In the interim between the indoor and outdoor track seasons, Goshen College runners turned their attention to longer distance runs on a trip to Iowa last weekend. They returned with top two finishes in each of the three races they entered.

On Saturday, the men’s and women’s cross country teams laced up their spikes and hit the grass course at the Mustang National Preview meet in Cedar Rapids, more than three months after the last race of their season in November.

This year, the cross country season — which is normally contained to the fall — was extended to include a 3-week period of races in March and April.

Saturday’s races were held on the same course that will host the NAIA national cross country championship on April 9. As of right now, Nelson Kemboi, who won Saturday’s meet in a time of 25 minutes, 18 seconds for the 8-kilometer distance, is the only Maple Leaf with a guaranteed spot at Nationals. Depending on the ranking the men’s team receives in the coach’s poll on Monday, the men’s team may also qualify for the championship.

The men’s team finished second in a field of eight teams, in which GC was the Crossroads League’s lone representative. While this meant they weren’t able to improve their standing against other teams in the conference, they did beat one nationally-ranked team: Baker University from Kansas.

After the fall portion of the season, Goshen College is ranked 31st in the nation, which means they will need to move up if they are going to qualify for Nationals. GC’s win over Baker may help with that.

“We still feel like we’re a Nationals team,” said Rustin Nyce, head coach for men’s and women’s cross country and track and field. “So we needed that opportunity to race.”

The women’s team was not ranked after the fall portion of the season, so making Nationals is out of the question. But Nyce is happy with their performance in Cedar Rapids, nonetheless.

“They [got to] see the fruits of the hard work that they’ve put in, and they got an opportunity to go and run well,” he said.

Those fruits included a second-place finish for first-year Summer Cooper, who covered the 5-kilometer course in 18 minutes, 44 seconds, and a fourth-place finish for the team.

The streak of strong performances wasn’t over after Saturday, however. The next day, Spencer Waterman, a junior, pulled on his treasured white Nike Alphaflys for a champion’s performance at the Des Moines St. Paddy’s Marathon.

With a time of 2 hours, 41 minutes, 14 seconds, Waterman didn’t just earn a ticket to the outdoor track and field Nationals competition in Gulf Shores, Alabama, in May, he surpassed the automatic qualifying standard by more than 4 minutes.

After a modified indoor season, the process for qualifying for Nationals is back to normal for the outdoor track season, which means that Waterman is guaranteed a spot at Nationals, no matter how many other people hit the standard.

For Waterman, who transferred to Goshen College for his sophomore year, the race felt like a breakthrough.

“I was brought to Goshen to run the marathon,” he said. “When COVID-19 shutdowns began last spring, one thing [that was] canceled was the St. Louis marathon that I was training for. I’ve been waiting to unload on a race since I arrived in Goshen. I finally got that opportunity that day.”

Waterman said the plan was to run just fast enough to hit the qualifying standard, but once he was on the course, he said, “I couldn’t slow myself down no matter how hard I tried.”

Nyce’s goal for Waterman was for him to run comfortably and enjoy the race.

“That’s what he did,” Nyce said, “he just enjoyed it a little faster than we thought.”

While the men’s cross country team waits to receive their final ranking early next week, many of the runners who competed last weeked will shift back into track gear for the Polar Bear Invitational, hosted by Indiana Wesleyan University on Saturday, as they attempt to hit various qualifying standards and join Waterman on the outdoor Nationals team.