Marlee Starliper has learned a lot in the last year, about a lot of things. About racing, sure, but also about herself.
About how disappointment shouldn't consume you.
About how, when something goes wrong, you learn from it. You move on. You look toward the next race, toward the next moment ...it could be the best one yet.
She's had a lot of those in 2019.
But before she concludes her junior season on the track, she's got one more race to go after. She'll suit up on Friday, July 19, at 3,000 meters for USA's U20 team at the Pan American U20 Championships at National Stadium in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Whether it's another win, a medal-worthy performance, or otherwise, Starliper knows what will set her up for success.
"Especially after cross country, having that mental aspect being more sorted out, just kicking it up a notch," Starliper said. "Performances, I think I've turned into a bit of a different runner. I'm excited to keep working hard and keep upping my game. I feel like I was able to get my mind right, I could unleash more of what I could do physically."
Looking back, she's no doubt had the best year of her high school career over the cumulative 2018-2019 seasons, producing various accomplishments: Her second straight All-American finish at Foot Locker, all-time efforts in a few races over the indoor and outdoor seasons, and qualifying for her first USA U20 team.
You could make the argument that she's had the best distance season of any girl in the country.
But every success hasn't always been accompanied by a win. And it hasn't needed to.
In running, success is ultimately about the process. What's the process that led to that outcome?
"I think this year she learned how to handle the big races a lot better than she has in the past," said Abram Albert, Starliper's coach for the past two-plus seasons.
"She knew she could always run and compete," said Jay Starliper, Marlee's father. "She believes it. It's been overcoming more and more mental barriers, which is why she made the jump. It's been more mental."
Starliper's aspirations have always been high. A year ago at the USATF U20 Championships, competing in her first American U20 championship event as a high school sophomore, she was entered in the 5K and felt like she had a chance to win. But after two laps, nothing went right and she faded, finishing 11th.
"Going against collegiate girls who had run the full season and with experience, it was tough," Albert said.
It didn't take long for her to get past it. She bounced back in the ensuing cross country season with win after win after win. She won five straight meets before finishing as the runner-up at Foot Locker Northeast.
She went into the Foot Locker National Championship with huge expectations. Again, she hoped that she could place in the top five.
And after a solid first lap through Balboa Park, nothing quite went right and she faded again, to 13th.
Albert and Jay Starliper took a look at that race in San Diego and sought to figure out what was happening. Marlee was ready to race. She was certainly capable of sticking with the leaders. But why didn't she?
"It was dealing with her nerves," Jay said. "We said, 'Let's talk about learning how to relax, learning how to smile. Let's not get all uptight and focus on what you're doing. She's always physically been there."
"Going into these national-type races, sometimes she would get a little anxiety because she was going up against the best girls in the country," Albert said. "But we had to learn how to go in more relaxed and a little more chill."
Starliper, like many young female distance runners, is intense about her sport. She puts in the miles, takes stock in where she fits among others the country, and competes with the kind of vigor that often challenges her own sense of self. It often brings her to the tape first.
"There are times when I'm rooting for her as a coach and there are times where you'll separate and you'll say, we need to have, as I'll say, let's have a 'Team Marlee Talk,'" Jay said. "My wife and I will sit down and say 'Hey, here's some things I think you need to work on.'"
You can't really erase that competitiveness -- but you can hone in on the best parts of it.
That's what she's done.
"I'm so thankful that I'm never quite satisfied," Starliper said.
It started with indoors. There was her 9:20.91 in the 3,000 indoors at the Penn State National Open, No. 9 all-time. She won the Millrose Games elite high school mile in 4:41.66, then skipped her state championship meet indoors to run against pros at the USA Indoor Championships, finishing 18th in the 2-mile -- but she broke 10 minutes, becoming one of seven high school girls to do that all-time.
Who skips a chance to win state to finish 18th against a bunch of adults? Starliper.
"That was really the talk after Foot Locker," Jay said. "Her coaches were like, 'We need to put her indoors in many big races, not small races. It was intentional in that way to put her in that situation so she got used to dealing with it, it being second nature."
She lost in the mile at New Balance Nationals Indoor, in 4:39.05 -- she was caught down in the last moment by an in-state competitor, Taryn Parks.
But hey, it was ninth all-time.
Outdoors, she ran 2:09.44 for 800 meters -- not bad for a 2-miler. She finished second at the Penn Relays Carnival 1-mile -- not a win, but again, really fast.
She locked in for a 9:54.75 at 3,200 meters at the Loucks Games, No. 8 all-time. And then, after putting all her marbles into one race for state, she lost again (!), finishing second at the Class AAA 1,600m in Pennsylvania.
But she ran 4:37.45 -- No. 5 all-time!
At that point, Albert said, it was all relative. Take the loss. But then understand what you just accomplished.
Marlee was seeing the bigger picture.
"This year we did lose a couple of big races," Albert said. "But she bounced back well."
A year after that 5K disappointment at U20s?
Knowing the heat would effect all runners on the track -- the meet was held in Miramar, Florida -- the Starliper family spent a few days in Cape Coral, Florida, beforehand. Starliper's grandmother lived there.
She spent those days running along the brutally hot and flat roads of Southwest Florida.
When race time arrived on June 22, she was ready. She didn't take out a blistering pace, hitting splits of 77 and 78 on her first two laps.
Her last two? 74 and 73. She won in 9:29.39.
She was probably capable of more -- in fact, she had run faster the previous indoor season -- but by then Starliper knew something important.
In qualifying, she'd have one more race left in her season. The lesson had taught her that.