistant coach at Northern, Abram Albert. The former Messiah College runner started training Starliper during the track season. His presence has paid off in a big way for Starliper.
"I've just learned so much more through track and training with him," Starliper said of Albert. "(The training plan) applies better to me as a runner and I've been amazed what it's brought me to."
Her progression really started to show last spring. She pulled off an incredible three week stretch between her conference meet and states. It culminated with a third place finish at states in the 1,600 meters, where she ran a PR of 4:49.68.
Then came the cross country season.
Starliper torched the course record at Chambersburg's Enos Yeager Invitational for 2.3 miles to open up her season. She then ran 17:58 in some intense heat at Big Spring's Ben Bloser Bulldog Invitational. That set the stage for her historic Carlisle Invitational run again a solid field.
By the time districts and states rolled around, it was all but a forgone conclusion that she'd win. Starliper did just that in commanding fashion. Saturday's meet was shaping up to be her first big test of the season. Even more, Starliper admitted she had more or less trained through November 4's state meet in Hershey.
"It was way different from anything else because I knew there would be girls on my tail," Starliper said. "This is honestly the first real race I've been in to some extent.
"It was new and I'm just really glad for how it turned out because it was yet another learning experience."
Another big test awaits Starliper in San Diego. Foot Locker Nationals will feature an even more loaded field. The defending race champion, Claudia Lane from California, will be the race favorite. Michigan's Olivia Theis and Illinois's Katelynne Hart are among the other contenders after taking first and second at Foot Locker Midwest.
Starliper awaits the challenge, though. She doesn't know exactly where she fits in among that group, but Saturday's race affirmed what many in the Keystone State already knew for a long time: Starliper belongs in that conversation.
"I don't know what's going to happen," the Northeast champ said. "But I want to be happy with whatever happens knowing I did my best."
There's modesty there, sure. But even Saturday's win at Van Cortlandt was rather convincing. No one knows what Starliper's ceiling even is yet. We'll find out more in two weeks.
The nation has been notified.
Watch Starliper's full post-race interview and check out more meet links from Foot Locker Northeast below.