Upward mobility is a challenge Claire Zubey has effectively mastered.
Whether it was negotiating hills on cross-country courses, or improving on her own performance, Zubey has been quite adept at raising the established standard. That was very much the case this fall, when the Owen J. Roberts junior parlayed her successes into selection as the 2021 Mercury All-Area Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year. It’s the third straight year Zubey has established herself as the area’s best.
Alongside her regular-season outings — she won Pioneer Athletic Conference Liberty Division races by a minute on up, in addition to Top Three finishes in the PIAA Foundation Invitational and Paul Short Run at Lehigh University — Zubey had higher finishes in the post-season. She won the girls’ PAC Championship, which returned to the schedule after 2020’s COVID-19 affected cancellation, and finished about 30 seconds ahead of Pope John Paul II’s Gianna Cagliola, District 1’s repeat AA champion.
Zubey had a similar showing in the District 1 Class AAA competition a week later, turning in a sub-18 minute effort in the race’s return to Lehigh to outrun Bensalem’s Shana Kearney.
“I knew the girl would go out and take the lead from the beginning,” Zubey said. “I sat back, waited for my time to come.”
She then made a considerable leap up the finishing order at the PIAA meet. After coming in 11th at Hershey’s Parkview Course last year, she placed third in a time of 18:28.40.
“It was good to have a normal season,” Zubey said. “Go out to all the meets we missed last year.
“Obviously, the PAC I wanted to win. I also wanted to get a state medal.”
Among Zubey’s more dominating runs were Liberty Division duals like Spring-Ford and Methacton. She ran an 18:09 against Spring-Ford, besting second place by more than a minute, and ran away from the field in the Methacton meet, her 19:13 clocking more than two minutes faster than runner-up.
Climbing course hills often worked to Claire’s advantage. At districts, she used a prominent hill on the Goodman Campus course to overtake early leader Kearney, then went on to outrun the Bensalem sophomore and the rest of the AAA field by 15 seconds.
Mastery of hills was something on which Zubey and her Owen J. teammates worked constantly. Their home course at Warwick Township, with three tiers of hills on the south side, afforded them considerably opportunity to prepare for any other courses with hills.
“It’s good to have hill work,” she said. “When you run the states course, there are three major hills. It’s definitely important have lots of hills to work with … not one and done.
“Doing more makes smaller hills easier. It helps to have hills to practice.”
Coming into a season that was more involved and ambitious than the previous one, the focus for Zubey and her OJR teammates was to follow the distance-running mantra of pacing themselves. High-level events during the regular season, and the post-season meets, took precedence over duals; being ready to compete against the state’s top talents was paramount.
“Lot less longer, built up toward actual racing. Just like focusing on bigger races, not dual meets, was important. Not to get tired.”
“Claire doesn’t go out super fast,” head coach Tim Marcoe added. “She’s learned to compete, to follow a game plan.”
The Sept. 25 PIAA Foundation Invitational — a prelude to states, also run at Parkview in Hershey — saw Zubey run a 19:08 to place third in the Girls Gold (Class AAA) event behind race winner Logan St. John Kletter of Mount Lebanon and runner-up Wren Kucler of North Allegheny. At the Paul Short Run one week later, she ran second to Blue Mountain’s Olivia Haas in a considerably-faster 17:57.40.
In the rematch at states, Zubey was seven seconds behind St. John Kletter (18:21.30) at the finish line. But she came in 10 seconds faster than Kearney and another two seconds on Kucler, who placed sixth.
“I was pretty happy at the end of the season,” she said. “There’s nothing I would ever change. It was a good season.”
Claire had one more moment of glory before calling it a season. Running in the Championship Girls race of the Eastbay Northeast Regional Saturday, she placed 15th at VanCortlandt Park outside New York City’s Bronx borough with a time of 18:36.
“It was a fun race,” she said. “It’s a great course. You definitely had to get out, because it narrowed down by the trees.
“It was cold … a lot of cold winds. But it was good running weather. The wind wasn’t bad. Once you get in the woods, the wind was blocked off.”
Her finish didn’t qualify for nationals, with only the Top 10 runners advancing. But she was well within the 30-place range for medalling.
Zubey was the third finisher among Pennsylvania runners. Jenna Mulhern (West Chester) was fourth and Mia Cochran (Coraopolis) ninth.
“I’m looking forward to try and make nationals next year,” she said.
Between now and the 2022 cross-country season, Claire will be working with OJR’s winter and spring track teams. She’s looking to run in the girls’ distance medley relay in the winter, and the 4×800 in the spring along with other distance races.
“We have a lot of freshmen this year. So it was definitely different being an upperclassmen,” Zubey said. “They’re learning new things, which is exciting. We have a good time together.”