By Tiffany L. Rehbein
The story of Steve Prefontaine told more about Jennie Peterson than she ever could.
Some people create with words, or with music, or with brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, Ive never seen anyone run like that before. Its more than just a race, its style. Its doing something better than anyone else. Its being creative.
Prefontaine said those words more than 20 years ago, when he was in his early running years. It turned out to be his prime, before his life tragically ended in 1975 in a car accident. He was in his early 20s.
Prefontaine died eight years before Peterson was even born, on April 6, 1983, and 15 years before she ever decided to run.
I used to be one of those people who used to hate running, Peterson said. I didnt know anything about it, she continued about her track and field knowledge as a freshman. I didnt even know what a 400 or an 800 was.
But a friend talked her into running leisurely, and started a love affair that has continued to grow.
In 1999, just her second season in cross country, Peterson, a small 5-foot-1 junior at Havre High School, has won three titles in four meets. Most recently, Peterson notched a career-best 18:35 on the three-mile course at Lewistown.
But cross country is an endurance-builder for Peterson, who prefers the challenge of track and field. As a sophomore, she broke into the Blue Pony Hall of Fame in both the 1600-meter and 3200.
In the 1600, Peterson clocked in at 5:28.10, good for a third place slot in the hall of fame. The time puts her in the ranks of Carrie Evans, at No. 2, and Kathie Jarvis who holds No. 1, with a time of 4:58.3. Jarvis has held it since 1984.
In the 3200, Peterson stopped the clock at 12:04.3, again good for a third place in the hall. Jarvis and Evans stand before her.
With her drive and determination, Peterson will surpass the best of the best at Havre High.
Sundays are Petersons peaceful running days.
Its a time for me to dream, Peterson said.
She might run short or long routes. She likes the hill that overlooks the swale by the cemetery off Boulevard Avenue. She enjoys running by the house that smells like fresh Downy fabric softener.
Thats my church, Peterson said about running.
Once, she ran that path at night, and it was just the moon, reflecting its white light in all its fullness, and it was herself.
It was inspiring, Peterson said. The only light was the full moon. Id see my shadow and its like I was competing with myself. Ive got to outrun that shadow.
A photo used to hang in Petersons bathroom, a note to herself: strengthen mentally.
The Kodak photo showed Peterson, displaying her blue and white Havre jersey, within steps of the finish line. The left arm of a girl wearing an orange and black jersey showed, running in the lane next to Peterson. The girls body was cut off in the photo, a moment, frozen in time. A competition that appeared to be won by Peterson.
But in Petersons memory, the distance runner was very much real.
Id look at the girl and say, Im going to get you, Peterson said to the picture in her bathroom, to the pacer who beat her in the race.
Peterson told a story about running a 3200 in Great Falls last April. She was in the same heat with the fastest runners in the state, from the AA ranks down.
I was with all the big dogs, Peterson said.
The heat was eight laps, 10 to 12 minutes.
It was a whole mental game, she said.
During the course of the first mile, Peterson was anywhere from 30 to 50 meters back from the pack. She started to pick up in the fifth lap, closing the gap.
Pulling from an inner drive, on the sixth lap, Peterson made her move, plucking past each girl, one by one. Through the seventh and final lap, her heat watched her back.
I wasnt even in the race anymore, Peterson said. None of them could keep up.
During the summer, Peterson won the 14-to-18-year-old division in the half-marathon road race at the Big Sky State Games, clocking in at 1:29:30. Written in green marker in the keepsake program were the words, First goal was to finish, new goal to improve. 1:29:30 next year!
Track coach Noel Henderson would give his tracksters their split times after each track meet. Peterson posted hers in the corner of her bathroom mirror, So it would be drained into my life, she said.
Above her bed, Peterson had highlighted with a yellow marker the times of harriers who were running cross country times in the 17s. CMR cross country runner Heidi Lane was one such name.
In this, her second year in cross country, Peterson opened the season with a 19:30 at the Cut Bank Time Trials. With that time, she broke her previous personal-best time from last season by more than two minutes.
The cross country season opened at Belgrade, where Peterson took first place with a time of 21:28. She followed it up the following week at Glasgow, where she again broke her personal-best time, clocking in at 19:16, and another first place.
The Havre team finished first, second and third, good for the first place trophy at the invitational.
At the Mountain West Classic in Missoula two weeks ago, Peterson finished 13th, out of more than 170 runners, with a time of 19:29, and came home disappointed.
I wasnt happy, Peterson said. I was working to be in the 18s in Missoula. I could have taken advantage of all the excellent runners. I hate the fact that I wasnt mentally prepared for the race. I tried to convince myself I was ready and I wasnt.
Im very, very hard on myself, Peterson continued. Im not one of those people who cries over a movie, but I get teary-eyed when I disappoint myself. I wasnt pleased at all.
The third place time at Missoula, marked by a girl from Shadle Park, was 18:35.02, a time that Peterson proved she could beat last week when, once again, she broke her own personal-best time. She clocked in at 18:35 and brought home another first-place trophy from Lewistown.
If youre going to do it, you might as well do it right, Peterson said. Give 100 percent. If you dont want to do, then dont do it. Im not a mediocre person. Im going to take it to an extreme. Im going to be falling over at the end. It doesnt matter if you finish, it mattered how you finish.
In my opinion, just about anybody could run a 19. Get down to 18, 17s, then youre working with your mental game. Its going to be a challenge, if I can get there I might be half pleased with myself, Peterson said.
Once, Jennies mom told her she had a great gift.
Right now I work hard, she responded. When I run a 17, then it will be a gift.
In blue ink on a sheet of binder tablet paper, written in Jennies youthful script, reads her favorite quote from Prefontaine, To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the Gift.