Cross country runs half-strength at UC Riverside Invitational

Freshman Lucy Westlake runs alongside her opponents in the UC Riverside Invitational.
Freshman Lucy Westlake was the highest performing Trojan at the UC Riverside Invitational with a 22:02 6k time on Saturday. (Tomoki Chien | Daily Trojan)

Coach Jebreh Harris was quick to stress that the cross country team was not running at full strength in Saturday’s showing at the UC Riverside Invitational, where it finished at a lukewarm 27th out of 31 teams.

A handful of top runners didn’t race because of illness, and Harris has more broadly employed a strategy of “training through” the first couple regular season meets before the Pac-12 championship next month. 

Generally, “training through” a meet means that runners won’t taper their training in order to hit peak performance at that regular season meet — which could decrease the overall quality of training in the long run — and instead focus solely on building fitness and only tapering for post-season competition. 

A sport like cross country, where all conference teams are guaranteed a spot at the Pac-12 championship, tends to reward that training mentality.

The gun went off early on the chilly overcast morning, though the 6k course’s fast-narrowing start led to a tussle and fall toward the back of the 260-runner pack some 50 meters in — prompting the starter to recall the race. A frustrated backtrack and second gun later, the race was on in earnest.

Senior Janiah Brown was the first Trojan at the 2k mark in 106th place, quickly followed by senior Mihajla Milovanovic and freshman Lucy Westlake in what, at that point, was still a fairly large pack of runners. But the race strung out by the 4k split, and Westlake now led the Trojans in 116th place, followed by Brown in 127th and Milovanovic in 147th. 

Westlake would then go on to gain another 11 places, crossing the finish line in 105th place with a 22:02 final 6k time. Brown (123rd), Milovanovic (153rd), sophomore Vienna Gao (184th) and freshman Liyat Kebbede (199th) posted the rest of the squad’s scoring places. 

“First three women, I wanted them to go out and attack the first mile,” Harris said. “They executed the race the way we wanted them to.”

Saturday was the first career 6k race for Westlake, Kebbede, Gao and redshirt freshman Jacqueline Duarte — and the first ever USC race for the latter two.

“I’m proud of two of the young ladies’ first time putting the shield on, [stepping up] for some teammates who are not here today,” Harris said, referencing the shield emblem that adorns USC’s track and cross country uniforms.

Luckily for the Trojans, the Pac-12 championship on Oct. 28 will be on the same course as Saturday’s race, giving the team a preview of what that first postseason race might look like. The squad is scheduled to run again in mid-October at the Bronco Invitational in Sunnyvale, California, but for now, all eyes are on the Pac-12 meet.

“We’re in the heat of some deep training right now,” Harris said. “We’re gonna be alright.”