With one kilometer to go, the Wolverines found themselves behind the pack at the Notre Dame Invitational two weeks ago. Largely due to its group support, Michigan was able to come back and finish strong, gaining crucial positions in the final leg and going on to win.

“When you get yourself in a hole, it’s a lot easier to fill it up with two shovels than one,” coach Mike McGuire always says.

There is strength in numbers and, in the middle of a five-kilometer race, just after the runners make their way up one of the many hills, there is no place they’d rather be then right next to their best friends and teammates.

During races, the members of the No. 2 women’s cross country team run in clusters – determined mainly by the athlete’s ability – that allow them to offer each other support and act as a safeguard between their teammates and other runners in the field.

“We’re more than teammates – we’re friends,” junior Arianna Field said. “We don’t just run together, we encourage each other, and, if one of us is having a bad day, we have someone there to help us and push us. It’s about working together to get better.”

The continuity between their practice groups and race clusters helps Michigan keep away any race-day butterflies that may pop up. More importantly, the presence of their teammates helps the Wolverines maintain a steady pace throughout the race by making sure they stay on track to not only finish strong, but to pass others along the way.

“It helps ease the anxiety to know that you have your teammates there,” sophomore Erin Webster said. “A lot of times, you can get really nervous, and it just helps to know that they are there with you, just kind of sharing the burden.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s your first time running or if you’re a senior, it’s always comforting to know you have someone right next to you at your side.”

In the Wolverines’ last three races, all of their runners finished close together – something that is crucial when needing low team scores to win. If Michigan spreads itself out, it opens the door for other teams to position their runners between the Wolverines, making it more difficult for Michigan to regain good positioning for a strong finish.

“It’s a team sport, and the objective is to get all nine runners to run at an optimal level,” McGuire said. “For me, cross country is about winning the races within the actual race. Obviously there is first place but then there is a race within the race for the other places, and runners have to go out in a certain wave and that gives them the opportunity to stay together and win the race.”

But for the last 500 meters, it’s anyone’s game. The runners break out of their clusters and sprint to the finish, hoping to pass as many athletes as possible, making up vital points that will unquestionably help their team score in the end.

“Other teams are going to kick it at the end of the race to beat people, so we want to do that to prevent those teams from beating us,” senior Ana Gjesdal said. “We sprint at the end, but it’s to try and beat other teams more than beat each other for a better finish time.”

But, in a crowded field – which the Wolverines will come across this weekend at the NCAA Pre-Nationals – it is often difficult for teammates to find each other. They frequently have to contend with a small running space while trying to maintain a strong pace on their own. Michigan will face a field of 255 runners for Pre-Nationals, where it will be critical for the Wolverines not only to start strong, but to find their teammates in a field of top-ranked runners.

“There are just so many people that it’s hard to get a positioning right next to someone,” Webster said, “It’s second nature in the race whereby if you see Maize and Blue, then you know that’s where you need to be and who you need to be running with.”

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