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It wasn’t the way she finished; it was that she ran the race at all.

Gabby Peterson, a runner with innumerable gifts, apparently likes a plan. She likes to walk into a meet with a road map of how things should (hopefully) go and certainly, which events she’ll run.

But when the Healdsburg High junior showed up for the annual Big Cat meet at Santa Rosa High March 5 and saw that Sonoma Academy standout senior Rylee Bowen was signed up to run the 800 meters, Peterson threw her hat in the ring.

In different leagues, Peterson hasn’t had many chances to run with Duke University-bound Bowen, so while she entered the day thinking she’d run only the 1,600- and 3,200-meter races, she added the 800 to see how she’d do against one of the top runners around.

“That’s was definitely part of it. She’s a great runner,” Peterson said.

“That was pretty exciting for me. Normally I usually like to have things scripted,” she said. “It was a little scary, but Big Cat is a really fun meet and a little bit more relaxed.”

For Healdsburg High coach Kate Guthrie, the fact that Peterson not only asked for but deftly navigated the change in plan shows the teen’s growth.

“Gabby likes to be prepared. She wants to have a plan for how she approaches each race,” Guthrie said. “I was pleasantly surprised. She saw an opportunity, she wanted to race Rylee, and was flexible enough to switch mindsets. It shows emotional maturity as well as confidence.”

Since 2002, the only athletes to pull off the distance triple at Big Cat were Casa Grande’s standout Jacque Taylor in 2009 and Santa Rosa’s Reesey Byers in 2010.

And how about Peterson’s results?

Not only did she run all three, she won all three — convincingly. On a day that the heavens opened and closed, leaving runners cold, wet and, well, kinda miserable, Peterson shined.

She won the mile in 5 minutes flat, the 800 meters in 2:20 and the 3,200 meters in 11:18.

And she won those races amid some pretty good competition. Bowen finished second in the 800 with a time of 2:25, and Maria Carrillo senior (and this fall’s North Bay League cross country champion) Sydnie Rivas finished second in both the 1,600- and 3,200-meter races with times of 5:11 and 11:25, respectively. Rivas’ finish in the 1,600 was a personal best for the senior.

Analy junior Sierra Atkins led the 1,600 for one lap before Peterson made her move and led by a wide margin the rest of the way. In the 800, Peterson and Bowen ran side by side until the final 200 meters, when Peterson made a move that went unanswered.

In her last race of the day, Peterson went into it not knowing how her legs would hold up for a third event.

“I talked with my coach before and she said, ‘Just go with how you feel,’” Peterson said. “I’m kind of a competitive person, so there is that aspect, but I also didn’t know how I’d feel coming off the mile and the 800.”

She battled with Rivas nearly the entire race, running stride for stride. Just as the pair hit the bell lap, Peterson bolted and won the race going away.

“I kind of paced off her,” Peterson said. “We were side by side for a long time.”

Peterson currently sits at 10th all-time in the Redwood Empire for the 1,600 meters and her Big Cat time —while off her personal best of 4:57 from last year — comes so early in the season it is a good sign for the months to come.

She posted the 20th-fastest all-time finish in the 3,200 meters last year with a 10:59. And that 2:20 800-meter time she pulled off last minute at Big Cat was just one second from her all-time best, which has her sitting at 32nd best in Empire history.

Not a bad way to greet the new track season.

“It was pretty exciting,” she said. “I was happy with the time and I was happy being able to race the 800 and getting to run with Rylee, who is an amazing runner and also a really nice person as well.”

The Big Cat feels like the opening salvo for the track season, so Peterson’s strong showing was greeted enthusiastically by ’Hounds coach Guthrie.

“I think she was super happy,” Guthrie said. “It probably validates her training in a sense — that she has been really consistent, she worked hard, she listened.

“I know her mile time is going to drop this year,” she added.

And the mile is Peterson’s marquee event. It’s the one she hopes to race to qualify for the state meet June 1-2 in Clovis.

“I would really like to make it to the state track meet in the mile or 2 mile,” she said. “I’ll have to see what my times are this season and see where I am.”

In the meantime, Peterson has her sights set on the ultra-competitive Arcadia Invitational April 6-7.

“I get pretty excited, but also nervous,” she said. “I think it’s awesome to be surrounded by so many people who are both close to your time range but also significantly faster. When you are surrounded by that, it pushes you to go faster.

“I’m excited to experience it.”

Peterson knows junior season is a key time for those who want to extend their running careers beyond high school.

“I definitely want to run in college; I don’t know where,” she said.

“There is definitely some pressure, but I just have to remind myself at the end of the day I can only do what I can do,” she said. “Hopefully the effort will be reflected in the results.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 and at Kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and Instagram @kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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