During her first competitive college running season last year, Natalie Bitetti CM ’24 knew no limits.
She placed in the top 20 of every race she ran, consistently maintaining a sub-six-minute mile pace during four-mile races. In the 2021 NCAA Division III Cross Country National Championships, she placed 16th, earning All-American honors.
In addition to Bitetti’s SCIAC Athlete of the Year title, the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association named her National DIII Women’s Athlete of the Week for events through Oct. 9 and West Region Athlete of the Year. To top it all off, she earned All-America honors in the National Championships for the second year in a row.
Such accomplishments are typically the signs of an experienced runner — but not for Bitetti. Bitetti’s sophomore season (2021-2022) was her first time running competitively in college, with only one year of experience running cross country in high school.
In fact, she was initially a softball athlete and even got recruited to play for the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps softball team.
“I played softball from the time I was six years old until freshman year of college,” Bitetti said. “I was not recruited for running at all … I technically played softball my freshman year of college, but that was COVID year, so [we practiced but] I didn’t play. We didn’t have games.”
She was initially drawn to running as a sport when she wanted to take a short break from softball during her senior year in high school.
“I think I had always had an aptitude for running in softball,” Bitetti said. “We did a lot of punishment running in softball, and I was always the best at that, so I was like, ‘Oh, I should just try this!’… The plan was always to come back to softball, but I fell in love with the sport and the people I met through it.”
Bitetti knew she wanted to run in college but didn’t know how she would be recruited with just one season of running under her belt.
“I had no [race] times to be recruited for,” Bitetti said, “… So I was still going to get recruited through softball and then just see if I could walk onto the running team as well.”
There was no cross country season in Bitetti’s first year due to the pandemic. During her sophomore season, she walked onto the team and had no trouble establishing herself as a dominant runner on the team, thanks in large part to her teammates.
“I attribute a lot of my success to my teammates from last year,” she said. “I got a lot of really good guidance from Emily Clarke SC ’22 and Riley Harmon SC ’22 and then also Meredith [Bloss HM ’23]. They really took me under their wing and made me believe that I could be good at running.”
Part of becoming a better runner is developing and becoming confident in a race strategy, according to Bitetti. For her, this means starting races strong and maintaining the lead she establishes from the start of the race until the finish line.
“I have to get out like a rocket. I have to just get out and then maintain the [lead as] best I can,” she said. “That usually translates to the first mile to mile and a half being usually just a float mile — you’re on pure adrenaline, pure energy — it feels so easy. And then it just gets harder and harder, but the finish line is getting closer and closer. I think I also feed off a lot from the crowd and people cheering, so in that way, I’m able to find more in me in the race than I ever have during a workout. It’s like I’m a different athlete.”
Teammate Amelia Opsahl CM ’25 agreed that Bitetti’s new confidence in her strategy has served her well during races.
“She has become more confident in her racing intuition and style and more comfortable with taking and holding the lead in races,” Opsahl said. “… She has become more diligent in listening to her body and advocating for what types of training work best for her.”
Teammate Nick Taubenheim CM ’24 said he admires Bitetti’s levelheadedness during competitions.
“She never seems nervous before big races, and I think that’s probably because of her level mentality and that she knows her training will pay off,” he said. “This is the type of confidence that most runners are always trying to develop but few succeed in attaining.”
Bitetti’s love of the sport enables her commitment to optimizing her performance.
“I think at its core, it’s a very simple sport,” Bitetti said. “During races, there’s no real mental agility going on — it’s just zone in and push. With softball, I think there was a lot more fear of failure, and it’s more about performing in the precise moments. With running … as long as you cross the line and you gave everything you had that day, then it was a good day.”
Next semester, Bitetti will be studying abroad in Copenhagen, which she said she chose in part because it would be a great location for running. This also means that she is not preparing for track season in the spring.
“I’m not preparing my body for another round of workouts,” she said. “I just have a lot of months to build up my base. And I get to lift more, I get to hike more and do other exercises that I don’t usually have time for without making sure my body’s in tip-top shape to compete all the time because that gets kind of exhausting.”
The track team will miss Bitetti’s talent and leadership in the spring, but her teammates will await her return next fall for her last season of cross country.
“I really value Nat’s compassion and ability to be so down-to-earth despite her impressive success with running,” Opsahl said. “She is always there to support her teammates when they need her and is an overwhelmingly kind, grounded presence on the team.”