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Caroline Alcorta has grown accustomed to leading the pack this season, but at the Adidas XC Challenge in Cary, N.C., last month, she pulled ahead of more than just the competitors in her race. The West Springfield senior flew through the first 800 meters in a sub-5-minute-mile pace before eventually crossing the line 35 seconds ahead of the runner-up finisher. After the race, a cross-country coach from the University of North Carolina approached her and told her she went out faster than anyone in the previous night’s men’s collegiate race.

“It was something where if she could run a 17:18 5K withstanding that almost irresponsibly fast first 800, it shows her strength right now because it was a pace that was so hard that none of the other girls running with her were able to remotely sustain that,” West Springfield cross-country coach Chris Pellegrini said.

Through four races so far this season, Alcorta’s blistering starting paces have rendered opposing runners specks in her rear view mirror and have yielded her four landslide victories. In addition to the Adidas Challenge, she won the Monroe Parker Invitational by 30 seconds, the Maymont XC Festival in Richmond by 35 seconds and the Hagan Stone Classic in Greensboro, N.C., by 55 seconds, setting a course record in the process.

Rather than ease into a race and let opponents kick into her, Alcorta has kept opponents steadily receding behind her from the starting gun to the finish line with a brutal early pace that requires plenty of suffering from anyone daring to catch up. Pellegrini attributes his star runner’s endurance to an efficient stride and a mental drive that doesn’t slow until her legs give out. Alcorta, standing just over 5-feet tall and weighing about 100 pounds, says she’s simply in the best shape of her life.

“I just feel a lot stronger in races,” she said. “I feel like I can go out and just keep running. The season’s going better than I thought it would, and I’m surprising myself I guess.”

Alcorta points to the season-opening Monroe Parker as the race she’s most proud of so far this fall. She finished that race at Burke Lake Park in 16:58, the same time she recorded at the regional meet on that course last October. Season-opening times at the Monroe Parker, run in the comparatively hot early-September heat, typically end up significantly higher than times recorded at the regional meet later in the fall, when cooler temperatures and greater urgency push runners to go faster. Even with the ambitious Monroe Parker time — ranked No. 8 on the all-time Burke Lake list for girls — Pellegrini believes Alcorta can drop around 20 seconds on that pace as the season goes on.

“She really doesn’t get complacent,” Pellegrini said. “She wants to get better, she believes she can continue getting better, and from what I’ve seen from her training, there’s every indication that she can.”

That kind of improvement would put her around the mark former Lake Braddock great Sophie Chase put up at regionals last year, when she ran Burke Lake in 16:42 to grab her third straight region crown and claim the third-fastest girls’ time ever produced at the hallowed course. If she can get to that level, Alcorta will be on track to achieve some lofty goals this year.

“I’d like the team to make it back to states. That’s always been a goal,” said Alcorta, who’s being looked at by UNC, UVA and Georgetown, among others. “I guess I’m going to try and go undefeated for as long as possible, which would be kind of cool. After postseason, I’d like to make it back to Foot Locker and hopefully get All-American.”

Alcorta joined Chase and Oakton’s Allie Klimkiewicz as the area’s three representatives at Foot Locker Nationals last December in San Diego, where she finished 0.3 seconds outside the top 15 needed to qualify for All-American status. Before she can focus on December, though, Alcorta is aiming to lead her whole team to states, and to do it she’ll need the help of Katie Kennedy, who currently looks like an all-state caliber athlete as she finishes inside a minute behind Alcorta in most races.

Alcorta’s rise to the top is especially impressive considering she opted for field hockey instead of cross-country her freshman year. If her current pace holds up, there’s no telling how high this sport could take her.

“It’s nice because ever since her sophomore year she’s had a really good progression, and you can tell that she hasn’t hit any sort of stagnating point yet,” Pellegrini said. “She just keeps getting better and better and better.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com