For Melissa Donais ’06, the cross country race is a war of attrition.

“It’s all about beating as many people as possible,” Donais said. “It’s all about finding a girl in front of you and tracking her down, then going for the next girl and the next.”

Tomorrow the women’s cross country team will compete in the NCAA Pre-Nationals meet at the University of Northern Iowa. The Bulldogs will join the top women’s cross country teams in the country in a preview of the national championship meet, which will be held on the same course on Nov. 24. The race will be the Elis’ last before the Heptagonal Championships on Oct. 31.

Excepting nationals, Pre-Nats is perhaps the best race of the year in terms of quality of individuals and teams. Twenty-two of the top 30 teams in the country will compete, including No. 1 Brigham Young, No. 2 Stanford, and No. 5 Notre Dame.

The 70 teams entered are divided systemically into two races, purple and gold. The Bulldogs are assigned to the purple race along with Brigham Young and Notre Dame and No. 23 Princeton. The Tigers soundly defeated the Elis two weeks ago in the H-Y-P meet.

Pre-Nats will be an important tune-up for Heps, but more importantly, it gives the Bulldogs a chance to improve their chances to compete at nationals.

There are two ways to qualify for the NCAA National Championships. The most straightforward is to place first or second in one of the nine regional meets. There are 31 available spots in the championship meet, so after 18 teams qualify through regionals, 13 at-large spots remain. The remaining teams are selected based on a weighted average of objective criteria, the most important of which is regional finish. Other factors include number of wins against teams who qualified for nationals, and head-to-head records against other teams being considered for at-large bids.

If a team does not compete against other teams outside of its region and fails to finish in the top two at regionals, it has no shot of winning the at-large bid and thus no shot at running at nationals. To earn an at-large bid for the national championship, a team must amass points by beating other high quality teams in different regions, and a big meet like Pre-Nats provides an opportunity to do so.

“You have to go [to such a meet] if you think you have any legitimate chance, and I think we do,” head coach Mark Young said. “If we are to have a chance of accumulating points, we need to be in the top 10.”

Two years ago, when the Bulldogs placed 13th at nationals, they qualified by receiving an at-large bid earned by beating many high-quality teams during the season.

The Bulldogs will get a chance to qualify on Nov. 15 at the Northeast Regional, which includes New England and New York, but they would like to perform well tomorrow in order to gain some insurance should they have an off day at regionals.

Without front-runners like Kate O’Neill ’03 and Laura O’Neill ’03, who placed second and fifth respectively in last year’s competition, for the Bulldogs the race will come down to what they have been working on all season: pack running.

“If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it because we have better grouping,” Young said.

Captain Rebecca Hunter ’04 has high expectations.

“I think we should beat some teams who aren’t expecting it,” Hunter said. “The way we have been training and racing, I think most people have further [personal records] waiting in their legs.”