All of the excitement built up from a long summer and fall of training will be released this weekend in Madison, Wis. as the IU men’s and women’s cross country teams will compete in the Big Ten Championships.
The No. 7-ranked IU men will have to upset No. 6 Wisconsin if they wish to win their first Big Ten title since 1980. The Badgers will be looking for their 12th straight Big Ten title.
Senior Sarah Pease, fresh off of her first Big Ten Runner of the Week award for cross country, will lead the No. 29 IU women as they compete against four other nationally ranked teams, including No. 16 Michigan State.
Pease, the team’s only senior on either team, will look to become only the second IU woman to win the Big Ten individual title, joining Michelle Dekkers’ titles in 1988, 1989 and 1990.
IU coach Ron Helmer said Pease’s experience will be valuable in helping the relatively inexperienced women’s team handle the pressure of the big stage.
“The women are much more immature of a group in terms of their high-level racing experience. Except for Sarah, they haven’t really raced at a high level,” Helmer said. “Sarah sets the tone every day. She is a ruthless competitor and doesn’t make excuses. (The team) has very much latched onto that mind-set in their own racing, and I’ve liked what I’ve been able to see.”
Both teams will be racing on the same course that they competed on Oct. 2 at the adidas Invitational, where the men won against an impressive field including the No. 6 men’s Badgers team on its home course.
Helmer said the key to this weekend’s success will have to do with his teams’ ability to relax in the moment.
“(Success) still requires that we execute the race plan properly and that we carry the proper level of relaxation and composure into the execution of that race plan,” Helmer said. “If we position ourselves well, we will have to reach down when it hurts, and hopefully we can beat as many people as we can.”
Sophomore Samantha Ginther said the excitement level has been at an all-time high this week as the nervous energy increases as each day passes.
“I feel like we can just tell that everyone is a little jittery because we know that both the guy’s and girl’s teams can possibly be champions this weekend,” Ginther said. “I think we have some good nervous energy going because I think it mostly comes from the confidence in our abilities.”
Sophomore Zack Mayhew echoed the feeling of nervous energy circling throughout the team in the form of amped up intensity.
“Everyone’s in this focused mind-set, and we’ve become very competitive all week,” Mayhew said. “I can tell that everyone is getting a little antsy to go up to Wisconsin this weekend and get some of that nervous energy out by racing.
“Our normal run pace has been a bit more up-tempo, but that is because we have been taking our mileage down to be fresh for this weekend. The idea this week is to do less work, but to do better quality of work,” Mayhew added.
Mayhew, who was IU’s top finisher in last year’s Big Ten Championships, said Helmer’s usual advice to stay relaxed during races was the key last year and will be vital for the team this year.
“I’m going to carry that experience over to this year and really try to relax and hopefully that will rub off on my teammates,” Mayhew said.
So the question is: By the end of this weekend, will the IU cross country team get a trick or a treat coming out of the Big Ten Championships?
“Treat, for sure.” Mayhew said. “I think we are just more ready than we have ever been. I think this is our time.”