- Associated Press - Saturday, May 14, 2016

KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) - It’s pouring rain and the pack of varsity distance runners, a group of boys chasing all-state credentials, is powering through 200-meter sprints, 16 in total. In the middle of the herd, hidden at 5-foot-2 but striding step for step with the lead runners, is Annie Hill.

During track practice on this recent cloudy afternoon in mid-April, the sophomore at Glacier High School is once again out front, striding with confident, stoic rhythm and squinted eyes. The harder it rains, the faster she runs - 200 meters, 33 seconds; 200 meters, 32 seconds; 200 meters, 31 seconds.

Running in rain isn’t so bad when you’ve trained on icy roads through snowstorms, the Flathead Beacon reported (https://bit.ly/1SF7AsL). In preparation for track season, Hill ran nearly every day all winter, regardless of the elements or temperatures, registering hill sprints or long runs up to 14 miles. Once every three weeks she would take a day off and rest.

“She’s got a natural gift. That’s pretty obvious. But she also works really hard,” Glacier distance coach Jacob Deitz said. “She’s got that ability to push herself over the threshold.”

In only her second track season, Hill has already distinguished herself as one of Montana’s great distance runners. As unbelievable as it is, she is yet another record-setting racer from the Flathead Valley following the historic footsteps of Zoe Nelson and Makena Morley.

This latest addition to the elite club of distance-running phenoms is an affable, shy 16-year-old with a keen competitive edge and ambitious drive. She is a 4.0 student who performs in the school orchestra and volunteers for her church youth group. She also relishes competition, maps out her every step with a cerebral efficiency and feels her best after conquering a difficult workout or race.

“Annie Hill may be as dedicated to the sport of cross country as anyone that I have ever seen,” Clint May, the head cross country coach at Bozeman High School, said after Hill won the Gatorade Montana Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year in January. “Watching her at a meet is to watch someone incredibly fierce yet remarkably friendly.”

Her origin story is a simple one: she was participating in the Highlander track program in sixth grade.

“I ran the mile and I got beat by this boy. I said, ‘I’ve got to beat him,’ and I worked really hard. The next time we ran, I barely beat him and broke six minutes for the mile,” she said.

“I was so excited. It was a big moment for me.”

A few months later, she ran a half marathon with a family friend. She remembers cruising through the 13.1 miles with ease, more curious about her mile splits than how much longer they had to go. She finished comfortably in one hour, 45 minutes.

Running became a routine. She and her father, Micah, would regularly go for jogs. Pretty soon she was participating in local races and finding success. Then she was in high school, winning state championships in cross country and track as a fleet-footed freshman with unprecedented prospects.

The latest and greatest example of Hill’s remarkable abilities occurred at the Arcadia Invitational in Los Angeles on April 9. The top prep runners from the West lined up for the 3,200-meter race. It had rained hard all day and the wet track glistened under the lights that night.

While many girls were unaccustomed to battling the elements, Hill was ready and eager. Yet anxiety lingered in the coastal air. Only a few months earlier, Hill suffered what she described as the “worst race of my life.” At the Foot Locker Nationals in San Diego, instead of landing on the podium among the top finishers, she placed 22nd, running an 18:18.9 for 5K. A proud accomplishment nonetheless, it was nearly half a minute slower than her time the previous year and sent the young runner home discouraged and embarrassed.

“It’s really hard for me to do really poorly in my eyes,” she said. “That was a really big blow to my confidence. I couldn’t say exactly what it was and I didn’t have an excuse for doing really bad. It just was one of those days.”

At Arcadia, Hill found herself back in California for the first time since Foot Locker Nationals, and that race lingered in her mind.

Instead of worrying about the past, Hill said a prayer as she does before every race and lined up at the start with a noticeable look of determination. The gun fired and Montana’s reigning state champ hit stride against the best.

She was neither intimidated nor shy as she rattled off sub 70-second laps. By the end, the young girl from Montana was bursting with speed chasing the best prep runner in California. In her eighth and final lap, Hill clocked 68 seconds and finished in 10:14.14, less than one second behind the winner. Not only does Hill’s time stand out as the second fastest in the nation right now, it became the fastest 3,200-meter race by a female prep athlete from Montana in history.

Hill’s mark surpassed the previous best time by a female high school runner from Montana, 10:16.38, set by Morley of Bigfork at Arcadia in 2014. Flathead’s Nelson ran 10:20.0 at Arcadia in 2004 when she was also a sophomore.

Hill’s historic time is 17 seconds faster than her state-championship winning time from last spring. The all-class state record, which can only be set at the state meet, is 10:26.18, set by Nelson in 2004.

Hill didn’t arrive at the landmark achievement by accident. She keeps her goals posted on the wall in her bedroom, lofty ambitions such as running the 1,600 in 4:40, which would shatter the all-class state record held by Billings Senior runner Christina Aragon, or clocking 2:05 for the 800, another record-breaking prospect.

Instead of worrying about chasing these remarkable goals, Hill is enjoying the pursuit as much as the destination, even if it involves running miles and miles through rain or snow.

“There’s been moments where I’ve been like, ‘Why am I doing this?’” she said. “It never stays that way. Every time I have a good workout, I’m like, ‘Now I know why I run.’”

___

Information from: Flathead Beacon, https://www.flatheadbeacon.com


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