The women’s cross country team may have kissed goodbye its chance for an at-large bid to the Nationals this weekend.

Facing one of the strongest and largest fields of the season at NCAA Pre-Nationals in Terre Haute, Ind., the Bulldogs finished 18th out of 35 teams in a disappointing race that will likely cost them in the eyes of officials who select the field for Nationals. The race was divided into two fields, Blue and White, each meant to be equally strong. Stanford dominated Yale’s Blue race, claiming the third and fourth places en route to a convincing win with 86 points. Trailing Stanford was Notre Dame, which had 147 points, followed by Columbia, BYU and NC State.

The race included almost all of the major programs in the nation, such as perennial powerhouses Stanford and Notre Dame and familiar Ivy League rivals. With a strong field, teams use Pre-Nationals as a springboard to obtain a coveted invite to Nationals, held on the same course Nov. 21.

Victoria Mitchell ’06 of Butler University took first in the race in 20:01.5, nipping Columbia’s Caroline Bierbaum ’06, who crossed the finish in 20:01.8.

Lindsay Donaldson ’08, who is consistently the Bulldogs’ fastest runner, placed 18th in 20:40, followed by Bevin Peters ’09, who finished 66th in 21:38. Katie McKinstry ’07 and Katie Matlack ’06 finished 110th and 120th, respectively.

In the face of an imposing field of runners, the Elis were forced to change their strategy. With many of the nation’s best running, the pace off the start line was, as expected, extremely fast. Due to the number of races and cramped conditions off the starting line, running as a pack was difficult for the Bulldogs, who typically stick together to target specific teams, Peters said.

“Each person had to go out with an individual plan,” Peters said. “With so many runners you can get lost in the crowd very easily.”

Many other teams also ditched the pack mentality in favor of individual strategies. But Peters said Columbia, one of the teams that will compete with Yale for one of the two automatic bids to Nationals out of the Northeast region, maintained a cluster of baby blue throughout, making them easy to spot and a target for the Bulldogs. As the race progressed, the Lions retained their cohesive core and distanced themselves from the Bulldogs, finishing 15 spots ahead.

These one-on-one battles on the field partially define the thought process by which at-large bids will be selected by judges in three weeks. Ashley Campbell ’07 said this weekend’s race helped her understand the importance of beating teams that could fill the at-large slots.

“This weekend didn’t help in terms of getting an at-large bid,” Campbell said. “We certainly didn’t beat any of the teams we needed to beat.”

But Matlack said she thinks seeing so many new teams and racing against future foes will serve as a valuable lesson for future competitions.

“Teams like Columbia were a valuable reference for us,” she said. “Yes, this would’ve been a good chance to impress people for an at-large bid, but I certainly wouldn’t say our chances are completely gone.”

Another valuable experience was the chance to run a 6K course. While Heps, the Ivy League Championships in two weeks, will be held on a 5K course, Regionals and Nationals take place on 6K loops.

In the Open Race, meant for some of the lower-ranked runners on each team, Kelli Buck ’09 continued her streak of strong performances as she makes a bid for the Bulldogs’ main rotation. She finished 13th in 22:16, a time that would have placed her fourth among Yale runners in the Blue Race. Several of Buck’s teammates said they think her performance was a positive step for the team.

“One goal of ours is to finish stronger on 6K courses, and Kelli Buck did,” Matlack said. “She picked off tons of people down the back stretch.”

Matlack also said the weekend’s disappointments will have some hidden benefits down the road for the more experienced runners who did not race as well as they had expected.

“There haven’t been too many bumps in the road so far this season,” she said. “I think this weekend should help make us tougher for later on in the season.”