MISSOULA — Annie Hill’s cross country competitors can’t see her coming. But she can see them.
This newfound power for the Glacier senior is visualization.
As Hill begins her final high school season, she’s hoping the habit of visualizing her races beforehand can help her be more prepared and produce better results. It’s the latest step in maturing as a runner for the future Pac-12 competitor, who has big plans for the season including reclaiming the Class AA state title she won as a freshman and sophomore.
“It relaxes me a little bit and helps me narrow my focus to the race and get my mind in the right mode,” Hill said in a phone conversation earlier this week.
The distance runner will be visualizing her races for the first time in cross country this fall. She starting visualization in the spring track season as a way to adapt after last fall’s collapse at the state cross country meet cost her a third consecutive title.
She bounced back to be named the 2016-17 Gatorade Montana Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year. She ended the track season with Class AA state titles in the 800-meter run, 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter, and she was the runner up in the 400-meter dash.
“We saw it at state track that her perspective to racing has changed and it’s made her stronger,” Glacier cross country coach Jacob Deitz said. “She has just so much more maturity.”
In the simplest terms, she visualizes the course she’ll be running and her race plan for that particular course the night before and an hour before her race. When visualization paid off last spring, it stuck in her pre-race routine for the fall.
“I always do the exact same things every time to make sure I get the most out of my race,” she said. “As soon as I do good, I don’t want to change that at all. I’ve kind of got it down to a science.”
Hill’s path to visualization on the running course came as she saw her chance for a third straight state Class AA cross country title slip away on Oct. 22.
In the state final at her home course of Rebecca Farm in Kalispell, she ran the first mile in 5 minutes, 7 seconds and was just one second behind the leader, Billings Senior’s Tiahna Vladic. She ran the second mile in 5:43 and was tied for first with Vladic heading into the final mile.
Then things took a turn for the worse. Again.
Throughout the season, she said she had three races where she struggled in the final mile. The first time was at the Mountain West Classic.
It was something she had never experienced before. She and her parents looked into it, she said, and didn’t find any health issue responsible.
“There was nothing really wrong,” Hill said. “Just kind of unusual races.”
That weird race reared its head again at the absolute worst time. Hill disappeared in the third mile at state last fall, finishing the final lap with a time of 6:45. She finished 55.9 seconds behind the winner, Vladic, and ran the race in 17:36.6 to place seventh.
It was a different finish from her sophomore year, when she won the race with an all-class record time of 16:30.7. That year she was named the 2015-16 Gatorade Montana Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year. She also won the title as a freshman, finishing in 17:11.9.
Despite the disappointment last year at state, she regrouped for the Nike Cross Regionals Northwest race on Nov. 12 to win it for the second year in a row. She finished 41st at the Nike Cross Nationals.
That season changed her perspective on running. When there were no physical signs to point to, she began to work on the mental side of her preparation.
“I’m really trying to focus on the process and not so much the outcome of every little thing that happens,” Hill said. “I know there’s going to be ups and downs no matter what. I would like to be able to run for the next 20 years. There’s always going to be bumps.”
That’s a mindset Dietz said he’s been pleased to see.
“She has always been a lead point-to-point girl. She likes to be out front,” he said. “I think she’s realized that longevity-wise you needed to be a little more strategic. And sometimes it’s OK to just win, even if it’s not a great time. That’s the biggest piece from a coach’s perspective."
Hill, ranked as the No. 8 high school runner in the country by DyeStat, will continue running in the fall of 2018 at a Pac-12 college. She’s narrowed down her offers to Oregon, Stanford, Washington and Colorado.
She said she plans to have her commitment ready by Nov. 8 so she can sign when the initial signing date comes.
Before she heads to college, she has an entire year of cross country and track to try to go out on top.
This cross country season, she has “only five very important races” that she put on her calendar as her primary focus. Among them are the state finals on Oct. 21 at Bill Roberts Golf Course in Helena, then regionals and nationals.
That approach of selectivity is different than previous years, when Deitz felt she was trying to set a personal record every race.
“She’s come full circle,” Dietz said. “There are important races I need to put my full energy into, and there are other times that I’m just getting it done. I think she’s not as much letting the individual race determine her status as a distance runner.
“I think if we look at contrast Annie Hill as a freshman and Annie Hill as a senior, she took defeats much more personally as a freshman. I think Annie Hill going into her senior, instead of internalizing those defeats, she sees them as something that has made her stronger and she can grow from.”
She remains internally motivated and pushes herself. Her cross country prep over the summer included running an average of seven miles per day and 50 miles per week.
She also runs with the boys’ varsity team in practice, and Dietz said there’s some days the boys struggle to keep up with her.
“She’s definitely a once-in-a-career type of athlete,” Dietz said.
A new challenge this year for Hill and all runners will be an extended distance in races. Montana is going to a 5K instead of three miles, which makes races about 3.1 miles. She said she’s happy for the change to 5K because it standardizes times with other high school runners across the nation.
Even though the change gives Hill extra distance to visualize, she feels excited heading into her final season.
“I’m a little bit more focused this year and I just really want to do well,” Hill said. “I have a desire to do well. That’s kind of hard to put into words. This year I really want to do well.”