Mount de Sales sophomore Juliette Whittaker wasn’t sure what to expect when she headed to the Foot Locker Northeast regional cross country championships in the Bronx, New York, a few weeks ago.
Coming off a season in which she won the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference championship as well as several other races, including the Bull Run, the Laurel native had high hopes for a strong performance.
She finished seventh at that regional meet in a field of 179 runners, posting a personal-record 5,000-meter time of 17:56.9.
That earned the Russett resident a spot in the Foot Locker National Championship race, held at Balboa Park in San Diego, California, on Dec. 14.
Excited at the prospect of racing with some of the nation’s best, Whittaker went in with no real expectations.
“I was really just kind of going for the experience because I have two more years to try again and maybe place higher,” Whittaker said. “So I was really just going for the experience and I wasn’t putting a number that I wanted to be the top in.”
Going with the flow and adjusting as needed throughout the race, Whittaker surged in the later part of the race to finish 13th, earning All-America honors and posting the top finish by a Maryland runner.
Knowing the race was going to start at a blistering pace, Whittaker waited to make a move during the second loop around Balboa Park’s big hill.
“I knew we were going to take it out hard and my one goal, I guess, or my one plan was to not go out too hard. I didn’t want to die,” Whittaker said. “When we started the race and I realized I was going that fast, we just wanted to slow down.
“I still went out pretty fast but just not as fast as the first pack so that sort of changed my plan. And then going on the course run and seeing the hill and running up it, I knew it was going to be kind of rough. I wanted to take out a little more conservatively so the second loop around other people may be dying and I can try and make moves on the hill.”
Whittaker finished as the fifth-best representative from the Northeast Region and the third-best sophomore overall and will use the experience to power into the track season with an eye on improving her at the Foot Locker National Championships next year.
“Going to this race definitely gave me a lot more confidence that I would be able to race with the best people in the nation,” Whittaker said. “It gives me more confidence to race and just knowing I have all these workouts I did building up to nationals this past weekend for track. Next year my goal will be to come in the top 10 at Foot Locker Nationals and then my senior year possibly win it all.”
Whittaker opened her cross country season by winning the 3-mile Seahawk Invitational on Sept. 7 in a time of 17:23.8 which was 47 seconds faster then runner-up Oakley Olsen, of Northern.
On Sept. 21, Whittaker won the prestigious Girls Elite race at the Bull Run Invitational at Hereford High. She posted a time of 18:35.5 and finished three places higher then she did at Bull Run in 2018.
At the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland championship meet at McDaniel College, Whittaker won her second straight IAAM A Conference crown by running 19:08.08.
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“She did have some middle school running background,” Mount de Sales coach Steve Weber said during her freshman year. “Not so extensive, but some, so she did have a background. She quickly rose to the top of our team and then the top of the IAAM league. The strength was already there. She’s a pretty strong runner with a lot of speed, too. She’s just a great runner with a great endurance combination.”