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Saturday's meet

What: NCS Class A

Where: Montgomery High School

When: 9 a.m.


How does one of the finest distance runners ever to emerge from Sonoma County prepare for the postseason?

She plays patty-cake.

Rylee Bowen, the phenomenal sophomore from Sonoma Academy who has produced national-best times this spring, is bearing down on the heart of postseason prep racing but still warmed up at a recent practice with something akin to the hand jive. Approaching the track, you can hear her laugh before you can pick her out of the crowd.

Her bubbly personality is in stark contrast to the cold, hard numbers she puts up: the Empire’s second-fastest (by less than a second) all-time 1,600 meters and third-best 3,200 meters. Track fans haven’t seen a female runner post times this fast in 15 years.

In a scorching tear this spring, Bowen ran the fastest 3,200 for high school girls of any age in the country at a meet in Los Angeles.

And still, Bowen, who without fail begins every post-race interview with an assessment of whether she had fun or not, is almost never not smiling.

So it was a curious moment Monday afternoon when I saw it. It was just a flash, an almost quizzical look, before the smile went full wattage again.

I had asked about her goals for the CIF state track and field championships in two weeks. It was like she sought clarity on the question.

“Do you want to win?” I asked, immediately feeling foolish in front of Bowen and a gaggle of teammates seated at her feet.

“The goal is always to win,” she said, grinning.

It’s easy to lose sight of Bowen’s competitive streak because it’s not readily on display. She giggles before 200-meter sprint repeats. She suggests a team pyramid for a photo after practice. She says she likes the steeplechase because it’s weird, like her.

“She can turn it on and off,” Sonoma Academy track and cross country coach Danny Aldridge said. “When you guys see her and she’s bubbly and talking, that’s what you guys see. It’s totally different on the track. Totally focused and caring about everything.”

But I have seen that side of Bowen. At the state cross country meet her freshman year (a race she won, by the way), it didn’t go as well as she wanted. There was disappointment etched on her face. That spring, she ran the 1,600-meter race at the state track meet and faltered. It was clear she hadn’t raced to her own expectations.

Both reactions showed a peek into a competitiveness that runs counter to her bubbly exterior. But both times Bowen showed a graciousness and poise that belied her age. When facing questions, she showed an understanding that competition and competitiveness can sometimes cause pain, that not every time out is fun.

That competitive streak is helping her wreak havoc on times this track season. And it started at the end of the fall cross country season.

When her sophomore campaign didn’t go as well as she would have liked (she repeated as Division 5 state champ, by the way) she says she doubled down.

“I realized that after cross country didn’t go very well, I realized that I really wanted this,” she said. “I put a lot of work into the offseason and it’s paying off.”

Saturday's meet

What: NCS Class A

Where: Montgomery High School

When: 9 a.m.

Beware the girl who lines up against a version of Bowen who “wants this.”

“Her mile time is less than a second off her personal best and we are not done with the season,” Aldridge said. “She is ahead of last year’s schedule.”

“Last year she ran a 4:43 but she only ran that one time,” Aldridge said. “Now she has run about a 4:44 this year. She didn’t run the 4:43 until the (Meet of Champions) that year. Her PR before that? I don’t think she had broken 4:50.”

Translation: Bowen tends to lop off time at the end of the season when competition is at its peak. Her best times this season are very likely yet to come.

Saturday's races at the North Coast Section meet are mere tuneups for faster competition at MOC in Berkeley a week from now. Bowen is going into that meet undecided whether she’ll race the 1,600 or the 3,200 at the state meet in two weeks.

She likes the 1,600 better but her 3,200 national best was eye-poppingly hard to ignore.

“She’d run the mile in every meet if she could,” Aldridge said. “But by golly, she ran this incredible time and everybody thinks she should be a two-miler. But why do you have to run what people expect you to run?”

You don’t. At least not on Aldridge’s watch.

For all of her natural gifts, or perhaps because of them, Aldridge said he focuses on rest and recovery. He also puts a premium on fun.

“My job is to keep her healthy, keep her motivated and keep it fun,” he said.

That’s where Bowen has grown the most this year, he said. She is scheduling rest, backing off when need be. This from a kid whose parents had to restrict her running to three days a week when she was younger for fear that she’d burn out — her body and her mind.

“It would drive me crazy and I would freak out,” she said of the restriction. “Now I know when to chill.”

And she trusts Aldridge’s guidance.

“I feel like we have really bonded and I can really trust him,” she said.

Aldridge knows when to chill, too.

“You don’t know what your limits are. Nobody knows,” he said. “Some people, they just want to see it rushed and they want to get ahead of themselves. Sometimes they put undue pressure — that’s unfair.”

Exhibit A of Aldridge’s approach: The Steeplechase. Not your typical marquee track event, but Bowen has taken to it. But in steeplechase, runners jump, runners fall.

But Bowen, of course, is awesome at it.

She is ranked No. 1 in the 2,000-meter steeplechase among high school girls in the U.S., has the freshman record for the same, and competed in steeplechase at the World Youth Championships in Colombia last summer, where she was the first American to make the finals in four years.

“Running can be really boring and hurdles have always looked really fun to me,” she said. “Then they told me it had a water pit.”

Sold.

“That’s what I see myself doing,” she said. “It’s different, it’s unique, it’s weird. It’s kind of like me. Maybe that’s why I like it.”

So she sprinkles some steeplechase races into her schedule. She’s aiming for another trip to the World Youth Championships and has an invite to the prestigious Brooks Running PR Invitational in Renton, Wash., this summer.

But first things first.

North Coast Section is Saturday. MOC is in a week and a trip to the state meet in Clovis in two.

She will likely have a blast throughout, but fair warning to the competitor who forgets that Bowen’s goal is always to win.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”