Some may discount cross country’s athletic merits because it is not a contact sport.
But few athletes can maintain top speed for a race that lasts anywhere from three to five miles.
“Our athletes are like the modern-day version of superheroes,” head coach Ryan Turner said. “I send my kids out on a two-hour run once every two weeks, how many people can do that? An easy run is six-minute a mile pace, and a tempo run is at 5 minute, 15 second-mile pace.
“Most people couldn’t do that on their best day.”
Turner once knew the feeling of being an energetic collegiate athlete. It was not until he stopped running consistently that he recognized the elite level of fitness required to run cross country.
“In college I thought this is how everybody felt, and what I did was natural,” Turner said. “Five years later after graduating, I’m walking up steps, and I’m out of breath. That’s how everybody else feels.”
Turner and the Cougars will begin their season Sept. 2 when they host the Johnny Morris Invitational.
UH has four meets before the Conference USA Championships on Oct. 31. The Cougars will head to Waco on Nov. 12 for the NCAA South Central Regional Championships.
In the second meet of the season, the Cougars travel to Joplin, Mo., for the Missouri Southern Stampede. Other competing schools include the Arkansas Razorbacks, who have the most cross country national championships in NCAA history.
The Tulsa Golden Hurricane, the defending men and women’s C-USA champions, will also be in attendance.
“That gives us a chance to run against to really high-quality opponents in the early portion of our season,” Turner said. “We can just kind of gauge our top guys against those teams.”
For the men’s team, Eastern Kentucky transfer and Kenyan native Wesley Ruttoh is expected to perform well immediately. After redshirting last year, Turner is ready to unleash Ruttoh’s talents this season.
“We’re expecting him to become our top man, and to qualify for the national championships,” Turner said. “He has the talent to do that. That’s why we want to run against Arkansas and Tulsa early in the year. Those are people he’s going to have to race if he wants to be a national qualifier.”
Senior Nate Pineda and junior David Smith took turns leading the Cougars last season. The addition of Ruttoh gives the Cougars a deeper squad. Freshman Yonas Tesfai could also make his presence felt quickly.
“This year it’s going to be neat to see,” Turner said. “We’re going to have three or four guys who could be our top guy.”
Doug Kelley, an 800-meter runner on the track team joined the cross country program for his senior campaign.
He was the 2010 C-USA outdoor champion in the 800, but running cross country is a steeper distance than what Kelley is used to.
“He’s going to go from running a race that’s half a mile to a five-mile race,” Turner said. “I think what Doug’s going to provide is leadership. He’s going to be a senior, he’s been successful and he has credibility with the runners.”
The women’s team can also rely on the experience of three seniors in Ciera Johnson, Starla Garcia and team captain Megan Munoz.
Munoz could be poised to make progress in her final collegiate season.
“She had some breakthroughs last year on the track,” Turner said. “She has that sense of urgency going into her senior year that this is it. Every race is going to be one you won’t have any more.
“When she’s backed up and gets some pressure on her, she tends to excel.”
Junior Kat Ducommun will also be in the mix. She led the team in three of the Cougars’ seven meets in 2010.
In track season, she finished second in the steeplechase at the C-USA championships, and was only a second-and-a-half away from qualifying for regionals.
The unpredictability of the event breaks the monotony of a race that lasts more than seven laps.
“In cross country you’re on the grass, running around trees and making turns,” Turner said. “It’s not like on the track where everything’s an oval and constant. There’s hills and terrain to deal with. Since she does the steeplechase with obstacles that translates well.”
Garcia, Munoz and Ducommun give the Cougars three potential top runners. As long as it’s friendly, Turner said competition among teammates is a healthy dynamic.
“I look at it as a positive having different girls being able to be the number one,” Turner said. “You have people that are driven and battling for that spot. When you have that one person who is always number one, people start to settle, they get complacent.
“We always want to have competition in anything we do. Even if it’s the first person to the cafeteria, building that internal competition at practice starts to build an inner animal.”