When the gun went off to mark the beginning of the Foot Locker South Regional cross country race, the spectators took off alongside the runners.
The competitors bolted down the straightaway, disappearing into the woods. The spectators, instead, cut through the tree line to be the first to the bottom of the long, sloping hill just past the mile mark.
When the runners appeared around the horseshoe bend in the course, there were shouts of numbers: positions, distances, times. Onlookers scanned the herd to confirm that their runner was still in the chase.
This was where everyone was. This was where the action was, where the drama unfolded. This was where it’s all supposed to happen.
But Caroline Alcorta’s parents didn’t have that experience. Their daughter, who had won every race of her senior year up to this point, had passed by seconds before the massive pack of athletes rounded the corner. Caroline was quietly and undramatically dominating the field as a high school senior in 2013. It was a tactic she had used all season, and it hadn’t failed her yet: go out harder than anyone else, take the lead, and never give it up.
“It’s amazing to me ... I guess she just doesn’t want to follow anybody,” her father John said. “She's always at the front.”
It’s a good thing too. Because in that blur, Caroline would’ve been tough to spot. Usually at least a head length shorter than her competition, Caroline has always gone headlong at challenges. And if you met her, you wouldn’t know her supreme résumé as a runner. She certainly wouldn’t tell you.
These factors should make her easy to look over. But give her a challenge and you will see: her ability to push herself beyond the brink makes her impossible to miss.
“I find it kind of ironic,” her father said. “She's rather petite, yet she is just tenacious, she will not give up. She obviously has some physical talent and her lungs and obviously everything that goes with it, but she just doesn't give up.”
Alcorta, now a senior on the North Carolina cross country and track teams, started racing before she could even walk. Her mother, a former college track and field athlete, would push Caroline and her twin sister Bella in a jogger as she ran in five- and 10-kilometer races.
But if it seemed like she was destined to be a runner, Caroline didn’t realize that. Not at first, anyway. She competed in a middle school track league, mostly because her parents made her. When she got to ninth grade, she chose to play field hockey, foregoing the fall cross country season. Her mother bought her a lacrosse stick in preparation for the spring season.
But for some reason — a reason that’s pretty much only understood by those who run — the activity that her athletic friends considered a punishment was something she took pleasure in.
“I realized when we would do conditioning stuff, when we’d go on runs some people would wanna walk and I'd be like, ‘Why? This is so much fun!” she said.
“Which sounds really lame,” she quickly added.
So she ran. Fast. The Springfield, Va., native — after a trip to the national championship in her junior year— returned as the sixth fastest runner in the national field for her senior season.
Once a reluctant competitor, Caroline’s rise into the nation’s consciousness happened just as fast as her feet moved.
“Seeing her talked about on the running websites like MileStat or MileSplit or FloTrack it was like, ‘Oh my gosh. People know who my daughter is,’” her mother recalled. “It was quite a ride to see her from the beginning up to college.”
Then came that prestigious Foot Locker regional race, the qualifier for the national championship. She was executing her go-from-the-gun strategy to perfection. The lead she had at the hill only grew as she went on to win the prestigious race by almost 10 seconds. If Caroline had become a part of the national conversation, she was now at the forefront of it.
Caroline had her choice of any college program in the country. But her heart had been pushing her toward one school since she stepped foot on its campus the summer before senior year. And after the regional race, Caroline was repping her choice as she got crowned champion of the South.
Morgan Ilse, her current UNC teammate and roommate, was then a high school competitor and recalls watching the awards after the race.
“I remember seeing her on the podium,” Ilse said. “And she won that race, and she's like really short and had on this huge UNC sweatshirt. I was like, “Oh my God, that's Caroline Alcorta. That's so cool!”
She’d won state championships, national caliber invitationals and national championship titles as an individual and as part of West Springfield’s distance medley relay. When she arrived in Chapel Hill, it seemed impossible to sustain the kind of success that she’d had in high school.
Like in any transition to a new stage, there was doubt. Her mom recalls a warning Caroline gave her.
“I remember her commenting to me, ‘Mom, everybody is fast,'" she said. "It wasn't just a handful of people. All the colleges, the competition was definitely different than high school.”
At first, Caroline’s success couldn’t be shaken.
There were awards — ACC Freshman of the Year in cross country — and victories — a team ACC championship as well as big performances at the Pan-American Junior Athletics Championships and U.S. Junior Track and Field Championships.
“So there we went from high school and all those highs to another high,” her father said. “And then of course you’re like, ‘Wow, where is this going to end?’”
Her junior year hit, and the world seemed to start piling on challenges for her.
It started with the transfer of two of the program’s top runners. They weren’t just Caroline’s counterparts on the course, they were her companions and housemates off the course.
Caroline was left to lead a team that was, all of the sudden, defined by its youth. Full of potential, certainly, but in need of a leader.
And then injury struck. First during cross country, after just two races, one of which garnered her ACC Runner of the Week. And then, after recovering enough to restart her training, things broke down again. She was left sidelined and disheartened, in a time of transition but without the activity that had been a constancy for her for years.
“I think she hid a lot of the pain,” teammate Erin Edmundson said.
Caroline had always been able to push through physical pain. In high school, she would finish a race and stagger out of the chute, barely able to keep upright. Yet no matter her condition or how well she finished, she was always muttering, “I could’ve pushed myself harder.”
At first, she thought this injury would be the same. Caroline was in peak fitness, and her plan was to push straight through it. Things didn’t go according to plan.
“I thought I was going to have this really great season and then watching it kind of …” She trailed off, then imitated the sound of a balloon deflating with her tongue. “It was kind of rough.”
But she wouldn’t let pain keep her from giving what she could for her team.
“She wasn’t racing with us anymore, but it was still motivational to me because she was doing everything in her power to get better,” teammate Mady Clahane said. “Just seeing how much she persevered through what she had, that was really influential.”
Caroline wanted to make certain that when she got back to full strength, she would be ready to compete.
She hit the weight room, aided by trainer Molly Caffelle, to strengthen herself in ways she hadn’t before. Runners may not be known for their weight lifting prowess, but Caroline’s attitude in the gym left an impression on Caffelle.
“When she was here she was all in,” Caffelle said. “(She would ask), 'What do I need to need on this? Can you watch me on this? Can I make sure that this is right? What can I do, this is too easy, can I make it harder?' She's ready for the next thing.”
Behind her quiet and pristinely polite demeanor, Caroline had always been a ferocious competitor. Every workout was taken at breakneck pace, every run was a God-given opportunity to improve and she couldn’t waste a single mile.
And while she maintained that attitude in the weight room, in a major way the injuries forced her to take a break.
“She finally rested,” Christina said.
The resulting change was unmistakable.
“She’s still very competitive,” her sister explained. “She’s still an amazing runner, but she listens to her body more. She's more in tune with it. And I think that's made her a smarter runner.”
The time off gave Caroline the time to think about her career and her training. And it gave her a new way of looking at things as she regained her speed, slowly at first.
“It’s nice to keep things in perspective,” she said. “Not every day has to be super hard, recovery days are really really important now especially with like a jump in mileage and everything.”
More than just a fresh perspective on running, the experience gave Caroline a renewed assessment of how important her teammates are to her.
“If I didn’t have the teammates that I have now and the friends that I have now, it would’ve been a lot worse,” she said. “They made the whole thing so much easier and made me really want to try as hard as I could to come back.”
Her senior year, she’s regained every step she lost, and then some — earning All-ACC honors in cross country and running the second fastest 10,000-meter time in school history. Her performance has been just as elite in the classroom, earning her all-academic honors from the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
She’s also focused on spending time with the team. The team has a sort of buddy system, which entails “bro time with your bro.”
“So you have a little bro that you’re paired up with at the beginning of the season …” she said. “You always have someone to talk to if you have anything going on with your life. It’s not like you’re forcing anybody to spend time with one another but you’re just like ‘let’s go bro!’ I’ve got my bro’s back and they've got mine.”
Her dynamic with her teammates, several of whom she lives with, certainly seems familial. And as the only senior in the house, she has a parental role.
“Sometimes she's like the mother of our house,” Edmundson said. “Keeping us all in line, making sure we are calm and not super stressed out and talking to us.”
Caroline has a knack for art, and her drawings decorate the house. Over the summer, she bought Shalane Flanagan’s cookbook and has picked up a talent for baking. And when dirty work needs to be taken care of, she can do that too.
When a cockroach intruded in Clahane’s room soon after moving in, her and Edmundson shrieked as they tried to find the invader.
“And Caroline just walks down with a shoe and hits the bug and just walks away,” Clahane said. “And we're just like, 'What?' It's funny how she's just so little but she is so fierce.”
Her exterior seems to be at odds with her inner workings. Her friends, family, competitors and local cockroaches know that she is anything but timid. Those around her look to her as a role model, as much for her talent and drive as for her humility.
“I'm so proud of her,” Christina said. “I can’t brag enough about her. Even though she's younger, I do look up to her too and I think that holds true for a lot of her teammates.”
The sentiment is repeated by her parents, coaches, teammates, and friends. Caroline leads by example, always running at the front of the group.
As the pack sprints by in a blur, it would be hard to catch sight of the runner who barely pushes 5 feet tall. But it seems as though everyone who knows her looks up to her as so much more.