For most athletes, Wheaties is the Breakfast of Champions. But tomorrow, women’s cross country runner Melissa Donais ’06, who will compete at Heps at Van Cortlandt Park, will opt for something more organic.

“Van Cortlandt Park is all about the hills, and I eat hills for breakfast,” Donais said.

On Friday, the Bulldogs will compete in the 27th Women’s Heptagonal Cross Country Championships at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. They will have to navigate the historic paths of Van Cortlandt’s hilly and challenging 5-kilometer course that every year allows the best harriers in the Ivy League to prove that they are not good simply on paper, but have the talent, training and guts to perform at the highest level when it matters.

“[Heps] is such a tradition and such a pride issue,” captain Rebecca Hunter ’04 said. “It’s the essence of Ivy League cross country.”

Last year, the Elis finished behind Columbia despite a 1-2 finish by twins Kate and Laura O’Neill ’03. Tomorrow, the Elis will face a Lions team that remains largely intact from last year and a Tigers squad that has moved into the top 15 in the nation.

No. 12 Columbia, the defending champion, and No. 14 Princeton are the clear favorites to win the team competition. On Oct. 4, the Bulldogs lost to Princeton 15-46 in the HYP meet. At the NCAA Pre-Nationals meet two weeks ago, Princeton finished sixth, again easily outdistancing the Bulldogs, who finished 16th. Neither the Bulldogs nor the Tigers have competed against Columbia this fall.

While the winner tomorrow will almost certainly be Columbia or Princeton, head coach Mark Young ’68 thinks it is hard to pick the better team.

“Princeton is better at the front end, but Columbia has had a good pack,” Young said.

If Columbia and Princeton take the top two spots as expected, the Bulldogs should have few obstacles preventing them from grabbing third, but they believe they have the talent to knock off one of the favorites.

“We’d be disappointed if we’re not at least third,” Young said. “If we run the way we can run, I wouldn’t be surprised if we finish higher.”

When their best runners compete, the Bulldogs have not lost to an Ivy League team other than Princeton this year. Yale beat Dartmouth, Brown, Harvard, and Cornell at the Iona Invitational on Sept. 27. Additionally, if the scores from the two races at Pre-Nats were combined, then the Bulldogs would have beaten both Harvard and Dartmouth. Of these teams, Dartmouth probably has the best shot to challenge the Bulldogs, according to Young and Hunter.

The individual race should be a battle between the stars of the top two teams. Columbia senior Caitlin Hickin, who placed third in last year’s Heps, is the top returning finisher, but she will face stiff competition from some of her own teammates, four of whom were top 10 finishers last year. However, Princeton’s Emily Kroshus, who won the Iona Meet of Champions and the HYP meet, is the favorite. Donais and Cara Kiernan ’07 have led the Bulldogs all season and should vie for spots in the top 10.

Other Elis who should affect the team score are Hunter, Susan Chan ’05, Alex Sawicki ’04, Nadia Sawicki ’04, Emily Vince ’06 and Anne Martin ’05.

Donais and Hunter said the Elis have run some excellent workouts and are now cutting back on mileage and intensity of training to rest and prepare for the league championship. Heps is the first of a series of meets that constitute cross country’s version of a postseason. One of the difficulties the team faces is tapering to peak at Heps tomorrow and then training for two weeks to peak again for the crucial NCAA regional meet. It is difficult to find the right mix of training and rest that allows runners to perform at their maximum potential over a number of weeks.

“The end of the season has its own contour,” Hunter said. “The hard workouts should be paying off now.”

Donais believes the race will be won or lost in the hilly second mile of the course.

“There’s one thing going through my mind — attack the hills. Those babies can be lethal and I challenge my fellow Ivy League harriers to just try to stay with me on them,” she said.