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.