Benefield: Analy's Sierra Atkins not sweating stiff competition on track

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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.”

Peterson finished in 4:49.67, her best time this season. Atkins’ 4:57.07 was just shy of her personal record of 4:56.97 that she ran at the Granada Distance and Sprint Festival on April 13. Maria Carrillo’s Aimee Armstrong finished third in 5:00.22 and St. Helena High sophomore Harper McClain came in fourth in 5:02.60.

Atkins, who is slated to run for the UC Davis Aggies next season, is one of the best in the business around here. She has posted the 11th-fastest 1,600-meter time ever in a region that has launched world-class runners. Her best 3,200-meter time, 11:00.85, is 24th-fastest all time. For some perspective, consider this: Two-time Olympian Kim Conley sits at No. 22 on that list.

Atkins is a flat-out athlete.

The Aggies’ coaching staff wants her to run cross country for them despite the fact that she has never run cross country before. Why not? She was playing soccer her first two years at Analy. Oh, she also plays basketball — very well. She was the team’s co-MVP this season and earned first team all-North Bay League-Oak honors.

These other athletic pursuits may or may not explain Atkins’ somewhat slow start this season. She didn’t break five minutes in the 1,600 meters until mid-April in a dual meet with Cardinal Newman. But those other sports and those other abilities might also explain why she’s coming on like a thunderclap at this point in the season.

“I was kind of nervous before that,” she said. “I was like down because I hadn’t broken five this year. Then randomly, out of nowhere at Cardinal Newman, I busted out a 4:59 and it was, ‘Yeah, I’m back in business.’”

Last year, Atkins was chasing the school record for the 1,600 (5:01) set in 1985. She crushed it by three seconds.

“That is what helped me shave off a lot of time,” she said. “But I immediately set a new goal.”

This year, the goal is to make the CIF state track and field championships in Clovis May 24-25. She’d like to see her times drop into the “low 4:50s.”

To make state, she’s got to either run the qualifying time or be top three in the North Coast Section Meet of Champions May 17-18.

Right now, she’s well in the mix … right along with Peterson and Rayna Stanziano of Concord High.

Plus, she’s got Carrillo’s Armstrong currently in fifth in the section and St. Helena’s McClain currently at ninth. Atkins looks past no runner. She looks forward to head-to-head matchups.

“Last year I ran my fastest time ever at the North Coast Section (Meet of Champions) and I knew it was because I was being pushed by all those other girls around me,” she said.

She may never be a league champ, but no matter — she’s on pace to run herself right into the state meet this year.

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

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