Elaina Balouris could not have picked a better setting for a breakout performance.
The William & Mary junior ran what she called the best race of her life to place 13th in the NCAA Division I cross country championships Saturday in Louisville, Ky.
The 2010 Hampton graduate finished in 19 minutes, 56 seconds to earn All-American status. The 13th-place finish far exceeded her prerace expectations of finishing in the top 40.
“I think about things very mathematically,” she said. “I was seventh in the regional meet, and there are nine regions, so I thought I would be around the 60s, but hopefully, I could have a better race and be under 60.”
Near-perfect conditions and race familiarity — it was Balouris' fourth time on the course — played a factor, as did help from her team, which qualified for nationals for the first time since 2005.
“It was a pretty big deal for us to even be at that race,” Balouris said. “So there was no pressure on our team to do well because no one really was expecting us to be a threat.”
In a field of more than 250 runners, Balouris felt relaxed with her teammates beside her at the starting line. Those same teammates had helped push her to her most successful season, including wins in the W&M Invitational and the Colonial Athletic Association championships.
“I think it's just taking the experience I've had from the last two years,” she said, “and also just focusing on my mental state during the race because as long as I run calmly and confidently, I race very well.”
Balouris was running 75-80 miles per week for the bulk of the season. And there isn't much of a break for making the switch from cross country to indoor track. Next up is the Liberty Invitational on Nov. 30 in Lynchburg, Va., which serves as a qualifier for the ECAC championships.
After that, Balouris will take a week off from running, followed by a week of easy running every other day. Then it's back to the grind, albeit with a greater sense of belonging among the nation's elite after her NCAA performance.
“It definitely was a big confidence booster for me because I know that I'm going to be able to be with those girls in the spring, too,” she said. “Last year, I was kind of not at that level yet. Now I know I'm at that level.”
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