Benefield: St. Helena track standout McClain turns sights to cross country

In middle school, Harper McClain was wary about track.

Once a week, in physical education class, students in McClain’s class were tasked with running one mile against the clock. That wasn’t the problem for McClain. The problem came in the grading, she said. Every successive week, she had to run the mile faster than the prior week in order to get an A.

“Our grade was basically depending on it, if we didn’t get a PB - a personal best,” she said. “It always made me so nervous. This is why in track I was always nervous - not being able to do the next thing.”

Not being able to do the next thing in track is no longer an issue for McClain because, by all accounts, McClain herself is the next thing.

After forgoing track in her freshman year in favor of focusing on soccer, McClain had a breakout debut as a sophomore, running her way to a seventh-place finish in the 3,200-meters at the CIF State Track and Field Championship. Her run continued this summer as she ran to two USA Track and Field Junior Olympics 15-16-year-old national titles in the 1,500 and 3,000 meters July 27-28. Those distances are not terribly common for high school track, but her times put her among elite names in all-time Redwood Empire running and now rank her as a top runner not only in California, but in the nation.

Her 3,000-meter time at the Junior Olympics puts McClain at No. 1 in California among returning juniors and is in the top 20 nationally, according to She’s now fourth-fastest in California in the 1,500 meters and 13th in the nation among rising juniors.

McClain, who will start her junior year at St. Helena High on Aug. 21, now ranks fourth all-time in both the 1,500 and 3,000 meters behind a trio of superstars: Julia Stamps (Santa Rosa, 4:23 and 9:19), Sara (Bei) Hall (Montgomery, 4:30.24 and 9:30), and Rylee Bowen, (Sonoma Academy, 4:30.56 and 9:49).

An estimated conversion of her 1,500 meters to a 1,600-meter time puts McClain in the range of 4:56, which is just off a top-10 place on the all-time list. She is currently ranked 20th all-time with an official mark of 5:01.04.

Those results come on the heels of a remarkable sophomore campaign which saw McClain shatter three decades-old school records in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 meters, and cemented her place on the all-Redwood Empire rankings.

Not bad for a runner who just dipped her to toe into track’s waters last season. She didn’t even run cross country - she played soccer instead. In running circles it’s as if McClain, like the Greek Goddess Athena, was pulled from Zeus’ head, fully formed and wearing armor to boot.

In just one season, McClain has seemingly shed her middle school worries. This is someone who is no longer afraid to test her limits.

“It sounds weird, but I have fallen in love with pushing myself,” she said. “I have kind of learned to enjoy, it sounds really crazy, but enjoy being in a state of pain and thinking of the other side. It’s helped me not just with running, but being a person and being OK with doing the hard things.”

In the very recent past, the hard thing was taking a break from running.

McClain ended her sophomore track season with a bang that was more like cannon fire. In a field thick with talent in the 3,200 meters at the North Coast Section Meet of Champions at Diablo Valley College in May, McClain crushed her previous best of 10:47 with a 10:33 to earn a trip to the state meet.

At the CIF State Track and Field Championship at Veteran’s Stadium in Clovis a week later, she ran to a seventh-place finish among some of the nation’s best, setting a new personal record of 10:29.

But whereas pressing herself just a few years ago made her nervous, pressing pause on her training incited the same kind of anxiety this summer.

“I really forced myself to rest,” she said.

“If you ask my parents or any of my coaches, I just like to train hard all the time and everything so it was really hard for me,” she said. “I took two weeks off after state … it was really difficult because I really wanted to keep going. Now I understand the importance of that two-week break. Your body can’t hold that peak for so long. You can get injured if you keep going with it.”

But she didn’t sit around and do nothing. One gets the sense that might be a physical and or psychological impossibility for McClain. So she swam some and she biked some. And she got excited to start training again.

And she got nervous. What if she lost a step? What if the gains stopped coming in chunks?

“My first tempo run was really hard because I hadn’t been training,” she said. “I was really afraid. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it again. Once I did that tempo run, it was really hard, but I look back on it and I’m super glad I did it.”

That’s a piece she is learning as someone relatively new to the sport. Gains don’t always come in the waves she’s seen so far in her young career.

“It’s being OK with not seeing results even if you have put in months of work and months of training,” she said. “You can’t become a faster runner overnight. It takes time.”

So McClain is approaching her inaugural cross country season in much the same way that she approached her first high school track season last spring.

“Day by day, race by race,” she said.

But that somewhat nonchalant tone belies her - very realistic - goals for herself.

“I do want to go as far with cross country as I did with track and I want to go to state,” she said.

She’s also investigated some invitational meets to augment her school race calendar.

“I just want to make sure that I don’t think, ‘Oh I’m good, I did really well last track season, I don’t have to worry about anything,’” she said. “I still have to push myself and break barriers and keep pushing to see where this can lead to.”

For as fast as she’s come onto the running scene, she is still trying to hold the long view. She balances running with some swimming and cycling. And she still plays competitive soccer - you know, the sport that kept her from committing to track her freshman year and prevented her from running cross country her sophomore season.

She still loves soccer and she continues to play, but she is going to switch her focus to cross country this fall. No duh.

“I’m still playing. It still makes me happy, but a lot of my focus has shifted to track and cross country,” she said.

As a newbie, she doesn’t have a lot of time goals or concrete plans. She’s going to let this cross country thing come to her.

“I don’t want to plan too much,” she said. “I want to see how the season unfolds.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine