Cross Country: On regionals qualifying bubble, Pianin looking to set 5K pace at Dr. Keeler Invite

Max Schuman, Reporter

Cross Country

After a long outdoor season, sophomore Jena Pianin might need to put together one more sterling performance in her final regular-season meet to secure a spot in the NCAA West Regionals.

Pianin, an all-region performer for the Wildcats in the cross country season, has a bright future ahead of her as the type of runner who can represent Northwestern ably in any field in the United States. Along with fellow sophomore Andrea Ostenso, she will be a foundational piece for a team that’s spent the track season raising its profile.

But the future may be now for Pianin, who can claim a spot in the NCAA Regionals with a personal-best in the 5,000m Thursday night at the Dr. Keeler Invitational. She currently sits 72nd in the regional qualifying rankings, and although some athletes might drop out of the 5K to run other events, Pianin can help herself considerably toward the top-48 position that guarantees qualification by slicing even a few seconds off her 16:34.22 season-best.

To do that, both Pianin and her coach, April Likhite, agree she’ll have to set a fast pace early in this meet and sustain it without much push from a weaker 5K field.

“Having a race that’s you versus the clock, it can be a little scary at first. It’s all about your mindset going in,” Pianin said.

Pianin is also hoping the weaker field will give her a chance to lap opposing racers for an extra boost near the end of the race.

“That will get me even more excited about staying on pace lap after lap,” she said. “I want to take things one lap at a time.”

Pianin’s goal is to break 16:30, a time that would likely seal the deal for her regionals qualification. But there will be challenges — she may have to set and sustain a fast pace far in front of the rest of the field, always a difficult thing for a runner to do, and she might have to overcome rainy weather and a soggy track, the bane of any outdoor track athlete looking for a fast time.

But former NU runner Audrey Huth was able to break that time barrier in the 5K in the 2012 edition of this meet, and Likhite said that has helped Pianin stay confident.

“She gets really motivated hearing that and thinks, ‘If somebody else can do it, I can do it too,’” Likhite said.

And after a week and a half of a tapering workout schedule to recover from the season and energize her body, Pianin is very confident that she can overcome the obstacles.

“I’m as fit as I’m ever going to be,” she said. “I’m really excited for this opportunity.

For one of NU’s finest racers, there are just 12-and-a-half laps left to decide if this season will end on a championship stage.

The Dr. Keeler Invitational will take place Thursday and Friday at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.

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