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Seniors Cleo and Clarissa Whiting may be twins, but it's their love for running that has brought them closer and made them two of Penn cross country's best.

Credit: Ilana Wurman , Ilana Wurman, Ilana Wurman

For the record — they’re identical.

A pair of Penn women’s cross country runners have been tearing up the trails in tandem, but their connection goes much deeper.

Seniors Cleo and Clarissa Whiting are entering their final year racing for the Red and Blue, and while some may find it hard to tell these twins apart, the stories of their college careers could hardly be more different.

In her freshman season, Cleo got off to a roaring start. After rising to the No. 1 spot on the team, she continued to rise into the regional rankings, until she ultimately got the chance at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regionals to qualify for the 2013 NCAA Cross Country Championships. Cleo qualified and was the only Quaker to travel to nationals that year.

Clarissa, while still enjoying an undoubtedly impressive start to her college career, suffered through a few strings of injury problems her freshman and sophomore seasons. She found herself consistently in the top five of the team, but she wasn’t quite able to match her twin sister’s heights.

Until last year, that is.

With a full season uninterrupted by major injuries, Clarissa found herself right on Cleo’s tail as they formed the core of the Quakers’ front pack along with fellow classmate Ashley Montgomery. Depending on the day, any one of the three could have stood at the top of the team’s ranking.

At the first meet of the season, Cleo finished third, with Clarissa in fourth. One week later, Clarissa took tenth at the Main Line Invitational. Cleo took ninth. The two routinely finished within seconds of each other, usually either second or third for their team.

Montgomery hailed the Whiting sisters’ consistency as a key contributor to the her own success last year.

“They’re really good at consistency and maintaining a pace in the middle when I would sometimes want to fall off,” she said. “Honestly, I’m really lucky to have them as teammates, because I feel like I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the things, or have the success I have without them.”

Montgomery then described how the three of them like to run together during races for as long as they can, so that they can bring out the best in each other. Packing up tightly, however, can carry its own risks, as trips and falls are common in the sport.

But as the twins put it, running side by side for them is second nature.

“We’ve been running together so much that it is very easy for us to run close to each other, without tripping each other up,” Clarissa said. “Especially on the track, but even during cross country races, we can be a small little wall, because we’re so comfortable being next to each other. ... It is easier for us, because we trust each other so much.”

It’s easy to imagine how racing side by side so often might create an unhealthy habit of competitiveness between the two. In fact, the women didn’t deny that they’ve competed in the past, but it’s something that they said they’ve learned to take advantage of.

“We were born comparing,” Cleo said. “From birth until now — we just turned 22 — it’s natural for us to compare. ... Unfortunately, that does come with a higher degree of stress, with being competitive in our lives, although it is also really beneficial with running, because we always have somebody to run with, somebody to try to get the best out of us. We always push each other.”

Thanks to their healthy competitive drive, the two have managed to approach fabled territory at the top of Penn distance-running record books. The two of them both have entries in the top-10 all-time records at the 3K and 5K distances, as well as the indoor mile. With any luck, their final year the Red and Blue could see them claim an all-time record or two. If not, perhaps they could still help guide team MVP Montgomery to yet another of her own.

But running isn’t the only thing the Whiting sisters have in common. Academically, their interests overlap significantly — they both even share the title of biology major. They’re also enrolled in the same genetics class this semester, in which they are learning the details of what it’s like to be a “carbon copy,” as Cleo put it, of one another.

The two may be identical twins, but they aren’t carbon copies in appearance. Sure, it’s hard to tell without knowing them, but they do have conventions for those who are unsure. Cleo wears a nose ring on her left nostril, while Clarissa has one on her right. Their hairs are different lengths. Some people close to them have even guessed that they are fraternal twins.

“We did some testing [at Penn] this summer, because everyone likes to make bets on whether we’re actually identical or not,” Cleo said. “It was really fun.”

Fun is something identical twins can have a lot of, if they’re mischievous enough — and while the Whitings said they’d feel too guilty to play serious pranks, they do enjoy having a bit of fun with their situation.

“We do like to trick everybody sometimes,” Cleo joked. “I don’t let anybody off the hook, if they really want to know [which twin I am], I’ll have them guess.”

They’re also living together, after three years apart. The two share an apartment with a third teammate this year, so that they can keep each other accountable in their studies and their training.

It’s easy to assume that their training programs this year, much like their DNA, will be the same. So if they can hold each other to it, the Whiting sisters could find themselves at the top of a podium or two this year.

And who knows — they could just even share it together.

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