The dawning of a new era

Evelio Contreras

The morning is windy and rustling leaves dance about a group of runners trotting in Gilson Park to begin a hard day’s workout. The moon is bright as Rachel Evjen stumbles in the half-darkness of a 6 a.m. run.

Practice will be over in just a couple of hours.

“By the time we start running, the sun is rising,” she says. “In the jet-stream colored sky, the sunrise is probably the best part of the day.”

After meeting up with the coach before heading out to the golf course in Gilson Park Wednesday morning, the Northwestern cross country team warms up with a seven-minute jog, followed by 15 minutes of stretching and four mile-long runs at racing speed.

“We go on for a while, and by the time you run to the golf course, it’s so peaceful – no one is there,” Evjen said. “Sometimes it is hard to run when you’re way into the season. But I love to run. You run for your goals.”

In the hours when the stars begin to fade, the morning dew mist mingles with the Lake Michigan air. A typical day for the cross country runners is one in which they seek answers – for the team and for themselves.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself,” Evjen says about running this season. “The body, feelings, legs … everything in running mentally prepares you for upcoming races.”

The ability to reflect is something the Wildcats are able to do as they prepare for the final stretch of the season. The team’s top 12 runners will sit out today’s Notre Dame Invitational to rest and recover from the intensity of the last two races in Champaign, Ill., and Minnesota.

“(The Notre Dame Invitational) is a race for the JV squad,” says head coach Amy Tush. “It gives them an opportunity to race for the second or third time this season.”

Before last week’s Roy Griak Invitational in Minnesota, the team was still in the early stages of the season. Now, after settling in following a modest 16th-place showing in the Griak Invitational, the team has earned a pair of votes from the NCAA this week to earn a spot on the Finish Lynx National Cross Country poll.

But NU still has a race to run, Tush says. And with the B-squad running, she adds that the Cats have a lot to benefit from the new up-and-coming runners.

“I hope that we have some surprises,” she says. “The Notre Dame coach asked us if we wanted to put the team in the junior varsity race and we said, ‘No.’ I hope that everyone rises to the occasion and competes well – to wear their uniform proudly.”

Tapering off from harder workouts, while fine-tuning their leg muscles, the Cats are in a position to show the pollers that this year’s squad is ready to race and outdo other top teams in the country.

“We’re in our last stretch,” Tush says. “The team’s definitely prepared for it.”

While never considering cross country a sport that she would take up in high school, Tush has shown NU that she has the experience to tell where the team will be at the end of the season. In her first year as head coach, Tush has made the team improve to the point where it might surpass last year’s squad – a team that was one point shy of making the NCAA Championships.

And if she has her way, a new era will soon dawn at NU.