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Led by (from left) Ashley Montgomery, the Whiting twins Cleo and Clarissa and Abby Hong, Penn cross country will look to get off to a fast start in the Big 5 Invitational.

Credit: Ilana Wurman , Ilana Wurman, Ilana Wurman

It’s good to be back.

Penn cross country will get its first taste of competition on Friday at the Big Five Invitational at Belmont Plateau. It marks the first of three local meets — preceding the Main Line Invitational at Haverford and Paul Short Invitational at Lehigh — that the team will use to gear up for more strenuous competition.

“Our sport is unique in that the win-loss record isn’t as important as where you end up at the championship meets,” Penn coach Steve Dolan said. “We’re in a building process for the Ivy League Championships, Regionals and NCAA Championships. These first few meets that we run locally are really great chances to get back into racing, see where we are from a fitness standpoint and continue to develop.”

One benefit of the site proximity is that the short travel time reduces stress on the student-athletes as the fall semester gets going. Senior Cleo Whiting says it’s also easier on the runners’ bodies, and appreciates the opportunity to conserve her energy early in the season.

“The later meets that we’ll be going to are a lot more physically draining and emotionally draining so having Big Five, Paul Short, Haverford, it just helps us relax and still continue to have training-like efforts instead of meet efforts where we’re really tired and it takes a few days to recover,” she said.

While many upperclassmen think of the meet as a tune-up, the new faces on the team will be competing for the first time at the collegiate level. Senior captain Brendan Shearn described the transition from high school to college as “tough” and recommends freshmen keep their expectations in check and try to have fun.

Senior Clarissa Whiting (Cleo’s identical twin) thinks the most beneficial part of the meet for freshmen is the chance to learn the warm-up routine and adjust to the differences of the collegiate race. She is also keeping an eye out for team chemistry. It will be an opportunity to look for teammates who run at similar paces and get a feel for who prefers to run as an individual, she said.

Cleo Whiting remembered being nervous in her first race as a freshman, but spent most of the race alongside her teammates and only ran alone for about a quarter of the race. She advises freshmen to stick with a group.

“We’re definitely one of the largest teams there that stick together the best so we can run next to each other and help each other get our best effort while remaining relaxed, staying calm and not really freaking out,” Cleo said.

As far as more tangible goals go, Shearn is looking to see a crew of Quakers crash the top of the standings.

“If we have everyone in a pack up towards the front of the race finishing well, that will be a really good sign for the rest of the season because if we’re going to compete well, we have to finish races hard,” he said. “If we can do that in these local meets it will translate to later-season meets.”

At last year’s event, the women did just that. Now-seniors Ashley Montgomery, Cleo and Clarissa Whiting and now-junior Abby Hong claimed second through fifth, and 11 of the top 21 finishes belonged to the Red and Blue. The women also took first in the team race. The men finished second in the team race, with now-sophomore Kurt Convey placing tenth in the individual race.

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