Claire Rutherford has compiled an impressive body of work in her young running career.
The Gallatin sophomore won the Class AA individual title at the state cross country meet in October, and she placed 10th at the NXR Northwest Regional Championships the next month.
Rutherford added another line to her résumé on Monday when she was announced as the Gatorade Montana Player of the Year winner for girls cross country.
“It’s a really cool thing to have happen, and I’m really grateful,” she said, recalling the scene of her parents receiving an email Monday morning announcing her as the winner. “I thought it was mostly seniors that got the award, so it was really shocking and pretty awesome when I found out that it was me.”
Rutherford becomes the third Gallatin athlete to win a Gatorade Player of the Year award in the school’s short history. She joins Olivia Collins in girls soccer and Garret Coley in boys track and field, both from last year.
Rutherford certainly put together a strong case for the award.
She ran one 5 kilometer race in over 20 minutes just once this season, near the beginning of the year, when she also ran twice in the 19s. Her time of 19 minutes, 17.91 seconds in the first race in Billings set the school record for girls.
She placed sixth at the competitive Mountain West Classic in Missoula by finishing in 18:59.8.
Rutherford followed it up by winning in Butte in 18:20.2. She raced well in Helena and placed second. Then she wrapped up her season by winning at the Cottonwood Hills Invitational.
And on Oct. 22, on a rainy Missoula morning, she placed first in the Class AA state race in 18:31.04 — almost 29 seconds faster than she ran on the same course at Mountain West.
“It shows that there’s even more room for improvement,” Raptors head coach Graydon Curry said. “For Claire, you kind of wonder, ‘What is the ceiling?’ It’s fascinating and it’s inspiring at the same time to watch how much she’s improved.”
Her rise has been nothing short of remarkable. Rutherford was not on Gallatin’s varsity team midway through her freshman season, but she ran well enough at the end of the season to be the team’s fifth scorer at the state meet, where the Raptors placed third.
“In winter training, she got after it like nobody’s business that year and she ends up setting school records in track,” Curry said. “You could see the progress just kept coming.”
By the end of the her sophomore track season, her winning time at the state meet was over 26 seconds faster than any other girls runner regardless of classification (second-fastest was sophomore teammate Isabel Ross; they were the only runners to break 19 minutes at state). The Raptors again placed third as a team, just two points out of second place.
Curry said that in the process of nominating Rutherford for the Gatorade award, he had no shortage of options to ask for letters of recommendation.
“I had half a dozen responses immediately,” he said.
Rutherford’s application also highlighted her 4.0 grade point average and her status as an officer with the Health Occupation Students of America, a biomed club. When Curry noted how dominating her state performance was, he said, “I think that gave her a big advantage right there.”
And in November, she earned All-Region honors at NXR in Idaho after being seeded 35th in the race. She ran 18:13.3 — a personal record by about seven seconds and further lowering the Gallatin record.
Rutherford said she gained a lot from that experience.
“It was so different, but in a good way,” she said. “The people that you’re racing against, there are so many more people and they’re all really, really good. It’s cool I got the opportunity to even race with them, but I hope to in the future keep racing in some bigger meets. I’ve just got to practice how to race with all those fast girls.”
Racing primarily against older runners — she was just one of two sophomores to finish in the top 10 — Rutherford was encouraged by her performance in that race two months ago.
“I knew that all the girls were seeded really close with each other, so I kind of was thinking to myself, ‘I might have a shot here,’” Rutherford said. “I ended up being able to (run with them) for the first two miles-ish, and I ended up dropping back at the last mile, but I was still happy that I managed to hold on with the top pack for a while.”
Curry said part of Rutherford’s growth has been her commitment to proper nutrition and sleeping habits and, in general, taking care of her body. Her dedication to improving while outside of formal practices is also evident.
“Cross country is a sport where you do a lot of runs on your own. There’s so much more you have to do to get at your peak,” Curry said. “It’s a testament to how hard she works, to how much she buys in. It’s really incredible. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it.”
Rutherford called winning the Gatorade award “very meaningful” and “a major ‘trust the process’ moment.”
“It’s the accumulation of a lot of hard work,” she said, “and it’s amazing to see.”
After the NXR race, Rutherford said she took a couple of weeks off and then began running again. She’s currently working to make sure she’s in shape for the track and field season in the spring. That still seems like a long way off, but she’s determined to stay ready.
“I’m a very competitive person, so when there is no near goal it’s just kind of weird,” Rutherford said of the lack of racing at this point of the year. “No competition, it’s hard, but I’m just ready for track. Still trying to train my best.”