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As cheering spectators watched packs of runners trudge uphill at Saturday’s Monroe Parker Invitational cross country meet at Burke Lake, a lone figure emerged from the woods coming in the opposite direction. One onlooker pointed at the boy in the distance, prompting other incredulous observers to swivel their heads toward the railroad tracks and fix their eyes on a runner who appeared to be out for a brisk morning jog.

Chantilly senior Sean McGorty approached the home stretch as if he had taken a shortcut, leaving hundreds of other competitors so far back he could have stopped for a water break and still finished first. The All-American runner completed the 2.98-mile course in 14 minutes, 50 seconds, a full 26 seconds clear of the second-place finisher, Lake Braddock senior Nick Tuck.

Naturally, the winner was a bit disappointed.

“I wish it had been a little faster just for my own goals, but I’ll take sub-15 any day,” McGorty said. “I’m happy with it but looking forward to training harder and getting faster later in the year.”

Saturday’s performance marked the first time McGorty had run the Monroe Parker unencumbered by the nagging presence of former Annandale star Ahmed Bile, who had won the race the previous two years. Bile, now a freshman at Georgetown University, trailed McGorty for much of last year’s race before turning on the jets to beat him by four seconds with a time of 15:04.07.

McGorty’s 18-second improvement on last year’s time serves as validation for the rigorous offseason training spurred by his desire to improve on last year’s second-place finish in the state meet and 10th place finish at the national meet in San Diego. It’s a path to the top that can only help the rest of his team, whose status as the favorite to win the state meet is cemented by the return of its top seven runners from a squad that finished fifth at states last year.

The Chantilly boys squad looked the part of a legitimate state title contender Saturday, beating out the rest of the 33-team Monroe Parker field for the second straight year. Three Chantilly competitors finished inside the top 10, even as their number two runner, Logan Miller, came in 29th place. The Chantilly girls, meanwhile, finished in fifth place.

“I think they can take some success from this and feel good about what they’ve done in the summer,” Chantilly coach Matt Gilchrist said. “They worked hard for the last 12, 14 weeks. This gives us something we can look at and see where we can improve.”

The Lake Braddock girls team avenged last year’s second-place finish with a dominating win that came thanks to placing five runners inside the top 30. Junior Hannah Christen emerged with her first career individual victory, finishing with a time of 17:40 to beat second-place finisher Caroline Alcorta of West Springfield by six seconds.

Christen moved into the lead near the halfway point when teammate and three-time defending Monroe Parker champion Sophie Chase dropped out of the race due to a hip flexor that had been bothering her before the race began. Braddock coach Michael Mangan, who encouraged Chase to pull out of the race, said his star runner should be back to normal within the next few weeks.

Though disheartened by her teammate’s withdrawal, Christen pushed herself to the brink to make sure the Bruins crossed the finish line first.

“I was relieved. It was really hard coming down that last straightaway,” Christen said. “I just thought of it as a fun race. I tried not to think of it as super intense or anything. I just tried to run my best and see what happens.”

It helped that she was running alongside Alcorta, a friend who has given her plenty of competition in recent years. While Alcorta finished up a bit faster than Christen at the end of the previous cross-country season, Christen came out just ahead by the end of track season last spring.

“[Alcorta] and Hannah have had a number of big-time battles,” West Springfield coach Chris Pellegrini said. “I anticipate them being very near each other throughout the course of the season, and I think they’re both serious contenders for the Foot Locker Finals.”

Most runners agreed that the Monroe Parker serves as a tune-up for more important meets down the road rather than act as a real measuring stick for the area’s top teams. The heavily favored Oakton girls team, for example, did not participate in Saturday’s race.

Still, the performances of runners like McGorty and Christen signal exciting things to come when the Northern Region meet rolls around in November.

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com