Benefield: Healdsburg's Gabby Peterson will give her lone state race everything she's got

CIF track bosses make the qualifying marks for the state track and field meet extremely tough to hit. They will take the first-, second- and third-place finishers from section championship meets, but an athlete has to put in a sterling performance to get a berth to the state meet via the qualifying marks.

But they are hard on purpose. State officials don’t want a glut of athletes showing up in Clovis this weekend; they only want the best.

For context: Out of the entire North Coast Section Meet of Champions in Berkeley on Saturday, just one runner who didn’t finish first, second or third hit the qualifying time and will move on to the state meet.

And that runner, amazingly, was not Gabby Peterson.

Early in the day, Peterson, the junior distance ace from Healdsburg High, had already secured her spot at the state meet after dominating the 1,600-meter race.

She finished with a personal best of 4:48.91 - the fourth-fastest time ever run by a girl in the Redwood Empire.

She heads to Clovis with the eighth-fastest seed time in the state.

But Peterson was going for the distance double: She wanted to advance to the state meet in the 3,200-meter race as well.

And she put herself in the best possible position to do it.

The opening minutes featured a pack of runners so tight and blocked in it was hard to tell who was in what position. At about the halfway mark, Redwood High star Gillian Wagner began to pull away and the battle for second began.

Five runners, including Peterson and Granada junior Colleen McCandless, were about 10 meters back.

That group remained tight as Wagner began to pull away as the race wore on.

“I wanted to hang on with Gillian and Colleen as long as I could,” Peterson said after the race. “Gillian is a really strong runner. She pulled away after a couple of laps, so then I was just trying to hold on to Colleen.”

And when Wagner began to put some real distance between herself and the chase pack?

“I panicked a little bit but then I was like, ‘OK, just focus on trying to qualify.’”

At the bell lap, Wagner lapped a runner, and another and then a third, and the chase pack was thinned to four and then whittled to three, all racing for the last two spots. It was a sprint between three decidedly non-sprinters. Kelli Wilson, a sophomore from Monte Vista, crossed the line and took the second of three spots for state.

Legs dead, Peterson and McCandless leaned across the line.

Peterson bent over and balanced her hands on her knees. McCandless collapsed to the track.

“I was trying to put all my energy into just trying to get across the line,” Peterson said.

Track can be cruel in its precision. Peterson had run the fastest eight laps of her life just hours after running the fastest four laps of her life, but the final time sheet looked like this: McCandless 10:34.34, Peterson 10:34.44. McCandless had nipped Peterson at the line by perhaps the thinnest margin possible: a tenth of a second.

And it didn’t end there. Peterson’s effort missed the qualifying standard time of 10:34.21 by .23 seconds.

Kind of a gut punch to a kid who not only did the distance double in one of the fastest sections in the state, but ran faster than she had ever run in her life.

But Peterson is someone who smiles after races rather than grimaces.

As competitors crawled on the infield after racing for eight laps, Peterson tried to find perspective. Granted, I gave her all of about 90 seconds after she crossed the line to find meaning in coming so very close.

She allowed herself to use the word “disappointed.”

But quickly followed with this: “I guess that it’s kind of a blessing in that I can really focus on the 16 now.”

She called the lean at the end “fun” and “strange” but didn’t have a bad word to say about getting left off the list by the thinnest of margins.

I noticed the block of words written in blue ink on her left wrist. Smudged by sweat and rubbed by her green participant’s wristband, the words looked illegible to me.

Not to Peterson. She read them off to me: Push through. You can do it. Be calm and confident. Nothing is impossible.

Peterson said she started writing on her wrist during her freshman year. Power words, she calls them. Something to give her focus and reassurance.

She started with just one word: Confident.

“It has gotten longer,” she said of her ink-stained reminders.

As her list of affirmations has gotten longer, her times have gotten faster.

As a freshman at Healdsburg with “confident” inked on her wrist, she did not crack the Empire’s top times in either the 800 meters or 1,500. She ranked fourth in the 1,600 with a 5:11.89 and fifth in the 3,200 with a fastest time of 11:36.83.

Her sophomore year, she cut her 1,600 time to 4:57.74 and her 3,200 time to 10:59.75.

She also made the list of season bests among Redwood Empire athletes in the 800 meters with a 2:19.11 and the 1,500 meters with a 4:58.53.

She did not make the state meet.

This year, she left nothing to chance.

In the 1,600 meters, Peterson was dominant. Analy junior Sierra Atkins stayed on her shoulder for one lap, but then Peterson was gone.

My notes from watching that race Saturday read as follows: “After second lap, she is so far ahead the only word for it is statement.”

It’s not a word that was written on her wrist Saturday, but after being denied the opportunity to double by the slimmest of margins, perhaps she’ll add it to her inkings in Clovis this weekend.

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

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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