Marlee Starliper had already made her move to the front and opened up a slight gap on her final remaining competitor in the Foot Locker National Championship when the meet's play-by-play announcer Tim O'Rourke offered some ominous foreshadowing.
The seemingly hard part was over for Starliper. At the mile mark at San Diego's Balboa Park, the Northern senior found herself in eighth place in the 40-girl field, eight seconds off the torrid early pace set by 2018 national runner-up Katelynne Hart.
But Starliper clawed her way right in the mix for the win a mile later. Now she had made what she hoped was the race's decisive move. Zofia Dudek from Michigan was the final Midwesterner that Starliper had to break and it appeared she was able to do just that near the top of the course's final hill and into the ensuing steep downhill.
With just over a quarter mile to go, Starliper had space between her and Dudek. She just needed to hold on now to win the national championship.
"We've seen it before. Just when they think they have it, the second or third place runner makes a move," O'Rourke said, perhaps recalling the storied 2003 duel at the Foot Locker National Championship when Matt Withrow of Illinois came out of nowhere to run past Galen Rupp and Shadrack Kiptoo in the last 200 meters to grab the national crown.
Like it was on the command, Dudek's arms started pumping harder and in one fell swoop she made up the gap Starliper had put on her. With gritted teeth, Starliper gave a glance to her right and Dudek was already in front of her.
In the next minute, Starliper did more fighting and more clawing. She hung on Dudek's shoulder not letting the gap grow. But Dudek was too much, fending off Starliper's last challenge to grab the national title by 1.8 seconds.
The times, which don't matter much in a race like that, were fast. Very fast.
Trying to erase the thought of back-to-back unlucky 13th place finishes at Foot Locker, Starliper so desperately wanted a win on the biggest stage. Instead, it was a second place finish.
She was so close to her ultimate dream, but Starliper couldn't help but smile when it was all over.
Saturday's Foot Locker finale marked the end of Starliper's legendary scholastic cross country career. The memory of those previous San Diego disappointments were well off in the distance as she met with her camp in the finish area. It wasn't the gold medal she longed for, but that didn't seem to matter much to Starliper.
Second would do just fine on this day and in this race.
A Dreary Day in Portland
A week before the Foot Locker National Championship in San Diego, it was a much different day in Portland, Oregon. For the first time in her career, Starliper would be racing at Nike Cross Nationals, the first half of the national double with two national championship meets in two weeks.
It was rainy, muddy, and cold in Portland. And early on in the race, Starliper noticed something wasn't right. She felt a dreaded side stitch within the first mile of the race.
Two-time champion Katelyn Tuohy ran out to the lead and gapped the field. Starliper hung for a while in the race's main chase pack--a who's who of top runners in the nation--but a look at her face told you see was not feeling close to her best.
But in an epic race to the line, Starliper was not in the frame. The Pennsylvania star ended up fifth in 17:35. It was another XC nationals disappointment for Starliper.
Still, Starliper was still able to gain some perspective after that race.
"To feel that terrible and still come away with a top five finish and not being too far behind the leaders, it actually made me confident," she said.
On her cooldown after NXN, her coach Abram Albert reminded her she had one more chance a week later.
On the day of her arguably worst race of the season, she was just 17 seconds off a national title. She took solace in that fact. The confidence for Foot Locker was still there.
"I'm going to go and win Foot Locker and become a national champ," Starliper told Albert on that cooldown.
More Bad Luck
Rather than flying from NXN back home to Pennsylvania only to return to the west coast a few days later for Foot Locker, Starliper and her family made the decision to stay out west and make the trek south from Portland to San Diego.
Starliper ran on Pre's Trail in Eugene, Oregon and then got the chance to run through the Redwoods in Calfornia. The thought of heavy legs from a tough NXN race didn't really cross Starliper's mind during the week.
"I was having so much fun, I wasn't thinking about things like how my legs were feeling," she said. "I didn't overthink anything. I just really enjoyed putting in some easier miles this week."
Then the mini-vacation hit a snag. On Thursday morning, Starliper woke up with a fever and a sore throat. Could this derail her last shot at nationals success?
"It was really scary because I never get sick," Starliper said.
Starliper took refuge in prayer. The result was that it made her even more relaxed prior to the race. It was a feeling that would show through in her race.
"I was able to just enjoy it, as opposed to really worrying about the race like the past two years," she said.
Aside from a little scratchiness in her throat on Saturday morning, Starliper didn't feel the ill effects too hard hard. She was ready to race.
Sticking To The Plan
One thing was clear about Starliper's strategy coming into the Foot Locker National Championship: stay relaxed.
"Based on how the race has gone out in the past I knew it would go out really fast, so I wanted to keep the whole first lap of the course as relaxed as possible," Starliper said. "Especially in that first mile, I really wanted to try to keep a gap between me and the leaders."
The early part of the race went just how Starliper thought it would. Bethany Graham led the lead group through the half mile at 2:26, an exceptional fast early pace. That front pack included many of the favorites, like Hart, Dudek, Ewert, and Abby Vanderkooi. But Starliper opted to follow her plan and hang back. Side-by-side with reigning Foot Locker champion Sydney Masciarelli, she was four seconds off the leaders.
Coach Albert wasn't at the half mile. He was out at the mile, but when he finally got to see Starliper's position, he liked what he saw.
"I was excited," he said. "I was super excited. Hearing the announcer say they went through the halfway at 2:26, I was nervous because I was hoping she was way off of (the leaders). I didn't want her anywhere close to them because going out under 2:30 is like a suicide pace."
At that mile mark, Hart had a slight lead on Dudek, Ewert, and Vanderkooi -- a Midwest quartet -- going through in 5:09. At that point, Starliper was in eighth place, splitting a 5:17 at the mile.
Like her coach, Starliper wasn't concerned with the gap. She was paying attention to splits and listened to her dad when he yelled "be patient!" at the 800 meter mark.
"I was feeling really confident the whole time," she said. "I felt so relaxed, I couldn't even tell how fast it was. The whole time I was running my own race and I was still able to have that progression where I kept getting faster throughout the race and I felt really confident that I would be able to close the gap."
"She looked really calm and relaxed," Albert said. "That was the plan to keep that first loop relaxed. She was real mature with not going with them, knowing she was running her race."
It's that maturity that is so striking about Starliper. She's raced countless times over her four years, races big and small, through major disappointments, and massive successes. Here she was in the biggest race of her career -- her last shot to leave her mark on the high school XC scene -- and she was potentially letting her main rivals run away with the national title.
"It's hard to let a group go and have the confidence of 'I think they're going to come back,'" Albert said.
"Who says they don't have the race of their life and hold on and don't come back? That would be demoralizing," he added.
But sure enough in that second mile, Starliper started to cut into the gap.
Making Up Ground
After the mile mark, the race mostly held pat for the next half mile or so. Hart, who threw down a devastatingly fast pace last year en route to a second place finish, was looking to do the same thing this year. She held a slight advantage on the strung-out Midwest contingent through the 1.5 mile mark.
At that marker, Starliper had moved from eighth to fifth and was seven seconds off Hart up front. A good place gain, but not much in the way of time.
As the leaders worked their way towards the two mile mark, in the midst of those pink Midwest tops appeared the Northeast blue. Starliper had left Masciarelli behind and was making her charge to the front.
Next came Ewert, the NXN runner-up. Starliper made that pass quickly and it was on to the lead three of Hart, Dudek, and Vanderkooi, which had packed up once again.
Starliper was still up on her toes with her eyes focused firmly forward on the leaders.
She was four seconds back at the two mile, but shortly thereafter had finally completed the catch. It would be a four-girl race in the last mile with the national championship on the line, and Starliper had what she thought was an ace in her back pocket.
"Hills are a good strength of hers and with those girls going out in 5:08 and then having to go up that hill, I figured Marlee would be able to catch them eventually," Albert said, referencing the course's last major climb just past the 2.5 mile mark -- a stretch that tends to separate the contenders.
It did just that, as Starliper and Dudek broke Hart and VanderKooi right before the start of the hill.
Recognizing the veteran savvy of Starliper, Albert decided to allow his athlete a liberal race plan for when she did catch the lead group.
"There's been a lot of races where she's had a plan and stuck to it a little bit too much," Albert said. "This year, she's grown a lot and been able to trust her instincts a lot more to just know when is the right time to go in the race."
About halfway up the hill, Starliper was able to put some space between her and Dudek.
That move was all "instinctual" for Starliper.
"On the second part of the hill, I was still feeling really strong," she said. "It was ever-so-slight, but Zofia faded a little bit back and I just tried to finish running the hill strong.
"From there, I just opened up my stride and throw in a bit of a surge so that I could start making my move and make it a good one and show that I was just taking authority of the race finally."
Not Going Down Without A Fight
Starliper's lead would be short-lived.
Though she opened up a strong lead on the downhill that comes right after the uphill (an element of her race that Albert noted that Starliper has vastly improved upon), Dudek stormed back.
The Stanford recruit Dudek put in a huge move to go right by Starliper and into the lead. Starliper wasn't about to back down, but Dudek did manage to catch Starliper off guard.
"It did (surprise me)," Starliper said. "When she passed, she did it quick. I made the conscious decision to latch on to her. I'm going to keep fighting. I've come too far to let her go any further."
After the initial pass, Starliper took maybe half a second to regroup before she responded and got right back on Dudek's shoulder. The pair passed through the three mile mark together. They would cross the road deadlocked with less than 200 meters to go and the championship finish line emerging in their sights.
Starliper had an unusual moment of clarity amidst the huffing and puffing of a wild final stretch: I am absolutely giving it everything I have right now, she thought. My dream is right in front of me.
The race, though, would ultimately go to Dudek. The senior from Michigan ran 16:45 for the win, which put her at No. 5 all-time at Balboa Park. Starliper crossed second in 16:46.8, the sixth fastest time in the meet's history in San Diego.
Starliper's time goes down as the fastest runner-up clocking in the meet's history. Her 16:46 would have won all but five Foot Locker National Championship races at Balboa Park. It was also the second fastest time of Starliper's career, trailing only her 16:30 season-opening effort at Lebanon Valley this fall.
But it was her resilience in the final 0.1 of the race that stood out most to Albert.
"She could have easily given up once Zofia went by her," the coach said. "She could have took a peek and saw Abby (Vanderkooi) was a little bit further back and kind of cruised in for second place easier, but she fought the whole way to the finish line."
When the post-race delirium wore off, Starliper made sure to make her way over to Dudek. She thanked the Foot Locker champion for pushing her to the limit, for bringing out the best in her.
There was no national title and no championship dish to be held for Starliper. But there was no head-holding either. Unlike her previous experiences in San Diego, the Wellsville native would leave with a smile.
"When I finished that race, I might as well have won because I was so thankful," Starliper said. "Of course I was going for the win and that was my goal, but even more so than that, my biggest goal was I just want to finish knowing I had my best race. I was to feel that I was able to prove myself and show where I stood."
"Everyone always says how second place is kind of the worst place to be in, especially when it's a race that that's close," Albert said. "The gold medalist is usually the happiest and bronze is always happy because they got a medal."
But that wasn't the case for this silver medalist.
"You see pictures at the finish line, you see her smiling and how happy she is," Albert continued. "She knows she gave everything she had. It's been this four year journey and it ended with a second place at Foot Locker."
It's a race that will go down in Foot Locker lore, sure, but it's certainly one that will be with Starliper for the rest of her life.
"That was a really special moment, to be able to compete with somebody and just have them bring out that deepest part of me," Starliper said of her legendary battle with Dudek.
When it was all over, she knew there was one last thing to do in San Diego. Starliper, one of the greatest to ever do it in Pennsylvania, had to represent for her home state and another PA great. Starliper could be seen on the livestream of the boys' race cheering for Patrick Anderson in the homestretch.
Like Starliper, Anderson was busy brushing off some of his own past Foot Locker Nationals disappointment, too. A year ago as a junior, he took 29th.
With a dive at the line, Anderson out-leaned Graydon Morris of Texas to take third place in the country, the best finish by a Pennsylvania boy at Foot Locker Nationals since 1984. For Anderson, the disappointment of the year prior had its effect on senior season. And it was a season to remember for him. He probably wouldn't change a thing.
The same goes for Starliper who used her past experiences to fuel her senior season. She adapted her mindset and dominated. After the race someone said, "She didn't lose that race, it's just that someone beat her on the day."
"I was so disappointed the other two years in my performances, but at the same time, I wouldn't change them," Starliper said. "They were such great learning experiences and they definitely led me to have the race I had this year.
"I'm so thankful looking back on the whole journey. In all the ups and downs, I think it's just so incredible how it ended up this way. I became who I am through it. It came full circle with that race. I'll remember it always.