Before this season, Cara Kiernan had never heard of the Foot Locker Cross-Country National Championships. Yesterday, she placed 14th in the 32-girl race in San Diego to earn all-American honors and cap a year of surprises.

The Potomac School senior, a first-year runner, was undefeated this year and won the Virginia Independent School League championship, but surprised most observers by qualifying third for the national meet. She was the top finisher from the South Region yesterday, patiently passing runners on the challenging 5-kilometer course to clock 18 minutes 2 seconds.

Zoe Nelson of Kalispell, Mont., won in 17:30. Kippy Keino of Fork Union Military Academy was 15th (15:22) in the boys' race.

"This whole season has been one surprise after another," Kiernan said. "Just qualifying was the biggest shock of my life. I mean, I've been running all of nine months . . . and there were 63 other athletes out here who had never heard of me."

Kiernan had to run carefully the first mile to avoid breaking on the race's second hill, but she said her training paid off with her moment in the sun.

"Training in the snow and ice in Washington, D.C. . . . makes you feel hard-core, but you need palm trees at some point," she said.

Moments after finishing, Kiernan's next surprise was seeing Yale men's coach Danny Ireland and finding out she had been admitted and will run there next fall.