On the one hand, Matt Bingle called it "the chance of a lifetime." Gophers distance runner Bethany Hasz will race in the 5,000 meters Friday night at the NCAA indoor track and field championships in Fayetteville, Ark., then chase an NCAA cross-country title Monday morning in Stillwater, Okla.
But on the other hand …
"Hopefully, we never have to do this again,'' said Bingle, the Gophers' director of track and cross country, laughing at the absurdity of the situation. "Never in my life would I have thought we'd have cross country season during the indoor track season.''
Yet that's where the pandemic has left Hasz, preparing for two very different national championship races separated by 182 miles and about 64 hours. The senior from Alexandria is seeded ninth in the 5,000, which goes off at 8:05 p.m. Friday in Arkansas. Saturday morning, she and Gophers cross-country coach Sarah Hopkins will drive to Oklahoma, where Hasz will line up for the NCAA women's cross-country championship at 11:50 a.m. Monday.
After winning the Big Ten individual cross-country title in January, Hasz added a conference indoor crown in the 3,000 last month. She opted to run only the 5,000 at the NCAA meet because the scheduling affords her an extra day of rest before the cross-country championship.
It's been a long wait for a short window of opportunity. Hasz lost her shot at an NCAA indoor championship last spring, as the spreading pandemic canceled the meet. When the fall cross-country championship was postponed, she thought that title chance might vanish, too.
Viewed through that perspective, the quick turnaround doesn't feel like a hardship.
"I've never actually competed at the NCAA indoor meet, so that's exciting," Hasz said. "And then, a winter cross-country meet? Also a first.
"Because it's never happened before, that takes a lot of expectations away. I don't really know how it's going to work. I'll just try to focus on one race at a time and see what happens."
Since beginning her Gophers career in 2016, Hasz has made steady progress to become one of the top distance runners in program history. She holds team indoor records in the 3,000 (eight minutes, 59.37 seconds) and 5,000 (15:25.33), as well as the outdoor record in the 5,000 (15:45.72).
Hasz and her coaches learned several months ago that the NCAA indoor track and cross-country meets might be scheduled in close proximity, so they had plenty of time to discuss scenarios. Hasz has had a light race schedule this winter, which has kept her fresh.
Under normal circumstances, she would have run both the 3,000 and the 5,000 at the Big Ten indoor championships. She skipped the 5,000 because the Gophers didn't need those points to win the team title. While she would have liked to have run both at the NCAA meet, the 3,000 is at 7 p.m. Saturday, and Hasz and her coaches decided it was wiser to rest than to race.
"We picked the one that would give her the most recovery time," Hopkins said. "And the 5K is probably her better event.
"In an ideal world, she would have at least a week between races. But she's done back-to-back races on the track, so we're trying to equate it to a championship track meet. If you look at it that way, it doesn't feel like you're trying to do something totally crazy."
Hopkins will handle all the driving Saturday, allowing Hasz to relax during the 3 ½-hour trip from Fayetteville to the Oklahoma City airport. They will meet other Gophers cross country athletes flying in for the meet, then enjoy a quiet day before heading to Stillwater on Sunday.
Hasz hasn't trained much on grass, since it's been covered in snow for the past few months. That didn't hold her back in the Big Ten championships, when she ran a time of 20 minutes, 13.2 seconds — the fourth-fastest 6K time in Gophers history — to win the title.
Bingle said some athletes from other schools have opted to race at only one of the NCAA meets, but he's glad Hasz is willing to tackle two.
"Bethany has a shot to do something pretty amazing," Bingle said. "It was a good choice on her part to try to do both, because she has a shot to be great at both."
After waiting so long for any chance at a national title, Hasz didn't need to be convinced.
"I feel good physically, and I've had some solid workouts and solid races this season," she said. "I should be ready to go. And I'm really excited to compete."