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.”