Six years ago, Jenny Howard was an out-of-shape 11-year-old.
Huffing and puffing, she could barely make it through a few minutes of running up and down a basketball court.
Just back from England, where her family had lived for two years, Howard had never seen the kind of basketball her Fallston rec team played.
British girls used the six-on-six half-court version. Endurance wasn't a factor because nobody crossed midcourt.
Howard quickly decided she wanted to catch up with everybody else.
Today, she's way out in front of the pack.
In the seventh grade, Howard ran her first cross country race -- the Bill Rodgers Run, a mile-long race at Fallston High to introduce youngsters to the sport. Running soon became her first love.
On Nov. 17, Howard won her third straight state Class 2A cross county championship. She might have four titles if only Fallston had had a team when she was a freshman.
This weekend, she heads to New York for a qualifying race which could earn her a spot in the Kinney National High School Cross Country Championships next month.
Howard hasn't always been the best, but she's always been determined to try. In that first Bill Rodgers Run, she didn't do too well, so she started training -- just a little -- for the following year. In the eighth grade, she ran the Bill Rodgers Run and set a new record.
"That really inspired me," said Howard, now a senior at Fallston. "It also made me believe in myself, that I had some talent to run."
These days, Howard is the star of the state cross country circuit, but she hasn't let her success change her. She likes being just an average high school girl who spends her free time at the mall or the movies. At school, she participates in student government and the National Honor Society, with a 3.74 grade-point average.
But running still comes first. "Jenny truly loves to run," said Fallston cross country coach Carol O'Donnell. "It is, right now in her life, the most important thing for her -- more important than school, more important than boys, more important than anything.
"It's unusual for a teen-ager to be that focused. Usually, they're in the experimenting phase. But Jenny really knows what she wants, and she enjoys doing it. She tells me whenever she's running, that's when she feels best about herself."
Although Howard has already had to miss some Friday night parties for weekend training and racing, she knows there may be tougher personal sacrifices to come.
"Distance running takes a long time to reach your full potential," said Howard, who also holds a state track title in the 3,200-meter run. "One of the key words in trying to be a better runner is patience. Even after college years, you can still develop and improve."
This year, Howard has tried to relax more in her running. She's tried to avoid putting too much pressure on herself, one aspect of developing the mental side of her running.
"Running well is really an attitude," explained Howard. "It takes a lot of positive self-motivation and positive thinking."
Howard has also learned to be realistic. Going into the state cross country championships, she had hoped to break the course record at Hereford. As soon as she got there, however, Howard knew there would be no record. A torrential downpour turned her 3.1-mile trek into something of an obstacle course.
Runners could barely get any footing, especially on the hills. The rain fell so hard, it just flowed down the hills. Howard said the course was slick as ice.
"I tried to keep a positive attitude," explained Howard, who fell three times. "It was real disappointing, because it was the last time I would run there, and I didn't have an opportunity to do what I really believed I could do on that course."
Earlier this year at the Hereford Invitational, Howard had gotten within two seconds of the course record, 18:35. She finished her state title run in 19:40.
Howard has already caught the attention of some college coaches, and she might catch the eyes of a few more in her upcoming races. Among her college front-runners so far are Georgetown, the University of Oregon and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"I want to go to a program where I'm not running at the top, because that's a challenge," explained Howard, whose academic interests include biology and journalism. "I just didn't come into running and dominate everybody. I know when I go to college I won't be a big fish any more, but that's all part of developing your potential. You won't get much better if you're always the best."
This weekend, Howard will test her speed against the top runners in the East at the Kinney qualifier. The top eight finishers advance to the finals in San Diego's Balboa Park on Dec. 8.