Aimee Harms of Annandale High and Wendy Neely of Lake Braddock High have many things in common. They are relative newcomers to Northern Virginia and are 16-year-old high school juniors with a passion and a talent for running cross country.
But the one most frustrating thing they have in common lately is having to contend with running for second place. No matter what they do, Langley junior Erin Keogh always seems to win, and win big.
"I try to stay pretty near her," Harms said. "I try to keep contact. It's so hard to go out with her for the first mile. She goes so fast."
Which is why Harms and Neely have turned toward and against each other -- toward for the competition and against in the struggle for the runner-up position.
"I think more about Wendy than I do about Erin because I don't have a chance against Erin," Harms admitted.
Said Neely about Harms, "She's helped me a lot. If I go out with her, like at Pallotti (Invitational in Laurel), we run side by side the whole way."
Today, Harms and Neely again will race each other, this time in the Northern Region championship at Burke Lake Park in Burke. And again, Keogh, the defending champion, is heavily favored to win the girls race. Annandale's Jeff Pajak is favored among the boys.
Harms has come the closest of any girl in Virginia and the Washington area to outrunning Keogh, placing second twice by 28 seconds at the Northern Region Athletic Directors' meet and at Georgetown Prep 12 days ago. But until the Potomac District championships last week, Harms had not won an invitational this season, earning four runner-up honors, three of those to Keogh, with Neely third.
The fourth second-place effort was to Neely at Pallotti last month, the first time this season that Neely had beaten Harms.
"I try to stay with (Neely) until I feel confident enough to pass her," Harms said, "but at Pallotti, my legs were dead and she passed me at 1 1/2 miles (of the three-mile race)."
Although Keogh, Harms and Neely will meet on the same course today after winning their respective district meets last week, their paths leading up to the region meet have been all but similar.
While Keogh has run in the area since her freshman year, Harms and Neely both transferred, Harms from West Germany and Neely from Richmond. And both left behind noncompetitive running programs, where each was a superstar distance runner, only to be greeted by Keogh and one of the most competitive regions in the nation for girls cross country.
Harms began running at age 13 while growing up at an Air Force base near Frankfurt, West Germany. There, she was winning races by more than a minute. But all that changed when her father was tranferred to Washington in 1984.
The change in the level of competition was drastic for Harms. "My first race, I thought I was low-class," said Harms, who is 5 feet 2 and 90 pounds. "I was ninth."
She finished the cross country season by placing third in the region meet and a "disappointing" 10th in the Virginia AAA state meet.
Only three months later, she received more discouraging news -- as if the Northern Region already wasn't competitive enough, it was gaining the Virginia AA cross country state champion.
"I knew she'd be pretty good and I wanted to beat her," Harms said of Neely.
Sure enough, Neely, who started running competitively and successfully at age 10 and had dominated the running scene in Virginia AA for Manchester High, left Richmond last June because her father was tired of commuting to Washington five days a week. The Lake Braddock girls team, already rich with depth but a perpetual runnerup to Keogh and Langley, easily accepted Neely and vice versa.
"Since I knew so many people from the cross country team, I didn't feel awkward," said Neely, a 5-foot-6, 93-pounder.
But Neely has had to adjust to a school four times larger than Manchester and a program far more competitive. After winning the James Wood Invitational five weeks ago in Winchester in course-record time, she met Keogh two weeks later in the Northern Region Athletic Directors' meet. The last time the two raced, Keogh won the Kinney Southern Region meet and Neely was 45 seconds back in fifth. Keogh won the three-mile A.D. race in 16 minutes 29 seconds, with Neely 54 seconds behind in third.
Running enthusiasts wondered if the loss would be a setback for Neely. "Not really," she said, "because Erin is such a great runner. I knew I wasn't going to be No. 1 here so I was prepared. I know I'm not as close to Erin. I've tried to race with her and that doesn't really work, so I have to run my race. I try (to beat Aimee) but I haven't succeeded very much so far."
And while most runners would be deterred to look a couple of hundred yards up the trail and see Keogh effortlessly gliding like a gazelle, Neely finds that "Erin helps me. She pushes me along. I don't do too well when there's nobody there."
Seeing that Keogh, Harms and Neely all will be seniors next year, Neely can rest assured that there will always be somebody there to push her.