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Full speed ahead for McClain

ST. HELENA — Harper McClain, the defending Division V state champion in cross country, was itching to put on the spikes for her first official track season with a year of running under her belt. Then a worldwide pandemic brought life to a standstill.

The shelter-in-place orders came in right before McClain was slated to open the outdoor season. There was shock at first, an emotion that McClain says she still feels to this day.

But her perspective soon shifted. Her 97-year-old grandfather, Peter Cordano, quickly came to the forefront of her mind.

“After a couple of days, I realized that my running world is important to me, but I felt like the health of other people and the safety of other people, in my mind, was more important than my track season — which was really hard to come to,” McClain said. “But I have a lot of relatives who potentially are at-risk. I myself have asthma, but it’s under control. I just have to be safe.”

McClain — an incoming senior at St. Helena who only began running in 2019 — has quickly molded herself into one of California’s top distance runners. What has the phenom been up to in the time of COVID-19? Not surprisingly, rigorous amounts of running. Solitary running, that is.

But that’s not much of a difference for McClain, since she typically trains alone anyway because she’s so fast — even if her humble nature tries to explain it another way.

“I’m used to running by myself and training by myself just because of situations in cross country, and sometimes with track because we don’t necessarily have the biggest team,” she said.

Harper McClain of St. Helena High runs on her way to victory in the Division 5 race at the NCS Cross Country Championships in Hayward on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. (Darryl Bush / For The Press Democrat)
Harper McClain of St. Helena High runs on her way to victory in the Division 5 race at the NCS Cross Country Championships in Hayward on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. (Darryl Bush / For The Press Democrat)

Since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the spring prep track season, McClain has hummed along in her training. She’s still hitting her favorite spots like Bothe-Napa Valley State Park and Oat Hill Mine Trail in Calistoga, as well as Lake Hennessey in the Vaca Mountains.

Her coaches, Bob Cantrall and Chris Cole, have stayed in close contact and have been instructing workouts from afar. At the moment, McClain is logging about 50 miles a week. She works out seven days, with six of those spent running and one cross-training.

Just solo training, no racing, is all she can do at the moment, given the current reality.

The suspension of spring sports was obviously bitter for any athlete. But it was especially bitter for McClain, one of the fastest ascending runners in the state.

Despite skipping out on cross country and track and field in her freshman year to play soccer, McClain has already built up an impressive resume on the oval. She ran 10:29.68 to place seventh in the 3,200 meters at the 2019 CIF State Track and Field Championships as a sophomore, a mighty feat for someone who was still running without a watch at that time. Last summer, McClain won two USA Track Junior Olympic titles, in the 1,500 meters and 3,000 meters, for the 15- to 16-year-old age group.

She would prove in the fall that her whirlwind success was not just a passing moment.

In September at the notoriously fast Woodbridge Cross Country Classic, held at night in Southern California against some of the state’s top runners, McClain ran 16:23.90 to place fourth in the Bob Day girls sweepstakes race on the three-mile course. Her time would end up as the eighth-fastest in the nation for that distance for the 2019 cross country season, according to the MileSplit database.

McClain continued her upward ascent into the postseason, winning a Coastal Mountain Conference championship and a North Coast Section title. She won NCS in dramatic fashion, setting a course record (17:03.70) for Division V.

At the 2019 CIF State Cross Country Championships in November, McClain cruised her way to a Division V title — her winning time of 17:10.40 was 44 seconds faster than the second-place finisher. All of her performances in the fall led to an invitation to the prestigious Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) in Portland, Oregon, a clear sign that McClain had elevated her profile on a national scale.

With her confidence soaring and a rocketing athletic trajectory, spring 2020 was setting up to be a crucial season for McClain for a number of reasons.

First, she is a year more experienced — both in her training and racing tactics. Second, she is making a serious run at Redwood Empire history. She’s already sixth all-time on the local leaderboard in the 3,200 meters, and all signs pointed toward a massive leap in the track season. And third, junior year can be a pivotal period for college recruitment.

Considering McClain missed out on her entire freshman year of competing and part of her sophomore year, this spring was specifically important. While McClain has started to stack up accolades, she’s still a relative newcomer to the running scene.

Fortunately for McClain, she’s already shown enough to college coaches to keep them plenty interested.

Prior to the pandemic, McClain had started to receive recruiting interest from a handful of schools. The interest remains. McClain declined to give the names of the schools, but did confirm she has personally talked with eight Division I schools.

That’s her goal, to run at the Division I level. The likelihood of that happening is nearly guaranteed.

McClain’s goals extend further than that, though, into the professional world. She wants to be a pro runner.

But first, she must finish high school. If she gets the chance to do so — if there are prep sports in the area this fall — McClain has laid out a grand plan for her senior year.

In cross country, she wants to run under 17 minutes over 5,000 meters, not once but on multiple occasions. Only three area girls (Ukiah’s Amber Trotter, Santa Rosa’s Julia Stamps and Montgomery’s Sara Bei) have ever done so, and they each did it once. She is also aiming to repeat as section and state champ. And she wants to return to NXN, this time with the intent of notching a top-10 finish and achieving All-American status.

On the track, McClain’s goal is to run close to 4:40 in the 1,600 meters. The Redwood Empire record is 4:42.79, set by Stamps back in 1997. The biggest fish for McClain is in the 3,200 meters — she wants to run under 10 minutes. Only seven girls in high school history can boast that claim.

She knows the last goal is aggressive. That’s by design. She wants to push herself to the absolute limit. Wouldn’t you, if you had a newfound superpower?

“It’s going to be ambitious,” McClain said about her pursuit of breaking the 10-minute barrier. “But I know that with the training I’ve put in, it’s not like I’m going in blind. I have the actual training to help me get to that goal.”

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