Much about the 20th annual Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions represented a return to pre-2020 form before COVID-19 factors forced organizers to offer a limited version of the state’s largest interscholastic distance race last fall.
More than 1,200 runners from around the state and beyond as well as a large gathering of supporters and running fans turned out Saturday for the event at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast, slightly less than the even larger gatherings that were typical before the 2020 field was limited to 127 runners from nearby schools and no spectators due to the coronavirus.
But the near-normalcy of the 2021 festival did include at least one significant new factor — Ruth White.
The diminutive Orono High School sophomore, who did not run cross country in 2020 but swept the 1,500- and 3.200-meter championships at June’s Class C outdoor track and field championships, set new meet and course records while winning her festival debut.
White’s time for the 3.1-mile course of 17 minutes, 28.46 seconds bettered the previous meet record of 17:35.91 set in 2019 by Sofie Matson of Falmouth, the 2019 New England cross country champion as well as a three-time state champion who was denied the chance to win a fourth when the 2020 state meet was canceled.
White also bettered the course record of 17:31.65 set by Julia Robitaille of Manchester, New Hampshire, when she won the 2017 New England championship held in Belfast.
“I didn’t really have a goal other than to race as hard as I could,” she said. “I knew there were a lot of strong girls out there. As you could tell we all were pretty close together so I was just ready to race as hard as I could.”
White’s closest competition turned out to be her older sister Nora White, who eclipsed her previous personal best 5-kilometer time by more than two minutes with an 18:09.53 clocking.
“I knew I was going to get myself there because I’ve been running close to that this season, but now for an official 5K I finally have a time,” said Nora, who did not run cross country last fall either but finished second to Ruth in the 1,500 and 3,200 and teamed with her sister to help Orono win the 3,200-meter relay title at last spring’s outdoor track state championships.
“I think my training has helped, and I credit a lot of it to training with Ruth every day,” she said. “It’s amazing. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
That sisterhood came into play when the Whites were caught amid a congested front pack among the 534 runners who started the race.
“We were right in the middle so we had to get out fast,” Nora said. “I said to Ruth right at the start, ‘Just get out, Just get out.’ We both got boxed in, but we both went to opposite sides of the pack and then met back up in the front.”
Ruth White established the lead 400 meters into the race and never relinquished it against a deep field of top competitors that included University of New Hampshire-bound senior Delaney Hesler of Bonny Eagle High School in Standish and Ava Thurston of Harwood Union High School in Moretown, Vermont, who finished third in the 2019 race while leading her team to the Festival of Champions championship.
But neither runner mounted a serious challenge to the Whites, who also helped Orono to an eighth-place finish among 49 competing schools.
“Everyone was racing as hard as they could. That’s part of the deal,” Ruth White said. “I was just trying to get up with the girls I was seeded with, and then I knew they’d push me and hopefully I’d push them. I think everyone had a good day.”
Hesler finished fourth in 18:29.70 to help Bonny Eagle avenge a two-point loss to Harwood Union in the 2019 event with a one-point victory Saturday, 91-92, as the Scots overcame Thurston’s third-place finish in 18:15.40.
Cumberland (Rhode Island) High School was third with 148 points, followed by Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor (192) and Marshwood of South Berwick (195). Gorham (276), Bangor (292), Orono (340), Cape Elizabeth (349) and Mt. Blue of Farmington (373) rounded out the top 10.