There was no wiping the smile off Marlee Starliper's face at Van Cortlandt Park on Saturday.
Even after her cooldown through the Bronx and even after the post-race interview circuit, the senior was still beaming.
That wasn't really not any different than the vibe Starliper has given off the previous three years of her high school career. She's always been cheery and gracious after each race, even in defeat. But the energy has been different with her lately, and she will be the first to admit it.
"I've been having so much fun putting in this hard work and feeling good doing it," Starliper said on Saturday. "Just having that translate to my races, it's been such a fun senior year."
On Saturday at the Foot Locker Northeast, it was translated into a regional championship for Starliper. The NC State recruit won the region as a sophomore, but placed second as a junior to the eventual national champion Sydney Masciarelli. This year, Starliper took back the region over Masciarelli in definitive fashion.
Executing her race strategy to near perfection, Starliper ran the second fastest time in meet history, pulling away for the win in 17:03. Cathy Schiro's 16:46 from 1984 is the only time that sits above hers.
After a break between the PIAA State Championships and regionals, Saturday's race marked just the beginning of the busiest three-week stretch of Starliper's career. It's one that continues on Saturday with her debut at Nike Cross Nationals.
The Northern star hasn't had the ending she would have wanted to her XC seasons the past two years. She's hopeful and confident that will change over the next few weeks. Whether that means a national title remains to be seen.
But one thing's for sure: she's in the best place mentally of her career. And the results have shown.
Taking Back The Northeast
Every race, particularly at this level, will have a level of unpredictability. But FLNE played out close to how Starliper hoped it would. She didn't miss her opportunity to pull it out.
Last year at regionals, Starliper led for most of the race and Masciarelli made her move past the bridge around the dog park down Broadway. The sophomore propelled past the defending champion to take the win. A week later, she won the national title in dramatic fashion.
The strategy this time around would be different for Starliper. She didn't make any moves for about the first half of the race. Connecticut's Kate Wiser took out the pace. Starliper was nestled right in the pack.
"It was cool not leading for like half the race or so," Starliper said. "It's fun having that competition. It's good practice being in that pack in the first mile.
"I think that's going to come in handy in these next races."
Then Masciarelli and Starliper asserted themselves and went to the front, opening up a gap on the rest of the field as the back hills kicked in. It was time for the last two regional champions to go toe-to-toe over the last mile.
On a downhill a bit past the two mile mark, Starliper saw her opportunity. She opened up her stride and let it roll, gaining some separation on Masciarelli. It was perhaps earlier than she wanted to make her move, but the Pennsylvanian started to feel anxious.
"I was itching to go and I was like 'I think I should just go now,'" Starliper said. "So I just tried to trust that instinct, and then just try to keep rolling with the momentum of the downhill."
That move proved to be decisive as the reigning national champion didn't have an answer.
"After the two mile, (Starliper) took one of the downhills hard and I tried to go with her, but today just wasn't really my day," Masciarelli said.
As the pair crossed the bridge to head back to the finish, Starliper had a ten meter advantage or so. Similar to her strong state meet finish, Starliper looked smooth coming home.
The regional title was hers once again. And more importantly, she didn't have to expend more energy than she wanted to.
"I was able to finish really strong without killing myself," she said.
Starliper's 17:03 is a 14-second improvement on her runner-up time from last season. It's also nine seconds faster than Masciarelli's FLNE-winning time from last year before she went on to capture the national title. Starliper's race was speed rated by TullyRunners at 163, the best of her career.
A New Mindset
The question of Starliper's fitness has rarely been an issue. She's known she's been fit for practically every major race of her career. The hurdle for her has been the race within the race: the mental side of things.
Starliper struggled to hone her nerves at Foot Locker Nationals last year and she wound up placing 13th in a race she hoped she could win.
It's something she's worked hard to overcome over the past year. It resulted in a record-filled track season and, now, her best XC season to date. She had a terrific November that started with her third straight PIAA Class AA state title and a Hershey course record and ended with Saturday's FLNE performance.
And while the times can speak for themselves, Starliper says it goes deeper than that. And it starts with simply having fun.
"Where my confidence comes from is how much fun I'm having with it," Starliper said. "I think that's truly what it is. Not so much the times or anything, but how I'm feeling physically, emotionally, mentally -- all of that put together -- I just know with how much fun I've been having with it, it just physically translates to my body."
Starliper frequently talks about how each race is a new learning experience. There's the learning how to race part it, sure, but there's also that mental side, as well.
Now, she has collected as much experience through meets big and small as any high schooler could in a career. She'll be ready to put that to use over the next two weeks.
"Every year you get better and better at knowing what you have to do to prepare," she said. "I'm so much more put-together this year and able to adapt to new situations."
After the PIAA State Championships, it was back to the lab for Starliper. She had a number of weeks of good training to prepare her for the three week stretch that would include regionals and a pair of national meets.
That training block went as well as she could have hoped, highlighted by a ten-mile progression run that Starliper said she hit her last mile in at race pace (her race pace on Saturday, by the way, was under 5:30).
But perhaps a better sign for her was how good she was feeling after those workouts.
"At the end of every workout, I was like, 'is that it?'" she said.
Prior to Foot Locker Northeast, Starliper had already accepted a big to run at Nike Cross Nationals with an "at-large" bid, something Nike introduced last year to combat the fact that national qualifying meets FLNE and NXR Northeast fall on the same day. It's a meet she was also invited to run at last year, but declined. This year, she said yes.
First up is Portland for NXN.
It will be a totally new experience for Starliper after focusing on Foot Locker the last two years. It will also be a rare showdown between Starliper and New York legend Katelyn Tuohy, who has won NXN each of the last two years and set numerous national records on the track.
Tuohy will enter as the favorite with a season best speed rating of 170. She has the experience on her side, and of course, the talent. But Starliper presents somewhat of an unknown entity to Tuohy and could make this race interesting.
Starliper's up for the challenge.
"The past two years it's been muddy and terrible weather, but we're in PA -- I love that!" Starliper said. "It will be a little more of a challenge since it is my first year, but I'm really excited."
After NXN, comes San Diego for Foot Locker Nationals.
Starliper was 13th each of the last two years. As a sophomore, she was getting her feet wet. Last year as a junior, she had a shot at the win, but placed 13th. Now this year, it's another loaded field, yes, but it's also a winnable field.
As we approach these next two weeks, Starliper is ready for some national meet redemption.
"Cross country nationals, sadly, the past two years just have not been my days," Starliper added. "I'm just feeling really good about this year."