With its recent fifth-place finish in the Division II race at the prestigious Roy Griak Invitational in Minnesota, the UC San Diego women’s cross country team has served notice that it may be a program on the rise. A balanced roster is one of the reasons for the prevailing optimism, and right in the middle of that mix, is sophomore standout Marie Diaz. Following a noteworthy rookie campaign in which she earned CCAA Freshman of the Year distinction, head coach Nate Garcia is looking to the 5-foot-5 San Leandro native for even bigger contributions in 2013. “As a sophomore, Marie has taken a step forward, not just as a runner, but as a team leader,” said Garcia. “She’s done a lot of work to improve her skills, and has become a dangerous racer.”
With the Tritons' biggest home event, the annual Triton Classic, rapidly approaching (on Saturday, Oct. 12, on North Campus beginning at 9 a.m.), Diaz took time to share her thoughts on the sport of cross country, her own development, and the potential of this year’s UCSD squad.
Q: As a cross country runner, how are you better as a sophomore than you were as a freshman?
DIAZ: As a sophomore, I have a year of experience, which may not seem like a lot, but it makes a huge difference. I know my teammates and coaches better and I know our training program better. I know what to expect from workouts, which helps me to push myself, and I know how to run a collegiate 6K race as opposed to the 5K races we ran in high school. I am still trying to figure everything out, but that one year of experience really does seem to have an impact.
Q: What are some of the things that come into play on the “mental side” of cross country during a race?
DIAZ: Racing is hard. When we race, we are attempting to push ourselves to our furthest limit for 6,000 meters. During this time, it is easy for your mind to let in negative thoughts and many runners often find themselves racing poorly, not because they are physically incapable of their full potential, but because their negative mentality is bringing them down.
At the beginning of the season, Nate (Garcia) had a talk with us about the effects of negative versus positive mindsets while racing, and this year, our team is really focusing on staying mentally strong and positive during races. During our talk, Nate gave us various negative scenarios and challenged us to find the positive aspects of them. This has really been helping me in races, because I have found myself being positive and fighting back at the end of races when I am really tired, instead of listening to negative thoughts and slowing down.
Q: When you step up to the starting line, do you usually know whether or not you’re going to have a good performance? What dictates those feelings, and can they change as a race unfolds?
DIAZ: I can never really tell if I am going to have a bad race, but I always know I am going to have a good race. If I step on the starting line feeling confident in the course, the field, and myself, I can tell it will be a good day, but this rarely happens. No matter how I feel at the start of the race, my feelings and the outcome always have the potential to change as it goes on. For me, this has a lot to do with mentality. If something happens and I start thinking negatively about the race, I usually end up having a bad race, but if something happens and I can look at it in a positive way, I usually end up doing well.
Q: After last weekend’s Roy Griak Invitational in Minnesota, you’re three races into the 2013 season. How would you evaluate your team’s performance to date?
DIAZ: I am very happy with how we have been doing. We have been showing a lot of improvement off of last year, not only in our top seven, but our entire team, and I am really excited to see what happens as we head into the championship part of our season.
Q: Do you sense the team is on a path to improve on last year’s results in the CCAA Championships and NCAA West Regional? Why?
DIAZ: Definitely. We are a different team this year. We have nine new girls on the team and they are making a huge impact. This year, everyone is much more focused and ready to compete at the next level, and we are all focused on the same goals. We have been training hard in every workout, and it is really showing in our races.
Q: How deep is this team? Although just five individuals score in a particular race, why is it important to have depth beyond those five?
DIAZ: This year our team is very deep. Cross country, to me, has always been an individual sport because I have always trained on my own or with a small group. This year is different. I have never felt more a part of a team than I do this year. We all run together, train together, and race together. We have the same mindset and goals. We work hard and push each other at every practice and in every race and it really has been showing.
Our pack time has significantly decreased from previous years, and that not only goes for our top five, but for our entire team. It is important to have depth beyond the scoring top five because the top five is always changing. People have bad races or get injured all the time in our sport, and it’s important to have people there scoring for us.
Q: Did you participate in other sports when you were younger? How did you get started in cross country? What do you like about XC and what’s made you stick with it?
DIAZ: When I was younger, I loved any and every sport. My focus growing up was always soccer, but I also surfed, snowboarded, played basketball and swam on a swim team.
When I got to high school, my older brother was on the cross country team, and suggested I join to get in shape for soccer tryouts. I ended up making varsity, and I have loved running ever since. My favorite part of cross country is racing. I love how competitive it is, and I love seeing all my hard work and effort pay off on race days. Cross country is a very rewarding sport, and I love challenging myself and finding ways to get better.
Q: Your team has a major home event, the Triton Classic, coming up in two weeks. What are some of the interesting facets of the UCSD course?
DIAZ: I love our course. It is very challenging and requires both physical and mental strength. There are a good amount of hills and all types of terrain. One interesting part of the course is the end, which includes a short but steep uphill to the track, where we finish.
Q: You’re a marine biology major. What interests you about that field, and where do you hope to go with it?
DIAZ: I have always loved water, especially the ocean, and when I was in high school, I had the opportunity to travel to Mexico on a marine biology research trip. We camped on the island of Espiritu Santo and snorkeled every day, conducting research on different types of starfish. It was an amazing experience, and it helped me discover what I want to do. It amazes me how little we know about the ocean and the species that inhabit it, and I want to help teach others about it. Someday, I want to travel and help with research around the world, but I think my focus will be more on the conservation side of the field.
Q: Before you graduate, what would you like to accomplish athletically, academically, otherwise?
DIAZ: Athletically, I want my team to take first in conference and top 10 at nationals. I want to keep improving and getting better and I want to help my teammates do the same, because I know they are the ones that push me to achieve my goals.
Academically, I want to learn from others and have others learn from me. I want to work hard so that I can graduate in a position that allows me to travel and pursue my field.
Previous Triton Q&A Features
Joe Dietrich (Men's Water Polo) September 2, 2013
Josh Cohen (Men's Soccer) August 23, 2013
Sara McCutchan (Women's Volleyball) August 9, 2013
Kellen Levy (Men's Cross Country/Track & Field) July 26, 2013
Izzy Pozurama (Women's Soccer) July 8, 2013
Colin Truex (Women's Crew Head Coach) June 28, 2013