Hawkeye harriers face last chance to qualify for NCAAs

BY BEN ROSS | NOVEMBER 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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After a disappointing showing at the Big Ten meet on Oct. 30, the Iowa men's cross-country team will try to pick itself up by its shoelaces and finish the season out on a high note at the NCAA Midwest Regional meet this weekend in DeKalb, Ill.

The meet, which will be held Saturday on the campus of Northern Illinois University, is the last chance for the Hawkeyes to prove they are a team to be taken seriously. This is also the final opportunity of the fall for junior Jeff Thode to qualify individually for the NCAA championships, in which he placed seventh in the 5,000 meters last season.

Thode — who missed a portion of this season because of a need for rest and a family emergency — said he thinks psychology plays a large part in a runner's performance during a race such as this one. He said his teammates need to stop worrying so much about their own performances and just run.

"They can't put so much thought in their running," the All-American said. "They aren't confident in their own racing capability. They pace themselves, thinking too much. It wastes energy; they need to focus on something else."

Thode also said his teammates need to run in competitions in the same manner that they perform in practice.

"At practice, they are right beside me and are able to train with me," he said. "But when it comes to a meet, I don't know where they are. Mentally, they aren't putting the work in."

It's easy to see where running may require more mental capacity than other sports; many runners, both amateur and professional, speak of hitting the "wall" while running long distances.

But head cross-country coach Larry Wieczorek only half agreed with Thode's comments. The 25th-year coach said Thode's ability to not overthink his own performance is a special attribute, and most runners have more trouble honing that particular skill.

"Jeff keeps it simple," Wieczorek said. "He doesn't overthink it; he just goes by his own instincts. He goes in there and just gets up front. It's just one of those things athletes tend to overthink."

The hiccups in the team's performance haven't brought down Thode's confidence, though. He said he still believes he's capable of returning to the championships for the second-straight year and once again earning All-American honors.

"I'm 11 places and 35 seconds behind where I was last year," he said. "The competition has gone up while my training has gone down. I haven't run as many races as I would have liked to. I'm not saying I should make it [to nationals] — I'm just saying I can."

But unless the team finishes in the top-two at the regional meet, odds are the Hawkeyes will miss the cut to make it to the championships. The Black and Gold placed 10th out of 11 teams at the Big Tens, which put them in a poor position at the end of the season, despite racing much better in prior meets.

Sophomore Jon Michael Brandt said he agrees with some of Thode's statement and believes this meet shouldn't be taken lightly because it holds some implications for the following season.

"Everyone wasn't there mentally at Big Tens," the Winona, Minn., native said. "This is still a really important meet. We have to show up and race. Everyone was upset at Big Tens because we didn't run at a Big Ten level … we want to show we're a Big Ten team, which should help boost us into the indoor season."

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