Benefield: Analy's Sierra Atkins not sweating stiff competition on track
Analy’s Sierra Atkins has raced Healdsburg senior Gabby Peterson a lot in their four years of high school. And most of the time, Atkins spends the bulk of those races watching the Oregon State-bound star pulling away, not to be caught.
Peterson is currently the third-fastest 1,600-meter runner in the state and the fastest in the North Coast Section at that distance. In the 3,200 meters, she’s ranked seventh in the state and first in the section.
It almost feels like a cruel twist. Because in most leagues, in most areas, Atkins would be on top of the leaderboard every time she toed the line. She’s currently ranked third in NCS in the 1,600 meters.
For the first three years of their careers, the two faced each other in Sonoma County League competitions. This year, both schools are in the North Bay League-Redwood Division.
But ask Atkins and she doesn’t sound unlucky, and she betrays no hint of bitterness that her shot at winning usually has to be when Peterson doesn’t show. In fact, if anything, she considers herself fortunate that she gets to hone her skills with the likes of Peterson on a regular basis.
“I can’t say I get tired of it,” she said. “Honestly, if I had my choice, I’d probably race against her more. … She is really high up there in status, so it’s always nice to run against her. It’s a totally different race when you are running against the clock than when you are running with girls right up against your shoulder.
“Sometimes, I’m like, ‘Dang, I won’t even be league champ,’ but she’s so humble and warm,” Atkins said of Peterson.
That feeling is genuine. When the two climbed the podium on Saturday at the Viking Track Classic at Montgomery High — yep, at one and two — Atkins lauded Peterson loudly, cheering her new state ranking and the destruction of a 23-year-old meet record. And Peterson embraced her rival.
That race Saturday unfolded as it usually does. Atkins took the first lap out fast — 1:09. She led the race for one lap and into the second before Peterson pulled up on her right and took the lead.
“I jump out early because running against Gabby, it’s interesting — even though I know she’s definitely faster than me, she usually lets me lead the first lap or two, but I know eventually she’s going to keep going and get some strides ahead,” Atkins said.
That blazing start is Atkins’ calling card of sorts. She does it against everyone and no one in particular. It’s just how her mind is wired in the 1,600 meters.
“My first lap has always been fast. I have just become comfortable running a fast first lap,” she said. “I think it’s just because I have that mentality that it’s, ‘Go fast while you can but don’t die.’ Any time I try to pace myself or conserve energy, it could be time lost in the end. I have never really been like that.”
With that scorching start, Atkins very likely helped Peterson beat the Viking Track Classic record set in 1996 by Santa Rosa’s Julia Stamps, perhaps the most decorated prep runner ever to emerge from this prep runner hotbed.
“Sierra really took out the first lap hard, which kind of set the tone for the race,” Peterson said Saturday before she’d even caught her breath. “Sierra … really pushed me. That was awesome. She’s a great runner.”