They have returned to the scene of the sublime, the women from the University of New Mexico who will be clad Saturday in turquoise and running like deer through Tom Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Ky.
That's the site of the NCAA cross country championships. For the No. 2 ranked Lobo women — competing at the same course where they won the national title two years ago -- the goal is the ultimate, and not just an eighth straight top 10 finish.
"All you want is a chance," said UNM coach Joe Franklin earlier this week, and as one of 31 squads competing in the women's meet, the Lobos figure to have a good one.
Led by Ednah Kurgat, a Kenyan who has made a splashy debut in her first season with the team, UNM has won three of its five meets this season. The two times they finished second were to top-ranked Colorado, which earned slim victories over the Lobos at the Notre Dame Invitational in September and last week at the Mountain Region Championships in Logan, Utah.
Kurgat, meanwhile, won for the fourth time last week, and despite racing without three-time All-American Alice Wright, the Lobos still pushed the No. 1-ranked Buffaloes. Kurgat's drive for five is one of the top storylines this week — at the very least, she figures to be a serious threat to the defending champion, Missouri senior Karissa Schweizer, in the 6-kilometer race.
Franklin realizes it is easy to extrapolate what might have happened last week, that a healthy Wright would have solved his team's vulnerability of a lagging fifth-place finisher.
The national championship race figures not to be. The course in Louisville, slightly bumpy, has a sharp right turn early, and it's critical to be in a good position and not get pinned in, thereby losing precious seconds and placement.
"At the mile mark at regionals, you saw 100 women all together. At the mile mark at the national championship," Franklin predicted, "it's going to be single file and a hard, hard race."
Besides Jones and Colorado, the other contenders figure to be No. 3 San Francisco and No. 4 Stanford. Franklin mentioned the latter as a team that's been charging hard of late after sitting out top runners early. Among its stars is sophomore Christina Aragon of Billings, Mont. Her father Chuck, an anesthesiologist, was a state championship runner at Los Lunas High in the 1970s before starring at Notre Dame; Aragon's mother, the former Kathy Pfiefer, starred at New Mexico and ran in three Olympic Trials, including the 1984 marathon.
Otherwise, the Lobos have been building to this moment. They've worn surgical masks in the petri-dish conditions on flights so as not to get sick. They've sent instructions to chefs to please overcook the shrimp they've ordered. They've watched their feet on their riverside runs, wary for fallen leaves that might hide exposed tree roots that could trip them up in every sense of the word.
Along for the ride with the Lobo women is UNM's Josh Kerr, who is running as a qualified individual whose men's team didn't make it. Kerr isn't a contender for a national title in this 10K race, Franklin was quick to point out, but the reigning NCAA champ in the indoor and outdoor mile can use the meet to springboard to a big season on the track.
The Lobos were scheduled to walk the course Thursday in Louisville, figure to stay away from it altogether today, and plan to awaken at 6 a.m. Saturday, ready to go.
UNM doesn't have any special rituals as a team for the big events, but at the NCAAs, breaking out the turquoise is the notable exception.
"We only wear those at national championships," Franklin said. "That's in honor of our state and university You've got to earn the right."
This article is written by Randy Harrison from Albuquerque Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.