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After Mira Costa High’s Dalia Frias learned how to win, she had to conquer stress

Dalia Frias of Mira Costa High
Dalia Frias of Mira Costa High wins the Woodbridge Cross-Country Invitational last weekend in Norco.
(Dylan Stewart / PrepCalTrack)

She stepped up to the line at the 2019 Foot Locker National Cross-Country Championships and, suddenly, Dalia Frias was hit by a pressure she’d never felt before.

She knew it was a high-level meet, one of the premier races in the country. She knew about the competition. It was hard for her to focus on anything else.

As the Mira Costa High runner improved in her sophomore and junior seasons, she drew more attention. As she drew more attention, that brought stress. She’d waste precious energy by spending races inside her own head.

But after the latest in a long line of accomplishments dating to her spring track and field season, smashing the course record at the Woodbridge Cross-Country Invitational last weekend in Norco, the only stress to Frias came from a smile so big it seemed to stretch her facial muscles.

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“Now I’ve learned, just let it go and run for fun,” Frias said. “That’s how we do it now.”

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It took much of her high school career for Frias to develop that attitude.

After cycling through “every sport in the books” growing up, even falling in love with ice hockey for a time, Frias found herself heading to high school without a sport. Her friends took up running over the summer and she followed, never having tried it before.

Mira Costa would hold intensive workouts dubbed Tempo Tuesdays each summer, head coach Renee Williams-Smith said. The first Tempo Tuesday before Frias’ sophomore year, her coach was riding her bike alongside the varsity runners when she noticed the rising freshman humming along squarely in the middle of the group, barely breaking a sweat.

Frias was “naive” when it came to running that year, she said. Williams-Smith would notice she’d hang back timidly in races behind more experienced girls on the team. One day, the coach talked to Frias and told her it was OK to race ahead.

“From that point on, she never stopped,” Williams-Smith said.

As Frias grew from a novice into an experienced runner, she added notches to her belt, including a 17:29 for three miles to place second in the Division I girls’ final of the 2019 Southern Section championships. She became acutely aware of the attention she was receiving. As her name grew buzzworthy and colleges started calling, she felt pressure mounting with every race.

“I didn’t really know how to handle it,” said Frias, who has committed to Duke. “I would let it get into my head too much to where I couldn’t race to my full potential.”

That was no more apparent than at the Foot Locker championships, where Frias placed 32nd as anxiety reigned. She’d become just the third female runner in Mira Costa history to qualify, but was nonetheless disappointed in her performance.

“I’m used to being up front, and I’m used to probably being in the top three,” she said. “But when you’re at these national meets, everyone’s used to being in the top three. It’s a whole different experience. I just had to get used to that.”

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Frias used to hate running alone.

She is, clear as day, an extrovert. At the end of her school days, she’d look forward to going for a jog with her friends to chat. Runs felt long sometimes, and by herself, it was easy to — no pun intended — get off track. She preferred the company, and she often preferred it in the races she ran, trying to hang around the pack before making a late kick.

Then the coronavirus shut down the training and competition schedule her junior year. Suddenly, Frias was alone. Yet as she trained, she began understanding the calm that running solo brought.

“Part of this,” the coach said of Frias’ success, “is her being comfortable in her own skin. That she is strong enough to lead.”

When she did return, she and her coach had conversations about pressure. With COVID-19 diminishing the number of races, that increased a sense of urgency. Williams-Smith tried to work with Frias to think of races more as a fun opportunity to challenge herself than as a source of anxiety.

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With that mentality, Frias obliterated four school records for the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 meters and the mile between April 17 and May 15. Around then, she ran a time of 10:15 for two miles.

“Going into it, we said, ‘You know what, this is just fun,’” Williams-Smith said of the two mile. “Now, when she races, she talks about how excited she is. It’s not about the pressure anymore.”

Frias had a strong showing at the Cool Breeze Invitational in Pasadena in early September, but finished second to Ventura freshman standout Sadie Engelhardt. Heading into Woodbridge, she wasn’t intimidated by a stacked field that included Engelhardt, deciding she needed to try to break away earlier in the race.

She held the narrowest of leads through two miles, then felt the lead pack slow slightly.

“I was just like, all right, it’s time to go,” Frias said. “I just started to pull away, and figured some people would come with me.”

They didn’t. She rounded the final bend of the course and crossed the finish line with nary a competitor in sight, finishing with a course-record time of 15:43.5 that was eleven seconds faster than the runner-up.

You could see it in her eyes. Plenty of videos are scattered throughout the web with post-race interviews from Frias’ sophomore year. She carries that trademark smile in all she does, but seems nervous in the clips. Fidgety.

On Saturday night, there was nothing but bliss in her brown eyes. The pressure was gone. Dalia Frias was just having fun.


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