VANCOUVER – Born in Canada, but raised in New Zealand, Evan Elder has found himself as a key cog on the UBC Thunderbirds men’s cross country team through the squad’s first five races. Only days out from the biggest race of the season, the hay is in the barn so to speak, as athletes make the final preparations ahead of travel day and race day at the NAIA Cross Country Championships in Lawrence, Kan.
“If we all perform to our potential, I’m confident that we can take down a top-three placing,” adds Elder, who is in his first season with the ‘Birds. “Individually, I’m aiming for a top-20 spot but it’s hard to know what to expect in such a big race.”
The team aspect of cross-country is as much as any other sport, minus the substitutions, half times, and timeouts. Elder affirms this as the No. 10-ranked T-Birds squad possesses a ‘team-first’ mentality, which raises the expectations of team performance come race day.
Saturday’s race features 36 teams and 76 individuals, translating to over 300 athletes that will be racing in the eight-kilometre championship race. If Elder fulfills his individual goal, he’ll join a select group of UBC male athletes in grabbing an All-American spot. Just three athletes since 2007 have accomplished that feat and just once during that span has UBC placed more than a single athlete in the top-30.
How exactly did this athlete, who ran the fastest time ever by a Thunderbird in his season debut, get to this point?
“I ran in high school back in New Zealand, but injuries derailed any aspirations and over time, I fell increasingly out of shape,” admitted Elder. “A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to give the sport another go, so I gradually upped the mileage until I was at a high level again. It wasn’t until I joined the team in September that I did any speed work, and the result has been a big improvement.”
On top of being on one of the NAIA’s top teams, Elder divvies his time between academics and his work as a residence advisor, his second year assuming the role.
“Finding balance as a student-athlete has been tough,” added Elder. “Potentially joining the team last season was on my mind, but the combination of extra commitment and the uncertainty of my fitness prevented me from doing so.”
The results speak for themselves in regards to the decision to run this season. In this order, Elder has placed third, first, first, and second on the team in the four races he’s run in this season. The pair of team bests came at the Charles Bowles Invitational in Salem, Ore., followed by the Bronco Invitational in Sunnyvale, Calif., where Elder ran a personal best of 24 minutes and 45 seconds.
“Though, now that it’s a few months into the season I can’t be happier about being a part of the team. The travel and intercollegiate competition, an unknown in New Zealand, has made it easier to cope with the increased workload.”
Elder’s season along with the rest of the Thunderbirds will culminate in the year’s biggest race this Saturday, highlighted by the fact that the women have a significant chance at completing the three-peat. The Thunderbirds women won the NAIA cross country title in 2012 in Vancouver, Wash., and return to Kansas the victors from 2013.
“Run hard when it’s hard to run,” Paavo Nurmi famously once said. That will be the motto for the entire field on Saturday, with conditions calling for 15mm of rain at Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence, Kan. The men have the pleasure of witnessing the women 5k race first, at 8:30 a.m. PST, before the 8k at 9:45 a.m. PST.