Women’s cross-country to run its 1st race Friday

By Rob Merlo

The starting gun on the Illini women’s cross-country season fires Friday at the Illini Challenge held at the Arboretum.

The 160-acre course provides an open competitive course the runners hope can assist them in starting their season off on the right foot. The race is scheduled to run at a 4K distance, which is shorter than the more traditional 5K and challenging 6K races.

Earlier this month, the squad held the preseason training camp at Starved Rock in Utica, Ill. With fifth-year coach Jeremy Rasmussen’s guidance and a week of running in mid-summer heat, the runners are poised for the 2011 season.

“So far we’ve done a good job,” Rasmussen said. “We’ve only been together for two weeks with practice, but they all did a good job over the summer coming back to school in shape. … Now it’s our time to go from in shape to race shape.”

The team’s first organized event of the season, the Illini Challenge will provide a benchmark of the team’s progress from last season and throughout the offseason. More importantly, it will provide Rasmussen and the runners with an idea of how deep of an impact the large number of underclassmen will have.

“The most important thing is that we have a bunch of young runners running on Friday, and the biggest thing for them is to just get a feel about what it is to be a collegiate distance runner,” Rasmussen said.

The runners are ready to put their individually focused summer training behind them and are anxious to get out the path and perform as a team.

“It’s important to see how close together we can be in a pack, running and working together in a race, not just by yourself,” freshman Britten Petrey said, “Coming through as a team earning points for each other as a team, creating that special race bond a team should have and work around that for the rest of the season.”

However, the high-90s heat that is expected Friday is forcing Rasmussen to make concessions in his race strategy.

“I’ll get a little bit of an idea of how they are, but not as much as I would if I just let them go, and I’m not going to do that because of the weather,” Rasmussen said.

Racing on their usual practice course is an advantage the Illini are counting on to give them a step over the competition and create positive momentum as the season progresses.

“Running on the home course gives us an advantage because with practicing out there you know where everything is and how you can use it to your advantage to work certain parts of the course,” freshman Natalie Wynn said.

Running its first event of the season at home provides an added comfort level, but Illinois is ready to get back out on the course and race, regardless of where it is located.

“We’re just looking forward to putting that uniform on and getting back out there,” Rasmussen said.