Edward Little’s Payton Bell crosses a bridge during the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference cross country meet on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, at Cony High School in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Payton Bell entered her freshman season of cross country at Edward Little High School having lost only one race during her middle school career, a random middle-of-the-season meet when she was slowed by an injury. 

Edward Little’s Payton Bell crosses a bridge during the KVAC meet at Cony High School in Augusta in October. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

By the end of her first season of high school running, Bell was a top-10 state finisher and the Sun Journal All-Region Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.

Along with her middle school cross country prowess, Bell also was undefeated in the 800-meter and the 1,600-meter runs in middle school and set the Auburn Middle School 1,600 record (5 minutes, 45 seconds).

Bell was familiar with success. 

Still, the freshman wasn’t sure what high school cross country would be like until her first race at the Laliberte Invitational at Cony High School, in which she finished second to Mt. Blue’s Kahryn Cullenberg.

“I was interviewed and I was in the newspaper and that was so cool,” Bell said. “I thought I was going to be really slow, and it was so much harder than middle school races. So many more girls; I wasn’t used to it, and I did a lot better than I thought I would as a freshman.”

Bell continued to improve throughout the season and always had Cullenberg in her sights. 

At the KVAC championship meet, Edward Little coach Keith Weatherbie saw Bell take the next step. 

“She ended up having a great race, and (was) by far the first freshman,” Weatherbie said. “That was obvious to me that, first of all, all year long as she kept getting better and better. I realized what a great season she would have.”

At KVACs, Bell executed what she had learned about pacing and working off competitors. 

“There were two girls that were in front of me the whole race,” Bell said. “Nobody could see it, but I was right behind them. I remember being so close, then I heard her defeat herself, and I said, ‘OK, I am going to pass her.’ Then the other girl did the same noise, and I beat her. That was my biggest accomplishment.”

Cullenberg had beaten Bell by 10 seconds at KVACs, but Bell wasn’t deterred. At the Class A North regional race, the freshman ran her first sub-20-minute 5,000-meter race, placed third and, for the first time, finished ahead of Cullenberg.

Next up was the Class A state championship meet, and Bell had a plan to beat her rival again. 

“All I was telling myself for states was, ‘OK, you have to beat Kahryn,’” Bell said. “She starts off really fast, at least for me. I was getting worried because she was pretty far ahead of me. Then three-fourths into the race I passed her and she said good job. I was really excited because I didn’t know if the first time was a fluke. I think it was a confidence boost.”

Bell finished in ninth-place at the state meet and was the fastest freshman. Her coach sees a lot of similarities between Bell and a former Edward Little runner who earned the previous three All-Region Girls Runner of the Year honors.

“It was rather obvious, but she had the potential to be an outstanding runner,” Weatherbie said. “I think during the course of the year she showed she has a tremendous future in cross country. Your real good cross country runners are those that are intelligent. They have the ability to do the work that is necessary without someone always being there.

“She’s an intelligent girl, she’s a hard worker and dedicated to being great. She reminds quite a bit of Jillian Richardson. … She has all the tools to be one of the greats here.”

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