■ Fernhill Park is Located on Northeast 42nd Avenue in Portland, just north of Northeast Killingsworth Street
■ The WCC Cross Country Championships website www.wccsports.com... includes links to brief videos previewing the course and both the men’s and women’s races. Gonzaga’s Emily Thomas is interviewed in the women’s race preview.
Family and friends from high school will not have to travel far to see that Gonzaga University junior Emily Thomas is peaking at the right time.
An All-West Coast Conference runner a year ago, the Camas High School graduate will be among those on the line Saturday at the WCC Championships at Fernhill Park in Northeast Portland.
Thomas placed among the top four in three of four races this season, and 22nd in a loaded field at the University of Oregon's Bill Dellinger Invitational.
"I think it's going pretty well," she said of her season. "I haven't raced to my complete potential yet this season, and I'm excited to feel like I'm peaking at the right time and my best races are going to come during championship season."
The 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) women's race is scheduled for 9 a.m., with the men's 8K (5-mile) race at 9:45 a.m. Championship season continues with the NCAA West Regional on Nov. 9 in Seattle and the NCAA Championships on Nov. 17 in Louisville, Ky.
The WCC championships in cross country were contested on the same Crystal Springs course in Belmont, Calif., every year since 1985 until this fall. The role of hosting the event will now rotate among the member schools, starting this year with the University of Portland.
While the hilly San Francisco Bay Area course is more to Thomas' liking than the counterintuitively flat layout at Fernhill Park, there are advantages to competing so close to home.
"I really loved the conference course in California because, first, it's in California and it's nice and warm there, but also because it's a very gutsy course," she said.
"It's one of the hardest courses -- I think it's the hardest course I've ever raced on. It's one of the hardest courses out there. It's very, very hilly and very challenging the whole way through. Runners have to rely less on talent and more on guts on that course, and that's what it takes. I wouldn't say that I'm the most talented runner; I just have a lot of endurance.
"But the thing about Portland that's nice is that it's my hometown. It's pretty cool because that's where I'm from. I'm going to have some family and some support there. I do like the challenging course better, but I am excited to race back near my hometown."
For the women's race, runners will make 31/2 laps on a course winding around the park before finishing the last 100 meters on a track.
Looking to improve
Thomas finished ninth at last year's WCC championships at Crystal Springs, and later 56th at the NCAA West Regional at Stanford in nearby Palo Alto, Calif.
Most of the top 10 runners from last year's conference meet are back in Saturday's field, Thomas said.
"I think I'm better this year and my team is a lot better this year, but also, the conference has gotten better," she said. "You never really know. What you did last year never matters this year. The rate our conference has been progressing is really impressive. But I'm definitely planning on improving my position from last year."
Thomas finished third as the Gonzaga women won the WCC Preview meet Sept. 15 on the same course that will be used Saturday. Five of the nine conference teams were competing that day.
"It was good to familiarize myself with the course," she said. "There won't be any surprises, so that's nice."
Also nice is the fact that the Northwest fall weather will not faze her like it may runners from other parts of the conference. Gonzaga, Portland and Brigham Young are the only WCC schools not located in sunny California.
"I can tell you that my workout today was in about 40 degrees and raining," Thomas said Monday. "I think that training in Spokane has prepared me for it. If anything, it will be kind of an advantage because the California kids won't be really prepared for that."
While collegiate races vary in distance from 4 km to 6 km, Thomas is glad that Saturday's race will be one of the longer ones.
She holds school records in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters on the track and in the spring became the first Gonzaga athlete -- male or female -- to compete at the NCAA outdoor championships, finishing 24th in the 10,000 in brutal Texas humidity.
"I definitely prefer longer races," Thomas said. "I would say that in my purest form, I'm a 10K runner, so the longer, the better for me. It's nice that this is going to be a 6K."
Thomas did not compete in cross country or track as a freshman at Gonzaga while recovering from a broken bone in her right foot, taking redshirt seasons in both sports.
A junior in eligibility but a senior in academic standing, Thomas is on schedule to graduate in the spring with a degree in human physiology.
She is in the process of applying to physical therapy programs, meaning that she might not compete for Gonzaga next year with her final season of eligibility.
During her redshirt freshman cross country season, she said that she would probably have to deal with pain from that injury for as long as she remained a runner, but that has turned out not to be the case.
"After years of adapting my stride, I've learned to deal with that a lot better," she said. "It will hurt sometimes, like if I step on a rock funny. It's always going to be there, but I've learned how to manage it pretty well."
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