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Runners congealed onto the starting line, a strip of white spray paint callously applied to a grassy meadow atop a mountain. They were stacked so tightly that recognizing faces became nearly impossible, the mob of bodies differentiated only by color of uniform.

Their heads turned toward the man 15 yards ahead as he proclaimed directions, starting gun facing the ground. Most gazes remained fixed. One runner in the middle broke from the conformity.

Riley Smith looked at her left wrist. She ensured her smart watch, clasped by a metallic pink strap, was ready. Anticipating the season-opening Beartrap Invitational’s beginning, Smith, in a staggered stance, leaned onto her back foot. She inhaled just before tapping her watch and leaning forward.

Bang.

The cluster of runners migrated forward. They trekked up the grassy, uneven surface of Beartrap Meadow on Casper Mountain. Smith blended into the chorus of galloping teenagers.

Just another face in the crowd.

Hit the ground running

Maggie Kirkham and Richard Smith both ran track competitively while at Western Michigan. They often ran together. It was always friendly until one took exception to the other gaining a slight advantage. Through countless competition they married and, eventually, moved to Cody.

That was years ago. Before Kirkham became the cross-country coach at Cody and well before Smith took the reins of the middle school program for the Broncs/Fillies. He’s prepared runners for Kirkham ever since.

“He’s my middle school coach,” Kirkham said matter-of-factly. “I’m not married to him anymore, but you’d think we still are.”

They remained together for the better part of two decades. They had been married for 12 years before their first child, Brody, was born. Through their first-born they discovered their competitiveness was genetic.

“Brody was a competitive little bugger,” Kirkham remembered. “He hated to lose at checkers.”

Admittedly so, Brody didn’t intend on following in his parents’ footsteps. Running didn’t appeal to him. In track and field he competed in the high jump because it was more fun than the alternative.

“I had better things to do than run everyday,” he said. “For me it took awhile to embrace that I was a runner.”

Eventually, destiny caught up to him. Brody Smith graduated Cody High School as a two-time state champion and All-American cross-country runner, as well as a six-time outdoor and three-time indoor track and field state champion. He also was an 11-time letterwinner and committed to run at Utah State.

The record books in Cody still bear his name. He holds the school record in every distance track and field or cross-country race.

At the pinnacle of Brody’s dominance came a brother, Bailey. A much more reserved athlete, Bailey started on his own path. He loved basketball and, instead of cross-country in the fall, he opted to play golf his freshman season.

But he did compete in track. He was a standout hurdler in middle school. There was no indication to believe he’d do anything else in high school.

Kirkham remembered being approached before Bailey’s first freshman track practice. She didn’t expect it.

“Mom, I want to be in your group,” he said.

“Okay,” she responded. “I think you’d run a good 800.”

He ran distance from that point forward. Bailey went on to be one of the best athletes in school history. He committed to run both cross-country and track at Trinidad State in Alamosa, Colorado.

“What people don’t realize is that if Brody Smith never went through Cody High School,” Kirkham said, “Bailey Smith would hold the record in the mile and the 2-mile.”

‘Quiet fierce’

While admiring both of her older brothers, Riley Smith’s personality bore the most resemblance to Brody’s. She held the same competitiveness as her mother and oldest brother.

Riley was in sixth grade when that desire became obvious. Both older siblings stood on the infield grass as they watched Riley stride through her laps. Brody, by then a state champion as a junior, watched Riley’s few races earlier that season. But this one was different. This time Riley didn’t win.

“Riley and I are extremely competitive, hard-nosed, stubborn people,” Brody said. “I remember watching that race and you could just see that she hated losing. She hated the idea of losing.”

So she kept working. There was no special workout. No speeches necessary. She knew to get better she had to put one foot ahead of the other. That’s all it took.

Just like that, the three children to two competitive former collegiate track athletes were distance runners.

“She’s more like Brody,” Kirkham said of Riley. “Now, Brody would run himself into the ground, whereas she is more of a quiet fierce.

“Since they were little they were in the baby jogger or on the bike or riding with me when I was running. Then they were running with me. Now I’m too old and I can’t keep up with any of them.”

Both parents made every attempt to foster their children’s love for other sports. Inevitably, they gravitated toward distance running.

And since they all endured those long races, they supported each other. Neither Bailey nor Brody have attended many of Riley’s races because of their own busy schedules. After those races she’ll check her phone to find texts and/or missed calls from her older brothers.

“If you have a bad race they’re there to be supportive,” she said. “I’ll talk with them about a race and they’ll say, ‘Oh, Riley, that’s dope!’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah.’

“And when Brody cheers for me, that really helps. Because they all know the pain I’m in.”

Then came high school. Her new teammates weren’t surprised there was something special about Riley.

The new endeavor, however, brought more complications than simply having a mother as head coach.

The next step

Riley Smith entered the 2017 cross-country season as the next chapter in a line of Smith distance runners at Cody. She approached the starting line of her first varsity race with slight intimidation. After all, she was only 14 years old with a legacy. Then another shadow eclipsed her.

Talk of Riley finishing third in her first varsity race took a backseat to Rawlins freshmen Syndey Thorvaldson winning the meet in stunning time. Thorvaldson finished the race more than 2-and-a-half minutes faster than Smith.

That persisted throughout the season. Smith raced a difficult schedule, constantly improving her times and moving further up the results sheet. However, if Thorvaldson ran in the same race, Smith finished second at best. The Rawlins wunderkind won the state meet a full 2 minutes ahead of anyone else. Smith earned silver by beating teammate Bailey Stafford by 5 seconds.

Kirkham remembered thinking how that could demoralize a runner. Especially one as competitive as her daughter. Her biggest fear was that Riley would think, ‘I could train, train, train and I’ll never be the best.’

So, with her coach’s support, Riley focused on herself. They both knew how hard she practiced. Comparing her work ethic to anyone else’s would be futile.

“I know that she’s insane and went to nationals,” Riley said of Thorvaldson. “I know I would like to be as good as her and get as close to her as I can but I kind of just let her do her thing and run my own race.”

During the winter season, Riley opted to run indoor track. She competed in relays, as well as the distance races. She placed fourth in the 1,600 and sixth in the 800 at the state meet. Defeated only by older runners from Class 4A schools. (Indoor track isn’t divided into classifications, unlike its outdoor counterpart.)

Her competitive nature returned during the outdoor track season, where she once again faced Thorvaldson as a peer. Riley won all but one 800- and 1,600-meter race throughout the year, including regionals. She qualified for the Wyoming Track Classic in the 3,200 with her only previous race in that event. Riley qualified for the state meet in all three of those events. She also ran the anchor leg on Cody’s qualifying sprint medley relay team.

Kirkham remembered looking at Riley before the 2-mile at the 2018 Class 3A State Track and Field Championships. Thorvaldson prepared to race alongside. Her Cody teammates counted on her.

“We need eight points,” Kirkham said. “At this point we need you to get second and then you’ve got a relay to run.”

Riley nodded. Eleven minutes, 45.69 seconds later she reached her goal. Riley finished second to Thorvaldson in the 3,200 and 1,600 and third in the 800 (Powell senior JuliaKay O’Neill finished between them for second in the 800).

When her focus turned to the relay, however, she couldn’t be overtaken.

She grasped the baton for the final 800 meters with Cody already in the lead. The anchor leg on a team comprised of three freshmen and a senior, Riley pushed through the pain. She crossed the finish line nearly 4 seconds before Thorvaldson and Rawlins. Riley’s teammates screamed at the finish line and rushed to her. They just became state champions.

Her own race

The pack of varsity runners at this year’s Beartrap Invitational disappeared out of sight. They ran through a wooded area before the course meandered back into view at the campgrounds. A bright red jersey broke through the clearing first. Thorvaldson. And she held a comfortable lead.

Then, separated by moments, Cheyenne East’s Mackenzie Marler, Cheyenne Central’s Claudia Miller and Riley Smith.

“I’ve been training really, really hard all summer,” she said. “I’m in the best shape I’ve probably ever been in. So I knew I was in good shape but I didn’t know about my mentality. I didn’t know if I would be competitive enough.

“But I’ve been training with the boys and I make sure that they don’t pass me.”

The gaps between Riley and the other two narrowed. She didn’t check her watch for the time, knowing the course’s difficulty wouldn’t allow her to break 20 minutes. And the watch announced her mile splits anyway.

Those three approached the course’s uphill climb. Marler leading the small pack with Miller behind and Riley closing in. They disappeared out of sight once more.

Fans clamored on both sides of the path’s clearing. They waited for runners to materialize. Out came the lead bike and Thorvaldson, bringing encouragements from spectators. Then silence. The air remained still as those gathered involuntarily held their breath. They all hoped their runner would be the next to come into view.

A child’s voice broke the stillness.

“Here comes Riley!” the voice echoed through the meadow.

Riley emerged through the clearing in second place. The other two runners, including last year’s 4A state champion and national qualifier, fell further behind.

“I’ve always thought that Mackenzie Marler and Claudia Miller were so, so fast,” Riley said. “And then I saw I was close to them. And then I realized that I past them. I was like, ‘Whoa.’ That was a big eye-opener.”

Riley finished second with a time of 20:25.9. Having caught her breath, she walked to grab a cup of water and found Thorvaldson. They hugged and asked each other their times. Both smiled, satisfied with the result.

“I just wasn’t prepared to hurt that bad,” Riley said. “I think this season I’m just going to get gradually better so that’s cool.”

She returned to her phone to find messages from her brothers. Bailey asked how things went. Brody too. Riley waited to reply, instead opting to run her cool-down mile.

Brody and Bailey talk every day since Brody transferred to Purdue over the summer. Brody and Riley call each other multiple times per week. The oldest brother has learned that Riley’s calls usually mean their mom got too difficult at practice. She’s calling to ask a similar personality how to deal with it.

“She’s got it figured out,” Brody said. “She’s my little twin. It’s like talking to myself in the mirror.”

One of the runners alerted Kirkham that her phone was ringing. The coach predicted it was either Brody or Bailey. They called her because Riley wasn’t answering, her phone left behind as she finished her post-race workout, Kirkham thought. She was right. It was Bailey.

In the same breath as his greeting, Bailey asks how his little sister did.

“She got second,” Kirkham said before being asked to recap the race. “When she got off the line so awful I bet she was in 20th. She couldn’t get off the line. But she ran smart, she worked her way up, well before the mile mark she was right up near second and then ...”

Bailey, calling from Georgia, marveled on the other end. They shared excited exhales.

Now into her sophomore year, Riley’s escaped the shadow cast by older siblings. She’s established herself as a distance-running force in her own right. She’s done all of it by running her own race and making her own name.

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High School Sports Reporter

Brady Oltmans reports on high school and local sports. He joined the Star-Tribune in July 2016 after covering prep sports and college soccer in Nebraska. He also contributes to University of Wyoming sports coverage. He and his dog live in Casper.

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