As difficult as it is to believe for someone who grew up logging mile after mile in the shadows of the University of Colorado, Kaitlyn Benner is nearing the finish line of her cross country career.
With roughly a month to go before the NCAA championships and the stretch run beginning to unfold, Benner is ready leave it all out on the course as the Buffaloes tackle their biggest meets of the season.
That stretch starts Friday with the Buffs visiting Springfield, Ore., for the Pac-12 championships — a meet CU generally has dominated since joining the league in 2011.
"I just realized a couple days ago that I'm only getting to be a cross country runner for about four more weeks, so that's really strange because it's been such a huge part of my life for eight years now," said Benner, a graduate of Monarch High School. "It's definitely bittersweet. I definitely think we can be up there challenging for the win. I know Oregon beat us at the pre-national meet two weeks ago, so they're definitely big competition and it's on their home course. But I think we're ready to go and we'll have a lot better races this week."
CU coach Mark Wetmore usually has two meets circled on his calendar at the outset of each season — the NCAA championships, naturally, and the Pac-12 finals.
The men's team has never lost the league finals since joining the Pac-12, going into this weekend with a perfect 6-for-6 mark in the meet. The CU women have won three of six Pac-12 finals since 2011, including the past two in a row.
Benner, who still will return in 2017-18 for a final year of eligibility in track and field after missing the spring season due to an injury, is coming off a 23rd-place finish at pre-nationals, her lowest mark since her freshman year in 2014. The Buffs still fared well overall thanks to a third-place finish from Dani Jones and a 17th-place finish from sophomore Sage Hurta, but the club also believes there is room for improvement.
The men also finished second at pre-nationals behind three top-15 finishes from Joe Klecker (ninth), Ryan Forsyth (11th), and freshman Eduardo Herrera, who Wetmore described as one of the pleasant surprises of the season.
"The first serious race of the year was at Notre Dame (on Sept. 29). The men didn't do well, the women did," Wetmore said. "Then we went to the pre-nationals. Some men fixed some things, and some women stumbled a little bit. So every race is an opportunity to find a way for each of the individual members to have a better attempt next time. Now it gets important. We need everybody to learn what they've been learning and apply it."
On the men's side, the Buffs ran without two-time All-American John Dressel at pre-nationals yet still finished second behind BYU. While Dressel's status remains questionable — he has competed just once this season, at the season-opening Joe Paine Invitational at Notre Dame — Klecker and his teammates are focused on not allowing the men's team's run of dominance at the Pac-12 finals to end on their watch.
"It's a lot of pressure, like every year. You don't necessarily want to be that team that of winning," Klecker said. "But at the same time, we kind of know what we have to do every year as far as our training goes to get prepared for it. If you listen to coach, there's a good chance you will perform well enough to win."