HAMPTON - Mercedes McCoy, 14, is just beginning to find her own stride as a runner.

She doesn't have to look far for inspiration or motivation. Down the hall or across the breakfast table will take care of it.

That's because big sister Kylie McCoy, distance runner at the University of North Carolina, has been home for the summer and both have been training.

They don't run together - "there's too much of an age difference and the intensity of our training is very different," Kylie explained - but they are beginning to share a bond that goes beyond sisterhood. It's the shared knowledge of how road work, strength training, running calendars, training logs, and most of all steadfast dedication can lower times.

Having some natural talent helps, too. Especially when the desire to run comes from within.

"Definitely, my parents wanted me to do running," said Mercedes, like her sister blonde and thin. "And I definitely look up to Kylie, and also to Molly (her other sister and WHS senior-to-be) because she started running this year, but I also look at it as a self-sport and now I'm really enjoying it."

Kylie McCoy and the girls' mother Jacqueline nod their head knowingly. Mercedes' comment sounds familiar. Running - especially distance running - is not the easiest sport to love. A certain fitness threshold needs to be passed before acceptance can happen.

"For me it was in seventh and eighth grade," Kylie McCoy said. "I ran in sixth grade and then I kind of rebelled and said, 'I'm not going to run. I played basketball instead."

Roundball also captured the fancy of sisters Molly (a former standout at the AAU level who stuck with the sport the longest) and Mercedes.

This spring was Mercedes first foray into competitive running. She participated in the Hampton Academy middle school program but, due to the eighth grade class trip, was unable to attend the state meet.

"She'd done all this training and didn't really have a championship so I thought about the Hershey track program," Jacqueline McCoy said.

Mercedes ran a personal-best 1,600-meter time of 5 minutes, 50 seconds during the middle school season.

At Monday's Hershey Track regional meet she finished first in 5:58.22, winning the race by a full 10 seconds. She'll represent the Hampton Recreation Department at today's New Hampshire Hershey Track and Field state championship at Manchester Memorial High School, starting at 4 p.m.

"I was planning on running like a 5:45 but it was really hot and I wasn't used to running in 90-degree heat," Mercedes McCoy said.

After today's state Hershey meet, Mercedes McCoy has her summer calendar filled with running workouts, planned by her older sister. They include short "shakeout" runs for getting loose, core strength training and a daily longer run, based on minutes rather than miles. Some days are light (20 minutes), most are modest and each Sunday includes a run of 80-85 minutes.

"It motivates me," Mercedes said. "A lot of kids my age probably don't have the motivation to get out and run but I really want to do well in cross country this season because I'm a freshman."

Goals and direction can change. Kylie McCoy is an example of that. By her junior year the one-time wannabe hoopster was setting Winnacunnet High School records in the 1,600 meters outdoors and the 3,000 meters indoors. But, she was looking for a better fit socially, so Kylie McCoy made the unusual decision to spend her senior year at Portsmouth Christian Academy, a small faith-based school in Dover.

At PCA, McCoy won the Division III cross country title and finished third at the Meet of Champions behind Keene's Chloe Maleski (currently running at Duke) and Exeter's Kelsey Smith (currently running for Georgetown).

Always searching for ways to improve, Kylie McCoy has spent multiple summers training in Colorado at a high-level running camp led by personal coach and distance guru Trent Sanderson at the Team PrepUSA camp. College recruiters sought out her talents and she opted to stay close to home to attend Northeastern University in Boston.

It didn't take McCoy long to realize she hadn't made the right college choice. A stress fracture kept her from competing in cross country and soon after she asked the Huskies to give her a release from her scholarship.

"The classes were great and I loved my professors," McCoy said. "The emphasis on the student-athlete at Northeastern is really focused on the student. I felt I had really high goals for my running and in that conference I wouldn't be able to reach my full goals."

With Sanderson serving as an intermediary to let programs know of her intention to transfer, McCoy secured visits to Syracuse, the University of Arizona and UNC in Chapel Hill. UNC had tried to recruit McCoy coming out of high school but it was after she had committed to Northeastern. This time she said yes to the Tar Heels, enrolled and was able to compete in two meets during the indoor season, setting personal-bests in both the 5,000 meters (16:48) and the 3,000 meters (9:49). She red-shirted her outdoor season, meaning she still has four years of eligibility in both cross country and outdoor track.

"The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) is awesome competition," Kylie said. "We ran the indoor ACC championships in Boston and I had a huge PR in the 5,000 and didn't even score."

Kylie McCoy laughs when asked if she'll stay at North Carolina.

"This is it. I love UNC," she says.

She also gets why the question is asked. UNC is her fourth school in less than two calendar years. To some all the moving around might seem odd. To her, it's simply about trying to put herself in the best possible position to pursue her goals and being willing to make a change.

In fact, it just happened again. She intended on staying home in Hampton all summer but just this week booked a one-way ticket to Denver and then on to Boulder, Colo. There she'll train with a friend and run the same trails that top international runners have been flocking to for years.

"It really is a distance running Mecca," she said. "I just felt like my training here at home wasn't at the level it needed to be."