Heritage's Weini Kelati gets the encouragement from fans as she wins the the 3000 meter run during the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Thursday. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

When Weini Kelati began running in her native Eritrea, she did it just for fun. Now an elite athlete at Heritage High School in Loudoun County, she runs to win but still enjoys the competition and peace of mind that come when she’s striding toward the finish.

“My mind is very clear when I’m running,” said Kelati, 19 and a junior at Heritage. “If I feel really good, I just want to win.”

She also believes that being fit is important for young people, she said. That’s also why the American Running Association is hosting the annual National Run a Mile Days this month and next, promoting healthy lifestyles for elementary and middle school students.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that in 2012, one-third of all children and adolescents in the United States were overweight or obese. According to one CDC report, children who are overweight or obese are predisposed to have heart disease, diabetes and osteoarthritis as adults.

Washington Post All-Met Girls' Cross Country Runner of the Year Heritage sophomore Weini Kelati, photographed on Dec. 17, 2015. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The National Run a Mile event is “a public outreach campaign with a mission to get more boys and girls excited [about] becoming more fit and healthy with running,” according to the American Running Association’s website. The event began May 1 and ends June 15 at schools across the country.

The independently organized one-mile events are designed to encourage “parents, teachers and other adults to support the effort that running is fun and can lead our youth to improved health, lower weights and a sense of well-being,” according to a statement.

For Kelati, running led her around the world and to a new home in Leesburg.

She first started running at age 12 — without proper running shoes, she said — and since then has emerged as one of the top distance athletes in the country.

In December, she won the national cross-country championships. Last month, she bested the field in the 3,000-meter race at the Penn Relays, finishing in 9 minutes 19 seconds, the fourth-fastest time in the event’s history.

Kelati, who said she was born in a farming village in the small Horn of Africa country next to Sudan and Ethiopia, has traveled the globe as a competitive runner. One day, she hopes to compete in the Olympics — but not until after college, she said.

She’s off to a good start. She moved to Loudoun two years ago and quickly established herself as a top runner at Heritage. At first she ran with the boys’ team. But even at a slight 5 feet tall, she was too fast for them and eventually began training with one of the assistant coaches.

Heritage runner Weini Kelati poses for a portrait on the school track. (Joey LoMonaco/For The Washington Post)

Kelati knew almost no English when she arrived in the United States, but the word “run” was in her vocabulary. During the past four months, her English has improved significantly. The team’s freshman boys have made it a point to help teach her the language during lunch at school. With help from her teammates, she is able to give interviews about her races without a Tigrinya language translator.

During peak training, Kelati runs 85 miles a week. As a result of her work ethic, she regularly runs so far ahead of her opponents that she is out of sight. During her first cross-country race for Heritage in 2014, she found herself in trouble. Her sneaker laces had come untied in the middle of the Oatlands Invitational 5K. But Kelati had enough of a lead over the field that she had time to stop to tie her shoe. She won.

A year later, she went back to the same race at Oatlands. For Kelati, it showed what a difference tighter laces make.

She bested her winning time from the year before by a full minute. And won again.

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