For a runner who once fancied herself as an 800 meters competitor, Kristen Carter has indeed come a long way.
Carter is so competitive, in fact, that she used her first marathon as her last chance to qualify for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
But that's just Carter. She beat back severe leg cramps over the final four miles to qualify by 13 seconds, then finished ahead of dozens of far more experienced runners in the Olympic Trials.
Coming out of nowhere, however, was nothing new for the 25-year-old Bellingham High graduate.
After all, not many small college cross country All-Americans can say their best finish in a national championship race was better than their top showing in a high school state meet.
But that's just Carter. Now she feels deeply grateful to be named the "Honored Runner" for the annual Lake Padden Trail Half. The woodsy half-marathon, which starts at 9 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, benefits Rebound of Whatcom County, a charity devoted to at-risk children.
Carter, of course, will compete. In fact, "I'm going all out to win," she said with a grin.
But that's just Carter, as people in the Bellingham running community will attest.
Carter - the winner of the recent Bellingham Bay Half Marathon in women's meet record time - has long since proved herself as a competitor, even though she sustained four shinbone stress fractures in college following her first such bad break in high school.
When Carter, now 5-foot-3 and 110 pounds, was being home-schooled through eighth grade, she thought her future was in team sports, since she had played a lot of soccer, basketball and softball.
"But I didn't make Bellingham's varsity soccer team as a freshman, and that's what I had set as my goal," said Carter, who is all about goals, even if they have long since stopped being goals of the soccer variety. "But it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened."
Instead, seeking a varsity team on which to compete as a freshman, she turned out for coach Bill McClement's cross country team, where she discovered how much she loved the family feeling and fun she encountered.
"It was my dad's suggestion to run," said Carter, the daughter of John and Carrie Carter. "I was a soccer midfielder, meaning I had to constantly be running, and I could go forever."
In this case, father definitely knew best.
High school running, however, wasn't always easy for Carter. She found out that she was not an 800 meters prospect during her track seasons, even though she insisted on giving the 800 her best shot.
"When I hit a plateau in cross country during my sophomore year at Bellingham, coach McClement told me I would be a distance runner in college and that I would eventually be a marathon runner," she said. "So I stuck with cross country."
Bingo. She finished 36th for Bellingham at state cross country as a senior - following her personal best with a third at district to qualify individually - the year after the Red Raiders' girls' and boys' teams qualified for state when she was a junior during a progress-packed season.
Carter did not want to be one-dimensional. She was also an accomplished violin player in a Bellingham orchestra directed by State Music Hall of Fame member Mark Schlichting, another teacher who had a major impact on her work ethic along with her longtime private violin instructor, Betsy Stuen-Walker.
Carter graduated from Bellingham with a 3.9 grade-point average, had fallen in love with running, and was determined to make her mark at a small college.
"I realized I wasn't Division I material coming out of high school," she said. "I wanted to attend college in a different area of the country, so I applied to Grove City College, a small private Christian college in northwestern Pennsylvania. When I indicated my interest, Grove City's cross country coach (Sean Severson) recruited me based on my times. I didn't know a soul there, but then that's kind of what I had done by going to Bellingham High after being home-schooled."
She says it's a good thing she had no idea how much snow hits that area, because she might not have chosen such a cold-weather location. But otherwise, "Grove City was the most wonderful experience."
"I dropped my times about 45 seconds each season," said Carter, who graduated with a double major in communications and marketing. "Coach Severson had all these incredible training plans. He always made it so much fun to run and encouraged us to learn how to listen to our bodies."
Run she did, competing in three NCAA Division III championships with a best of 26th as a junior to qualify as an All-American. Her stress fractures, though, spoiled most of her track opportunities.
"My first two years at Grove City, I was a selfish cross country runner," she said. "I thought of it as an individual sport and I was running for me. But Coach Severson made me see it as a team sport, that I was running for my teammates and for God."
Thus inspired, she was recognized midway through her senior year with a national Sportswoman of the Year honor for what she did as a junior on the way to the second of her three titles in the Presidents' Athletic Conference cross country championships.
"One of the student race directors sent me the wrong way in the race and I had been on pace for a course record. But I lost about 30 seconds before people told me to head back," she said. "I still won, but without a course record. The coach (of the host school) rebuked that student and she was crying and feeling awful. I went over to her and told her not to worry, that I was OK with it. To be honest, I didn't feel what I did was worth a national award. And I might not have felt (like such a good sport) had not coach Severson changed my attitude and taught me how to be a team runner."
Grove City, nonetheless, was somewhat of a culture shock in her freshman year.
"It was this very conservative Christian college," she said with a smile. "My friends knew when I disagreed with them. Here I was, this goody two-shoes when I was at school in Bellingham, and I became the crazy girl from the West Coast."
Carter said she "really learned a lot" with a disappointing final race as a college senior in cross country, even though she later won her school's top female athletic honor as a senior.
"I set my goal for a top five finish at the nationals, and I let the pressure get to me," she said. "But that set the stage so I could know how to handle the Olympic Trials."
A stress fracture at the beginning of her senior track season at Grove City gave her an unintended red shirt season, so she decided to compete one year in Division I track at Ohio State University while earning her master's degree in communications.
"Bur I lasted one race - I ran the fifth-fastest indoor 3K, a 9:51, on Ohio State's career list," she said. "Then I was diagnosed with my fifth stress fracture, and that ended my college running. But my coach told me to keep training with the team while I was getting my master's. My coach told me I should try to qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials. I won three half-marathons in a row, two in Ohio and the third being my first Bellingham Bay half-marathon last year."
Encouraged by her coaches, she ran 2 hours, 45 minutes and 47 seconds in her only crack at meeting the 2:46 qualifying standard for the Olympic Trials last Jan. 14 in Houston. She came into the trials ranked 179th, but finished 112th in "2:48 and change" - a phenomenal accomplishment for one so inexperienced at the distance.
She won the Oak Harbor Marathon in April. Her next marathon - only her fourth - will be the Seattle Marathon on Nov. 25. She also plans to run the Boston Marathon in April.
"I've dedicated the Seattle race to coach McClement," she said. "He won the Seattle Marathon 30 years ago, and I'll be going all out to win it. I always dedicate each race to someone, because then I'm not just running for myself. I dedicated my Bellingham Bay half-marathon to my best friend Rachel Shuster. She became like a sister to me when we met at Ohio State."
Carter said she'll shoot for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials, hoping to finish "maybe top 35 or top 50 because that's a realistic goal."
She figures she'll always have goals, running or otherwise.
"I want to run competitively forever, but I don't anticipate actually trying to train for the Olympics, because I don't want to live and breathe running," she said. "I'll always give 150 percent whenever I go to the starting line. But my big ambition is to own my company. I love business, I love entrepreneurship. I constantly want to set new goals and meet bigger challenges."
But that's just Carter.