HAMILTON -- Brynnli Poulsen couldn't wait for last spring's track and field season.
The then-Hamilton junior had just crossed the finish line at the state cross country meet in Great Falls, setting a new Class A record of 18 minutes, 16 seconds, and was already talking about track season and how it would help propel her into her senior cross country campaign.
That track season never came.
The COVID-19 pandemic canceled spring sports in Montana, essentially ending an important training regimen for Poulsen.
"At the end of last cross country season, my goal was to get sub-18 (minutes) this year. After we lost track season, I knew that probably wouldn't happen because track definitely affects your times the next season," she said. "I changed (my goal) at the beginning of the year to our senior record -- we have these lists of the fastest freshman we've ever had, fastest sophomore, fastest junior and fastest senior -- so I want to get the fastest senior one, which is 18:40. That's the one that if I don't break, I'll be most upset about, not getting 18:40. But my goal was closer to 18:20."
"For the first month and a half, I trained like there would be a track season, but by then we were all pretty sure track wasn't going to happen," Poulsen continued of last spring's workouts. "At that point, coach (Mark) Albert took over and we started training for cross country, doing distance training. So I got a little bit of the track in, but it turned into cross country pretty quick."
Though she hasn't yet reached the time she seeks -- her season record is 18:48.8, mere seconds away from that Hamilton senior record -- she certainly hasn't had any issues this fall. Poulsen has won every race she's entered, seven, according to Athletic.net, winning each of those races by at least 30 seconds, the majority of them by more than a minute.
This season has been unique in terms of format, with staggered starts and faster runners beginning later. That hasn't bothered Poulsen one bit.
"Honestly, it hasn't been that weird for me. I know it's going to be super weird at state because they're having to go super heavy on all the rules. I won't be able to watch the boys," she said, admittedly disappointed. "But other than that, it's honestly been pretty easy to work with. The staggered starts have been nice for me because I've either been able to run with the boys or chase the girls, because I'm starting after them.
"I've honestly liked how it worked out this year, because I was a little concerned at the beginning of the year when they said we would have to stay within our class, because I knew I wasn't going to be able to race some of the Class AA girls, but it's worked out this year, I think."
The times prove it. Poulsen's 18:48 is a full 50 seconds faster than the next-best Class A time -- Columbia Falls senior Lara Erickson's 19:38.5. Poulsen said she expects Erickson to stick around for the first mile or so, but "after that, I'm just hoping to bury her."
Running a majority of the race alone provides its own set of challenges, but Poulsen said coach Mark Albert implemented a strategy to distract her from the loneliness.
"I try to count my steps, just because it distracts me from the hurting that's happening. It keeps you focused on what you're doing, but on the good parts of what you're doing, and not how tired you are or how much your lungs hurt," she said.
Poulsen and the Class A girls kick things off at Rebecca Farm in Kalispell this weekend, lining up for the starting gun at 10:30 a.m. Friday. The decorated senior knows it's time for "one last run" as a high school harrier.
"It's a little scary, for sure. With the uncertainty of whether track season will happen or not, and obviously with the way cross country is going, it probably will, but we thought track season would start up again after it got canceled last year in the first few weeks," said Poulsen, "so it's definitely a little stressful not knowing if we'll have a track season. It really could be my last high school race ever. But I'm excited. I feel really prepared, it's my sixth time running this course in high school, so I'm mostly just excited."
"The bus ride up, the bus ride back, staying in the hotel with all your teammates, it's that super fun end to the season," she said.
Class A will also crown a new boys champion after Lewistown's Sam Fulbright graduated this spring. Poulsen's teammate, Colter Purcell, finished in second place in Great Falls last October and boasts the second-fastest time in Class A this year -- 16:30.9.
But it's Ronan's Brant Heiner entering as the favorite, winning all seven of his runs this fall, three of those over Purcell. Heiner's personal-best time this season of 16:16.1 would garner all-state honors at the Class AA level, but his focus is becoming the first runner in school history to win a cross country championship.
The 2020 Montana High School Association state cross country meet will begin on Friday with four races -- Class A girls and boys, then Class B girls and boys -- and conclude Saturday with the Class C and Class AA competitions. Races are scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. each day.