Benefield: Santa Rosa High School freshman Kirsten Carter is off and running

There is a picture out there of Kirsten Carter running that she does not like. Carter says she looks like she is straining. And that’s not how she feels when she runs.

Asked what it feels like to run fast - so fast that most of us can’t imagine it - she says it’s like she bouncing on the track or even floating.

I guess that’s when you know you are fast - when there is no feeling of lactic acid building up or arms going numb or your gas tank going empty. You are just floating.

We have to trust Carter’s description because most of us will never know what it feels like to do what she does.

The Santa Rosa High School freshman is the fastest sprinter in the Empire. She has posted Empire bests in the 100 meters, the 200 meters and long jump this season and she now owns the fastest time ever recorded in the Empire in the 200-meter dash, at 24.44 seconds. She’s two hundredths of a second from owning the all-time Empire best in the 100-meter dash and closing in on the long jump record.

Her long jump and 200-meter finishes are top 10 in the state and she’s ranked 38th in California in the 100-meter dash.

“In all the years of coaching, she could be the most talented of all the athletes I have ever had the joy of coaching,” said Doug Courtemarche, the 23-year track and field coach at Santa Rosa High. “And I have had a lot of very good athletes.”

So talented is Carter that she is going to forgo the 100 meter dash - the race in which she is a hair’s breadth away from owning the area’s all time best - at today’s North Bay League prelims at Windsor High School so she can instead run the 400-meter. She has little high school experience with the 400, outside of the 4x400 relay in which Carter, who runs the anchor leg, routinely plays the hero for the Panthers.

When a kid is this fast, when a kid makes what she does look so easy, a little perspective is necessary.

I got it from Carrie Joseph, the Santa Rosa High coach who focuses on the distance runners.

Joseph was remarking on what a beautiful thing it is to watch Carter run - the long stride, the graceful flow and the fluid speed.

Carter would be a standout in college, Joseph said as we watched Carter run away from us at practice this week.

This seemed like a given, that Carter, barring injury or burnout, is on her way to a successful stint in college. So maybe my expression showed some confusion.

Trying to clarify, Joseph said Carter could be a standout on a top Division I squad now. Today, as a freshman. Her times this season would stand up against those in the both the Pac-12 and the Big Ten at last year’s respective conference championship meets. Carter’s best in the long jump this season would have netted her ninth place at the Pac-12 meet and her 200-meter best would have gotten her a 13th-place finish in the Pac-12 and an 11th-place finish in the Big Ten meet. And her 400-meter time from the relay? Fast enough to put her in eighth place in both conferences.

“I have had some really talented girls, but it would be pretty hard to put anyone ahead of her and her accomplishments so far,” Courtemarche said.

‘So far’ is probably the operative phrase there.

Coaches look at Carter and wonder. How fast can she get? What can she not do?

One of those coaches is her dad, Darin Carter. Darin Carter was the NBL 100-meter champ when he was a senior at Santa Rosa High in 1997. He went on to run at Sacramento State University and he now helps coach his daughter at his alma mater.

“She’s very coachable,” he said. “We’ve always gotten compliments about how effortless her stride looks. People accuse her now of jogging.”

Carter is putting in the effort, but she refuses to show the strain. Running to her is fun.

When I asked why she was ditching the 100 meters to try out the 400, she essentially said it gives her more time on the track.

“It’s a race you have lots of time to enjoy the race itself,” she said. “Even if the first 100 meters isn’t good, you still have 300 meters to make it good. You just run in increments.”

At 5 feet, 10 inches and potentially still growing, her coaches felt the 100 meters is not likely to remain her key event.

She’s a slow starter out of the blocks, according to her dad.

“Unwinding that 5-10 fairly thin frame out of the blocks?” he said, adding that when she unfolds those legs and gets her stride going, that’s when it’s a wonder to watch.

“When she gets going, her top speed is fairly high,” he said.

It probably pays for a dad to deal in understatement, but calling her top speed fairly high? We’ll go ahead and say it, Carter is stunningly fast.

Courtemarche calls her “amazing,” and said her athleticism is off the charts. For fun she tosses the shot put and discus. She’s recorded the 10th-best discus throw in Empire history for freshmen.

I asked her what it’s like to lose.

“It’s been awhile,” she said without a trace of swagger. She simply couldn’t remember when she last failed to cross the line first.

At this rate, it might be awhile still.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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