(photo courtesy of Foot Locker Cross-Country Championship)

On her first trip outside the state of Illinois since arriving from Germany in August, Mailin Struck qualified on Saturday for a much nicer trip to California.

Struck, a foreign exchange student at Riverside Brookfield High School, finished seventh Saturday at the Foot Locker Midwest Regional Cross-Country Championships to qualify for the Foot Locker national high school cross-country championships which will be held on Dec. 14 in San Diego.

The girls race at the Midwest Regional, which was held at the hilly Wayne E. Dannehl cross-country course on the University of Wisconsin Parkside campus in Kenosha, featured runners from 13 states and included 13 state champions. Struck, the Illinois Class 2A state champion, was the only Illinois runner to finish in the top 10 and qualify for the national championships.

“That makes me kind of proud,” Struck said, in understated fashion.

Finishing in the top 10 to qualify for nationals was her main goal Saturday.

“I’m really glad,” Struck said about qualifying for nationals. “I didn’t feel really good this morning, so I just hoped that I would stay in the top 10.”

Struck finished the hilly 5,000-meter course with a time of 17:52, 18 seconds behind winner Kelcy Welch of Carmel, Ind. Struck was in 15th place after the first 500 yards.

Two long hills in the first half-mile made it a painful race right from the start.

“Oh the hills were terrible, especially the first hill,” Struck said. “It killed me.”

She moved up to seventh by the middle of the race, but still wasn’t feeling strong.

“I’m not a fast starter,” Struck said. “I never start fast and I already started too fast, I felt like, because I couldn’t feel my hands and that is normally when I don’t have enough oxygen in my lungs and that happened and I was like, OK, I hope it works out.”

But she held her spot in the top 10. Coming down the final straight, she was in eighth place. She dug down and put on a final burst to pass Kirsten Olling, the Michigan Division 4 state champ from Wheeler, Mich., just before the finish line.

“People started to pass me and I was like, OK, you should keep it up and try to hold the pace, and I actually passed a girl right at the end, and I was really proud, kind of,” Struck said.

Not finishing first in a race in the United States was a new experience for Struck who had won all her races in high school by large margins, except for one race in which she was leading near the finish line but got confused about where the finish line was and had to backtrack and eventually finish third.

She doesn’t expect to win every race and, in fact, gets very nervous before races. Struck said she was fine with not winning Saturday, especially knowing how tough the competition was.

“It was pretty OK,” Struck said. “I mean I’m not depressed. I know that I’m not the world champion or something like that, so I can deal with not winning.”

She was not feeling her best on Saturday and said that could have been related to relaxing her normally healthy habits during Thanksgiving week.

“I wasn’t as disciplined as I normally am, especially because we had Thanksgiving,” she said. A vegetarian, Struck didn’t eat any turkey on Thanksgiving, but she did indulge her sweet tooth.

“I ate a lot of desert and cake and stuff,” she confessed.

Struck is looking forward to going to San Diego and the national championships. Foot Locker will pay all expenses for the runners.

“My body cannot like deal with cold that good, so probably I think I’m doing better there because I can run better when it’s warm,” Struck said.

RB seniors Sarah Melone and Clare Bollnow also ran in the race and trained with Struck for three weeks following the Illinois state meet. Melone finished 157th Saturday with a time of 20:30 while Bollnow finished 177th in 21:06.

Two boys from Riverside ran in the boys race.

Christopher Korabik, a senior at St. Ignatius High School, finished 49th with a time of 16:07 while Sal Flight, a junior at Fenwick, finished 74th with a time of 16:18.

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