As most of the runners reached the top of the last hill before the straight to the finish in the Class C North regional race at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast on October 22, Ruth White could be seen cheering on every single runner until the last runner crossed the finish line.
White didn’t show it. She clapped and cheered each runner before speaking to the media to celebrate her big race.
White herself crossed the finish line in 17:51 to win her second straight Class C North title. Her time was 71 seconds faster than second place finisher Teanne Ewings of Houlton (19:01.70).
At just 4ft 8, White is one of the best runners to ever compete in Maine high school cross country. The Orono junior faces one of the biggest races of her life to date, the Champs Northeast Regional, in New York City on Saturday. But when asked about her times or awards, White usually finds a way to draw attention to her team or her competitors, and has earned a reputation for spotlighting their accomplishments as well.
White started in Orono’s youth summer athletics program at age 5 to be like her older sister, Nora.
That’s when her jubilation for her competitors began.
“She realizes that everyone gives 100 percent. She won’t have a conversation until everyone is home,” said Ruth White’s father and cross-country coach Lin White.
Nora began congratulating others on their race and Ruth followed suit and continued the tradition to this day, Lin White added.
She continued to attend summer programs and middle school, but it wasn’t until the Festival of Champions encountered her sophomore year that she realized White’s incredible abilities.
White won the Festival of Champions meeting in Belfast that year in 17:28.46, breaking the course record set in 2017 by Julia Robitaille of Manchester, New Hampshire.
“I found that I could run with the top girls in Maine and that was an eye opener because I had times like running [Falmouth’s 2019 Class A state champion] Sophie Matson,” White said. “I was just really excited to know that I can run similar times to these girls.”
It was the first of White’s many race times that sent shockwaves through the Maine running community.
White won the Class C state championship last year (17:31), then the New England Championship (18:44) by a margin of 12.7 seconds.
This year she somehow improved her degrees.
She broke her own course record during this year’s Festival of Champions meeting, running 17:27.15. White then won the Class C state meeting and followed that up with her second win in New England (17:51.30), 42 seconds faster than the runner-up.
Next up this Saturday is the Champs Northeast Regional in New York City. The race features the top runners from the Northeast, with the top 10 finishers qualifying for the national meet in San Diego, California on December 10th.
“This year is a tipping point in terms of colleges, but also to see how I do against other girls,” White said. “I wanted to go into a race where it’s really competitive. I know I won’t be up front, but I look forward to being in the mix of girls and having guys right next to me all the time.”
White is used to walking alone. The biggest competition she had this fall was during the Festival of Champions when Anna Robinson of the Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, ran alongside White for the first mile before falling back into the pack.
During practice, White works on pacing up and down on his own. On long runs, she tries to hit specific times at various markers along her route. During speed training, she often runs with the boys’ team.
Emily Durgin, another Maine star runner, said it takes getting used to running on your own.
The former Cheverus runner and 2009 New England champion’s only close rival was Kennebunk’s Abbey Leonardi. When Durgin wasn’t in a race with Leonardi, she ran alone up front, much like White does now.
“It’s always been nice coming to the New England races and I’ve competed in the Foot Locker Regionals a couple of times and just got into a group where there are other girls who are as good as Abbey [Leonardi] and it took the pressure off me,” Durgin said.
“I hope when [White] gets to experience this weekend that she can feed off the other girls in the race. It’s a lot of fun, so I’m excited to see what she can do.”
White said she felt no pressure in her sophomore year heading to the New England meeting. 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 now runs professionally for Adidas, understands those sentiments.
“When I did all this at a young age, I didn’t realize how spectacular what I was doing was. Looking at it now, I’m so proud of the younger Emily,” Durgin said.
“I only hope [White] takes in all those moments and realizes how big it really is. When she gets to my age, she’ll understand: ‘Wow, that’s freaking awesome.'”
Hannah Steelman, a graduate of Orono High School and now a professional runner with On Running, coached White in the youth track. Now she’s enjoying watching White’s career, saying it’s “only scratching the surface.”
“I raced a few times in New England in high school and I remember how tough that meet is. Winning once is a great achievement; twice is super impressive,” Steelman said. “I can’t wait to see what else she achieves in the future.”
White is short in stature, but her legs and arms rotate quickly and rarely waver in shape. Usually White is one of the shortest runners in any race she is in and doesn’t let that faze her.
“Everyone’s a different size and it’s about who can run faster,” White said. “It doesn’t matter how far you go. Some people who are taller than me have a shorter crotch than me, so I’m not worried about that.”
On the national running circuit, Durgin, who is 5-foot-4 and is training for the marathon at the 2024 US Olympic Trials, has noticed that the size of elite distance runners is beginning to shrink. She considers herself taller than current American runners.
“Of course [White] is very petite and small but we have a lot of high profile athletes on the pro side who are average to below average height at distance,” Durgin said.
White is also a strong Nordic skier, winning Class C classic, freestyle and pursuit titles in Nordic skiing last winter. In 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 out there, whether it’s swimming, biking, or hiking. She also enjoys woodworking and craft projects.
White and her dad are talking more and more about running, but Lin White said he’s a parent coach, not the other way around. The two work to balance running with life.
“For them, it’s not about winning, it’s about having the best possible race,” said Lin White. “She gets excited, she gets incredibly nervous about it, although she might not show it. But it’s a difficult balancing act when expectations are very high.”
Ruth White said she thinks she wants to ski in college but for now the focus is on the champs and then Nordic skiing.
“I like that I can run with people on the track and I feel like I’ve gotten some practice with that on the track and I’m excited to see how it works off-road,” said White. “I just give as much as I can and see what happens.”