The girls 1,600-meter invitational race at the Florida State Relays last weekend was a gathering of the top prep distance runners in the state.
Defending state champion cross country runners and past state medalists in the mile took their shot at one of the best in the country — nine-time Louisiana state 1,600 champion Gabrielle Jennings.
Everything went according to plan with Jennings reaching the top of the podium.
Fort Myers’ Kristlin Gear, one of the least-decorated runners in the field, turned in a quick final 100 meters to move from sixth place to less than 0.2 seconds from besting Jennings at the finish line.
The sophomore, who posted a personal best 4:59.71, displayed the type of kick that should put her in the conversation of contenders in Class 3A at the FHSAA championships next month in Jacksonville.
“She’s a gutsy kid who has enough speed to outrun people when it comes down to it,” former Fort Myers track coach and now Island Coast athletic director Kelly Heinzman-Britton said. “I think with more and more training she’ll have even more left in the tank in races than (at FSU). She could end up being the next great miler at Fort Myers.”
This was an unexpected, gigantic step forward for Gear, who is relatively new to the mile and recently notched her personal best 5:10.04 in the event the previous weekend at the Lee County Athletic Conference meet.
How is it that a converted pole vaulter pushed Louisiana’s record holder for total state crowns in cross country, indoor and outdoor — Jennings, a junior at Slidell First Baptist Christian School, owns 32 and counting — to the brink?
“It’s really hard to explain,” said Gear, who won her first three individual county titles in the pole vault, 800 and 1,600 this season.
Gear started off following in the footsteps of her sister, Anna, who vaulted at Fort Myers, and dabbled in the 400 as a favor to her grandfather, a former distance runner.
Heinzman-Britton had a different plan for her.
“You have to be under a minute to be great in the 400,” she said. “From workouts you saw she didn’t have that, but I knew with some endurance training, with her pure strength she had what it took to run the 800 and would probably, more so, end up in the mile.”
Still relatively new to the event, Gear has shown a willingness to learn all she can in practice.
“You almost have hold her back and say ‘that’s it for today,'” first-year Fort Myers distance coach Rob Strong said. “That’s the general consensus of this whole team. They want to do whatever it takes to get better.”
The FSU Relays provided her the opportunity to see exactly how much progress she’s made.
Gear hung with the front of the pack as long she could during the first lap before slowing down to a more comfortable pace. As the last lap approached, she sensed some movement in the pack.
Winter Park’s Rafaella Gibbons, the defending 4A cross country champion, started to make a move toward the front and Gear went with her.
“I felt a lot more aware in this race. So when people came up near me I tried to push ahead with them,” Gear said.
As she does every race, Gear was forced to ask herself the tough question of whether she had enough energy to make a real run at the leaders, who were 25 meters ahead of her with 300 meters to go.
The answer was simple.
“I always hope I have enough left in the end, but, for some reason, I felt really good,” Gear said. “When I’m in the last 100 or 150 I try to push as hard as I can and hope it gets me first (place).”
Strong was in the infield on his way to the finish line thinking Gear would certainly set a new personal record and possibly secure a top-5 finish in a pretty impressive field. And then he heard it.
“You just hear the roar of the crowd and see her coming on the outside,” Strong said.
Gear left Gibbons in the dust and burned Boca Raton Pine Crest’s Julia Montgomery, who sat in third after leading most of the race, and then blew past Evangelical Christian standout Sara Candiano down the stretch. She had her sights set on Jennings, but ran out of real estate and came up short as Jennings leaned over the finish line.
Gear still struggles to find the words to describe the kick even after watching the film over and over.
“It felt really powerful,” Gear said. “I was expecting to be a little more tired because the last few years I haven’t had as much competition. So I wanted to go out and push harder than I usually do.
“If I went into the race thinking I was going to be behind all those people, I wouldn’t have run the time I did. I went in trying to think positive and trying to do my best. I think that helped.”