LA CROSSE, Wis. — Goaded by three-month-old disappointment, Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Aaron Easker raced with more on his mind than the finish line Thursday.

Pounding through his first event in the 2013 NCAA Division III Men’s Outdoor Track & Field Championships — the men’s 10,000 meters — this senior from Eland, Wis., remembered his 5,000-meter, indoor-championship final in March, a race he’d felt he could win, but didn’t because he ran out of gas.

“I had that race in my mind playing over and over,” Easker said. “I did not want that to happen again outdoor.”

It did not. Trailing a group of leaders that included Franciscan senior Bill Jones and North Central-Illinois junior John Crain, Easker kept pace and passed them during Thursday’s final laps at the Veterans Memorial Field Sports Complex.

In doing so, he won his first Division III national title, and, equally important, avenged his sixth-place finish in the indoor 5,000-meter final.

“I was fortunate to have a nice pacer in the front,” Easker said of Crain and Jones. “I was able to hang out in third for most of the race until the end. The last four laps I was able to move up a little bit. I couldn’t have planned it any better. I ran smart. I ran a lot better than I did indoor, for the 5K. It feels really good to bounce back from that race and come out on top and accomplish my dreams.”

Competing at host Wisconsin-La Crosse’s Roger Harring Stadium, Easker was happy to follow the rabbits out front. Ranked second in the 10,000 meters behind the top-ranked Jones, he says he knew could stay with the leaders, but preferred his own path.

On a cool, sunny Thursday graced with a brisk wind, Easker eased into second place with four laps remaining. He followed Crain, then the leader, for a lap and a half, waiting until they both cleared the wind on the backstretch to take the lead.

“I was a little worried,” he said of Crain trying to catch him. “But I was able to have a little more in the tank. It was an awesome finish.”

Perhaps a bit tighter than Easker would’ve liked; his winning time of 29:48.25 nipped Crain’s second-place 29:49.45, but the victor summoned another gear when it mattered most.

“I didn’t know I had that extra little kick,” he said. “But my dream of being a national champion was playing in my mind that last lap. I wasn’t going to let anybody take it away from me.”

Rewind to March’s 5,000-meter indoor final in Napierville, Ill., when Easker faltered down the stretch. Ranked third at the time, he finished one of his specialty distance events without being a factor.

“I was in position with two laps in that race — or four meters left — about fourth place, and unfortunately I just didn’t have the kick and I didn’t have the energy,” Easker said. “I kind of faded to sixth place. It was a little disappointment, but looking back, I’m kind of happy I learned from it and was able to bounce back.”

The March indoor finals coincided with academic deadlines before spring break, and Easker says dueling pressures of schoolwork and the Division III indoor meet likely sapped his reserves. He spent his spring break at his parents’ home in Eland, hitting surrounding country roads to plot an outdoor-season comeback.

“Everybody knows me around town as the runner,” he said. “I’m the crazy guy that is running every day on the road and is taking up the space for the cars.”

On Thursday, the first of this week’s three-day Division III outdoor championships, that fire in the belly paid off.

“I was able to hang on to that front group,” Easker said. “I knew I was capable of running with those two guys, John Crain and Bill Jones. And I was able to come out on top at the end and beat that caliber of runners.”