Through bronchitis and blood blisters, Kayla Carlson endures. She’s never needed additional motivation or willpower to cross the finish line in any race. But sometimes she’s needed bandages.
Carlson, a petite and bubbly senior at Bigfork High School, has emerged as one of the top long-distance runners in the state after only beginning to run seriously as a sophomore. Now she’s trying for a rare track trifecta: state titles in the three longest running events, with the possibility of a fourth title in the 1,600-meter relay.
Acknowledging her history of getting injured or sick at the worst possible time, Carlson said the Class B state meet in Laurel on May 28-29 will be different.
“This year I’m planning on being healthy and not getting sick,” Carlson said. “But sometimes life throws you curveballs and you have to handle them as best you can.”
Carlson says she loves to listen to wind move through grass, nearly in step with her own breathing, when she runs past the fields next to her house. But wind passes through the pasture much more gracefully than air passes through the lungs of a runner suffering from bronchitis, as Carlson knows.
In the fall, Carlson wheezed and puffed her way to a fourth-place finish at the Class B cross country meet. She was hoping for first place, but considering her painful bronchitis, it’s a wonder she even entered the race at all.
Already having proven that a runner can challenge for a state championship without healthy lungs, Carlson proved at the District 7-B track meet two weeks ago that a determined runner can also dominate races without healthy feet.
Carlson’s feet broke out in vicious blood blisters during the 1,600-meter run, but she managed to win the race with a district-record time of 5:06.10, breaking the old record by 12 seconds.
“During the 1,600, my feet started feeling funny,” Carlson said, “and when I got done I couldn’t really walk.”
Ointment, bandages and gauze were applied to Carlson’s feet before her next race, the 800 meters. In the middle of the half-mile-long race, she felt the bandages slipping and blood seeping. Her feet really hurt. But, yet again, she finished the race with a district-record time of 2:20.12.
By the time the 3,200 rolled around, her feet hardly resembled their former selves, yet they still carried her to another title. Carlson won the race with a time of 12:22.90, a half-minute ahead of her closest competitor but short of another District 7-B record. A week later at the Western B divisional meet, she won two out of the three events as well as her relay.
“In a race, especially at districts, I’m not going to stop running just because my feet are sore,” she said.
This spring, Carlson has the fastest times in Class B in the 800 (2:16.38), 1,600 (5:05.02) and 3,200 (11:32.27). Carlson’s time in the 1,600 is two seconds shy of the Class B record of 5:03.29, set by Boulder’s Sabrina Moore in 1997.
Last year, when Bigfork was in Class A, Carlson won the 3,200-meter title and placed second in the 800 and third in the 1,600. But following what she viewed as a disappointing fourth-place – albeit bronchitis-limited – finish at the Class B cross country meet, Carlson expanded her already considerable workout routine in the winter with more running, more weightlifting and more focus.
Carlson ran 30-35 miles over the course of six days each week, “rain, snow, sleet or shine.” Running in 10-degree-below-zero temperature one day, Carlson’s ears were frostbitten. But she said running is a source of peace, even in the face of extreme temperatures.
“It’s a nice time to reflect on how your day’s been going and how the next day will be,” she said. “You can’t look at it as a chore.”
She added: “It’s become a part of who I am. A lot of different things in my life are centered around running.”
Carlson has accepted a scholarship to run both indoor and outdoor track and cross country at the University of Mary in North Dakota. Though she’s excited, she’ll miss Montana’s natural beauty, which she says makes running outside that much more rewarding. She likes to wake up early in the summer to greet the day with a run along the Swan River Nature Trail.
“It’s really energizing,” she said. “I like to run bright and early in the morning just when everything is waking up.”
Only a few years after beginning to run competitively, Carlson now can’t imagine life without it. She says that in a sport where “all you need is a pair of shoes,” her experience proves that anybody can start up at any time and find success.
“The human body was made to run, if you think about it,” she said. “Running is a really inspiring sport. It reveals and builds character. You don’t have to start young. You just have to give it your all and in the end you reap what you put into it.”
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