As most runners reached the top of the final hill before the straightway to the finish at the Class C North regional race at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast on Oct. 22, Ruth White could be spotted cheering on every single racer until the final runner crossed the finish line.
White made no show of it. She clapped and cheered for every runner before talking to the media wanting to celebrate her big race.
At just 4-foot-8, White is one of the best runners to ever compete in high school cross-country in Maine. The Orono junior is about to run in one of the biggest races of her life so far, the Champs Northeast Regional, in New York City on Saturday. But when asked about her times or awards, White usually finds a way to bring the attention to her team or competitors and has built a reputation of spreading the spotlight to their accomplishments as well.
White started in Orono’s youth summer track and field program when she was 5 years old to be like her older sister, Nora.
That’s when her cheering for her competitors began.
“She does recognize everyone is putting in 100 percent. She’s not going to have a conversation until everyone is home,” Ruth White’s father and cross-country coach, Lin White, said.
Nora started congratulating others in her race and Ruth followed suit, continuing the tradition to this day, Lin White added.
She continued to compete in summer programs and middle school, but White’s incredible skill didn’t sink in with her until the Festival of Champions meet her sophomore year.
White won the Festival of Champions meet in Belfast that year in 17:28.46, breaking the course record that was set by Julia Robitaille of Manchester, New Hampshire, in 2017.
“I found I could run with the top girls in Maine and that was kind of eye opening because I was running times like [Falmouth’s 2019 Class A state champion] Sofie Matson,” White said. “I was just really excited to know I could run similar times as those girls.”
It was the first of many race times by White that sent shockwaves through the Maine running community.
White went on to win the Class C state championship last year (17:31), then the New England championship (18:44) by 12.7 seconds.
This year, she’s somehow bettered her finishes.
She broke her own course record during this year’s Festival of Champions meet, running 17:27.15. White then won the Class C state meet and followed that up with her second New England win (17:51.30), which was 42 seconds faster than the second-place finisher.
Next up is the Champs Northeast Regional in New York City this Saturday. The race consists of the top runners from the Northeast, with the top 10 finishers qualifying for the national meet in San Diego, California, on Dec. 10.
“This year is kind of a critical point in terms of colleges but also to see how I stack up against other girls,” White said. “I wanted to go into a race where it’s going to be really competitive. I know I won’t be in the front but I am excited to be in the mix of girls and have people right next to me the whole time.”
White is used to running on her own. The biggest competition she’s had this fall was during the Festival of Champions, when Anna Robinson of Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, ran next to White for the first mile before falling back in the pack.
During practice, White works on pacing herself alone. On long runs she tries to hit specific times at different markers along her route. During speed workouts, she often runs with the boys team.
Emily Durgin, another star runner from Maine, said you get used to running by yourself.
The former Cheverus runner and 2009 New England champion’s only close competition was Kennebunk’s Abbey Leonardi. If Durgin wasn’t in a race with Leonardi, she was running alone in front, much like White does now.
“It was always nice to get to the New England races and I did the Foot Locker regionals a bunch of times, and just getting into a group where there are other girls that are as good as Abbey [Leonardi] and I, it took off the pressure,” Durgin said.
“I hope when [White] gets to experience it this weekend she can feed off the other girls in the race. It’s a lot of fun so I am excited to see what she can do.”
White said that heading into the New England meet during her sophomore year she did not feel pressure. But that changed this fall, when there were expectations that she would win again.
Durgin, who graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2017 and is now running professionally for Adidas, understands those feelings.
“When I did all that at a young age, I didn’t appreciate how spectacular what I was doing really was. Looking at it now, I am so proud of younger Emily,” Durgin said.
“I just hope [White] is taking in all these moments and realizing how big of a deal this really is. When she gets to be my age she will understand that, ‘Wow, this is pretty damn awesome.’”
Hannah Steelman, a graduate of Orono High School and now a professional runner with On Running, coached White in youth track. Now, she’s enjoying watching White’s career unfold and said she is “just scratching the surface.”
“I raced in New Englands a few times in high school and remember how tough that meet is. To win once is a huge accomplishment; twice is super impressive,” Steelman said. “I cannot wait to see what else she accomplishes going forward.”
White is small in stature, but her legs and arm turn quickly and rarely waver in form. Normally one of the shortest runners in any race she joins, White isn’t fazed.
“Everyone is a different height, and it’s about who can run faster,” White said. “It doesn’t matter how long your stride is. Some people who are taller than me have a shorter stride than me so I don’t really worry about it.”
On the national running circuit, Durgin, who is 5 feet, 4 inches and training for the marathon at the 2024 U.S. Olympic trials, has noticed the size of elite distance runners has started to shrink. She considers herself to be above-average in height for current American runners.
“Of course [White] is very petite and small but we have a lot of high-level athletes in the pro side that are on what you would call on the average to below-average size on the distance size,” Durgin said.
The most famous runner from Maine, Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson, is 5 feet, 4 inches.
White is also a strong Nordic skier and won the Class C classical, freestyle and pursuit titles in Nordic skiing last winter. In the spring, White is a top distance runner on the track and field team. White wouldn’t say which is her favorite.
When she’s not competing for the Red Riots, White is usually still outside, whether it’s swimming, biking or hiking. She also enjoys woodworking and craft projects.
White and her dad talk about running more and more but Lin White said he’s a parent-coach, not the other way around. The two work on balancing running with life.
“It’s not about winning for her but running the best race that she can,” Lin White said. “She gets excited, she gets incredibly nervous for it, although she may not show it. But it’s a tough balancing act when there are really high expectations.”
Ruth White said she thinks she wants to run in college, but for now the focus is on Champs and then Nordic skiing.
“I like that in track I can run with people and so I feel like I have some practice with that in track and I am excited to see how it works out in cross-country,” White said. “I am just going as hard as I can and seeing what happens.”