Training at an altitude of 7,000 feet has definite benefits for distance runners. By training in that ‘thin air’, the body acquires more red blood cells, which means the muscles get a natural boost from the additional oxygen available to the system.
The Northern Arizona University cross country teams have made good use of that advantage. With a long history of producing elite distance runners, the Flagstaff school has won four men’s national championships in the last five years.
And, based on the way the 2021 season is starting, they’re in the hunt for another title, which would be a second consecutive national crown.
In a campus setting surrounded by mountains, the Lumberjacks have an abundance of running trails, rolling hills, and steep climbs to prepare them for competition each season in the Big Sky Conference.
A dominant force in the Big Sky for many years, the program has also enjoyed prominence on the national stage, where it consistently ranks in the top 10. But it was the 2016 squad that made the big break-through by finishing as the No. 1 team in the country. That national title was not only the school’s first-ever in cross country, but also the first of its kind in any sport.
The program was under the direction of Eric Heins when that first national title was captured. Heins, who had been directing the NAU cross country and track & field programs for 10 years, turned it over to Michael Smith after that season and Smith has been adding to the trophy case every season since.
And this season appears to be headed for a big finish once again.
The ‘Jacks opened the season by sweeping the team wins at the George Kyte Classic, an annual event that has been running for 40 years in Flagstaff but was canceled last season due to the pandemic. The men scored 15 points in besting teams from Grand Canyon University and University of Arizona, while the women won their side of the event with a total 19 points.
A couple of seniors led the way for the ‘Jacks, with Ryan Raff taking first place in the men’s 4.5 mile run with a time of 22:31.2 and Pipi Eitel (top photo, right) crossing the finish line first in the 2.5 mile women’s race, posting a winning time of 15:32.7. For his performance, Raff was named co-winner of the Big Sky Cross Country Athlete of the Week award.
But NAU, as always, is blessed with a depth of talent. Both the men’s and women’s teams each had five runners finish in the top 10 places. And there is continuity as well, with the men’s team returning five runners from last year’s national championship team, and the women welcoming back seven runners.
That’s one reason the US Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) named the NAU men’s team No. 1 and the women No. 12 in the preseason poll.
The men reinforced their selection as top pick by placing first at last week’s Cowboy Jamboree hosted by Oklahoma State University. An NAU team led by a trio of underclassmen led the ‘Jacks in posting a winning score of 39 points, well ahead of runner-up Oklahoma State’s 62 points.
Sophomore Abdihamid Nur was the top NAU finisher, coming in third with a time of 23:40.31. Just off his shoulder at the finish line was freshman Nico Young in fourth (23:41.27) and sophomore Drew Bosley in fifth (23:44.13).
The women take their turn next when they travel to Pennsylvania to participate in the Oct. 1 Paul Short Run at Lehigh University. The men will get nearly a month’s rest before competing again on Oct. 15 at the FSU Invite & pre-nationals at Florida State University.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)