By Sean Bowes

If you asked some high school students to run 55 miles week, they might get a little upset, but for Nikita Shah, a junior at Wiregrass Ranch High (WRH), coaches have to beg her and her cross-country teammates to take a week off to rest their legs.

“It’s hard to get these girls to not run,” says WRH girls cross-country coach Don Howard.

But, for Shah, it’s just part of being one of Florida’s best high school runners. This year she was voted North Suncoast Runner of the Year by the St. Petersburg Times. She also was voted Pasco County’s Runner of the Year by high school coaches in the area her freshman year and she recently became the first runner at WGH to come home with a State cross-country medal.

On November 19, Shah traveled with the rest of the Bulls to Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City to compete at the State Class 3A meet against 23 other schools, which Howard said was the toughest of Classes 1A-4A in this year’s State meets.

“The class we were in was stacked with competition,” said Howard. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Shah says she went into the race with a positive attitude and was ready to give it everything she had.

“I just tried my hardest,” Shah says. “It was the last meet of the season and the State meet, so I didn’t want to have any regrets about not trying hard enough.”

And, her upbeat approach paid off. Shah finished fourth place in Class 3A (which would have been first in any of the four classes that day) by running 5 kilometers in an impressive 17:53.96. For those who don’t know, any girl running a 5k in under 18 minutes is smoking fast. She ran the hilly, all-grass, 3.1-mile course in an average time of 5:45 per mile.

This season is a different story than last year (Shah’s sophomore season), when she dropped 10 places (from 17th to 27th) in State rankings from her successful season as a freshman. According to Howard, the more she trained, the slower Nikita got. It turned out she was not yet diagnosed as having anemia, a common low-iron blood disorder which causes extreme fatigue.

Fatigue can be disruptive to any athlete, but for a distance runner like Shah, it can be disastrous.

Luckily, the problem was diagnosed before the 2011-12 season started. Shah now takes iron supplements and is stronger than ever, she says.

Her resurgence is a big part of the success the Lady Bulls have had this season. Howard also says this year has been his most satisfying season in his six-year history with the school, in part because of the entire team’s overall work ethic.

“It just really surprised me the success we’ve had,” says Howard. “We lost four seniors last year, plus another who wanted to focus on basketball. So, basically, (aside from Shah) our team was mostly made up of a cheerleader, a soccer player, a freshman and girl who had never run cross country before.”

This season, the team took firstplace at the Sunshine Athletic Conference (for the fourth time in a row), as well as the District 3A-6 title and a runner up finish to Saint Cloud High at the Class 3A, Region 2 meet on November 2.

At the State meet, Shah’s time was faster than any girl in Pasco, Citrus, Hernando or Hillsborough County this year. The girls who were faster that day were Olivia Ortiz from Lakewood Ranch High in Bradenton, who was 14.61 seconds faster than Shah at the Class 3A meet, but who also had the fastest time of any girl this year in Florida, at 17:13. Lilly Williams and Carly Thomas, both from Chiles High in Tallahassee, finished 5.67 seconds and 0.93 seconds faster, respectively, than Shah at the Class 3A meet.

“I just want to keep working hard and having fun,” says Shah. “I’m having fun. That’s why I do it.”

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