KELSO — Meri Dunford is getting used to this distance-running thing.
Prairie High School’s sophomore burst onto the track and field scene as a newbie last spring and turned into an instant long-distance standout.
She put soccer aside this fall in favor of cross country, and now, she’s a first-time district champion, too.
She even has her ideal running conditions down pat already, and knows how to combat less-than-ideal conditions, as proven at Thursday’s 3A district meet when entire varsity girls race was contested in a downpour.
It soaked the course and every runner who crossed the finish line at Kelso High School’s Joe Stewart Track.
For Dunford, whose winning time came at 17 minutes, 43.70 seconds on the 2.95-mile course, her thought was simple:
“The faster you run,” she said, “the faster it’s done.”
How true, it is.
Dunford edged Fort Vancouver’s Emily Phelps, who clocked in at 17:44.10. It was a mirror image of the Prairie-Fort Vancouver dual meet Sept. 19, when Phelps beat Dunford by three-tenths of a second.
That was on Dunford’s mind Thursday.
“She beat me by one step,” Dunford said. “I’ve been working hard all season … It was a lot of hard work and it feels so good to accomplish those goals.”
Of course, there’s bigger goals Dunford wants to achieve. As the competition increases, including at next week’s Westside Classic at American Lake near Tacoma, she knows her training will kick in.
“I can feel like faster times are going to be coming,” she said.
Of course, running against competitors like Phelps helps, too. Phelps, a junior, took second at the 3A district meet for the second-straight year. The two began the race as leaders and led from start to finish. They even took a spill together at a slippery spot on the course in the final half-mile.
“It’s nice to have a girl right beside me and push each other to our limits,” Phelps said.
Phelps’ runner-up time and teammate Anna Harrison’s third-place finish (18:33.20) helped Fort Vancouver place second as a team (63 points) behind team champion Kelso (41).
It’s the third consecutive year the Trappers are headed to regionals as a team, furthering the gradual build of the cross country program’s success. This year, Fort Vancouver went 5-1 in the 3A Greater St. Helens League regular-season.
“This is just the Fort rise,” Phelps said. “We might not have won today, but it’s definitely a win for our program and for our school.”