Last year, Gena Clare of Robinson was a rapidly improving junior running third or fourth for the girls cross country team. Coming into this season, she was expected to be the best returning runner.

That is, until her younger sister Tama, a junior, decided to run cross country for the first time.

Sibling rivalry in any case can be difficult for two girls one year apart in high school. Competing on the same team, especially in a sport as individual and competitive as cross country, can be like fueling the fire.

"We're fairly close," said Gena Clare. "But we have our share of arguments."

"Mostly about clothes and guys," Tama quickly added. "Though we give each other our own space."

In the past three weeks, the Clares have driven Robinson to second-place finishes in two major invitationals -- Tama in the lead position, Gena following in the top 20.

"Being on the same team doesn't really bother us," Gena said. "We are two different runners. And we're both really competitive. When we were little, we used to compete against ourselves in swimming. Now we compete against others."

"People think we look like twins," Tama joked, all of 5 feet 1, 104 pounds and uncounted freckles. "But our personalities are different. She's (Gena) popular. She goes out more. She takes chances. I'm more conservative."

"She's paranoid," said Gena, nearly the same dimensions, but with fewer freckles.

Sitting within arm's reach of each other in the bleachers inside Robinson's gymnasium, Gena remained calm and restrained while Tama jumped around and talks at the speed of light. She hardly ever completed a sentence, but somehow you got the gist of what she was saying. She calls it brainstorming.

"I'm always nervous, and that's okay, but when I make everyone else nervous, Gena tells me to calm down."

It doesn't take much to get Tama Clare started, talking or running. She has let her feet do the talking the past three weeks by proving she is one of the fastest girls in the state with her runner-up effort in the Northern Region Athletic Directors' meet and third in the George Mason Invitational. In her first cross country meet, she cut six seconds from the Robinson course record in a tri-meet and won by 55 seconds.

Tama's instant success hasn't spoiled the Clares' relationship. In fact, training together seems to have brought the two closer.

"Her success doesn't really bother me at all," Gena said.

"It bothers other people more than it bothers us," Tama said.

"I'm glad she's doing really well," Gena said. "Sometimes I want to be with her up there."

But they realize their strengths as runners. Gena has quickness, Tama has endurance. As a freshman in spring track, Gena ran 800 meters in a competitive 2:17, but the next year fell into a sophomore slump. She couldn't break 2:29, and nearly left track for good. Only Tama's encouragement and success that year kept Gena in the sport.

"At least one Clare was up there," Tama mused about her sixth-place finish in the 1,600 in the state meet her freshman year. "I also made states as a freshman and didn't as a sophomore. We both had slumps our sophomore years . . . we help each other out of the downs."

But now, Tama has become her own person. "The girls used to kid Tama about being my little sister," said Gena. "Then in a newspaper article last week, it referred to me as Tama's older sister."

With Tama on the team, Gena's role as captain has been expanded to what Coach Dee Raynes calls "a liaison between Tama and the team. The other girls on the team admire Tama and they want to run like her, but they look up to Gena."

Raynes admits she was worried about the rivalry when Tama joined the cross country team. "I don't look at them as sisters," said Raynes, who coaches two other pairs of sisters. "I treat them all as individuals."

The only concern for Raynes has been keeping Tama challenged. "The girls don't come back in a very good mood after the distance runs," she said. "They complain that Tama is going too hard. She cannot understand pacing. Now she trains with the boys."