FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – When the Northern Arizona cross country teams travel, every race becomes a family affair. With student-athletes representing nine states on the squad, runners have the opportunity to race in front of family and friends nearly once a season.
This week's trip to Terre Haute, Ind., for the Pre-Nationals Invitational will be a homecoming for freshman Bahlbi Gebreyohanns. The Indianapolis, Ind., native will return to his home state to race on a course that is very familiar to him, the Wabash Valley Family Sports Center.
"I'm really excited because at first I didn't think I would be able to make it to Pre-Nats due to injury, but now that I am going, I'm very happy," Gebreyohanns said. "I saw NAU race last year at Pre-Nats and now I am racing as a part of the team which makes me really excited."
The North Central High School product last raced on the championship course in 2008. Because Gebreyohanns wasn't able to compete his senior year, Saturday's 8K race will be a chance for family and friends to see him race for the first time in over a year.
"It is a big deal because last year I wasn't able to race at all, but this year they will be able to see me race for one of the best teams in the nation," Gebreyohanns said. "It will make them happy to be able to see me out there."
Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Eric Heins also appreciates the support the teams receive on a weekly basis from family and friends in attendance.
"No matter where we go, it seems like we get a lot of support from people," Heins said. "Not only do we get parents flying to each meet to support their kids, but when we travel back east and to other states, we have athletes' family and friends in attendance. It means a lot not just to the individual, but also to the entire team when you have family there bringing treats for everyone and showing support."
This will be the second career race for Gebreyohanns as he made his collegiate debut at the Stanford Invitational, completing the 8K course in a time of 25:01.
"The Stanford race was unexpected for me because I wasn't sure how fast I could race since I only had about a month's practice," Gebreyohanns said. "It was my first race in over a year, so I was happy with how it went."
With top-ranked Stanford and No. 15 Arkansas in the field at the Sept. 25 race, Heins was very pleased with how Gebreyohanns ran to a 56th-place finish.
"It was a learning experience," Heins said about the Stanford Invitational for Gebreyohanns. "I think he was a little timid at the start because he hadn't raced in over a year. It was a motivator because he got halfway through it and thought, 'Shoot, I can run with these people!' It was definitely the right way to race for him having been conservative in the beginning and gaining confidence throughout."
With two months under his belt at 7,000 feet elevation, Gebreyohanns is settling in nicely at the Mountain Campus of NAU. With his ability to handle school and running simultaneously, the first-year runner has his eyes set on one goal this season.
"My goal for the season is to run 24:30 in the 8K," Gebreyohanns said. "I don't know when that is going to happen, but every race I run from now on will be to reach that time."
With the support of his teammates, family and friends, Gebreyohanns' goal could be attained Saturday.