On Nov. 3 last year, Abilene Christian’s Diana García Muñoz quietly served notice that the upper echelon of Southland Conference’s cross country could be breached.
García Muñoz interrupted a would-be string of seven consecutive Lamar and Stephen F. Austin finishers at the 2014 conference championships. She took fifth place and although Lamar and Stephen F. Austin commanded first and second place overall at the meet, the Wildcats had a top-10 individual finisher less than 10 seconds from a third-place spot.
García Muñoz completed her journey to even higher ground alongside her ACU teammates, winning the SLC championship over the weekend.
“Because we’re located in West Texas, most of the athletes are from Texas and understand the heat,” said Keith Barnier, ACU’s head cross country and track and field coach. “The answer is to practice in the morning. These kids get up very early, and we try to get ready by 6 a.m. That’s the best way to beat the heat.”
Cross country in West Texas is a challenging proposition. The terrain is typically flat, and temperatures can exceed 100 degrees, even entering September. Not two attributes you look for while cross country training.
García Muñoz, who is from Phoenix, is no stranger to high temperatures.
“It’s good that we live together because there are other students that have different schedules and may be night owls. All of my roommates are on the team. We’re all in it together, and when they wake up, I wake up,” said García Muñoz.
She will sometimes train in the heat to prepare for races that may not have an early start. As a team, the Wildcats look for opportunities to run on dirt roads and grasses, and quickly retire shoes if needed to prevent overuse injuries.
Finding hills and altitude is another matter. That was partially solved when the team traveled to Creede, Colo., for a five-day training camp in mid-August. It was as much an altitude and hill acclimation venture as a team-building exercise.
“The camp was used for team bonding and fellowship,” said assistant coach and distance specialist, Ray Walker. “We took full advantage of the altitude and put in some quality workout sessions,” he added.
Along with Barnier, Walker keeps an eye on his distance runners and targets 60 miles of running each week and an additional 10+ miles of cross-training for his top group. García Muñoz often trains with teammate Alexandria Hackett and the twin sister of fellow Wildcats distance runner, Michaela.
“Diana has a great training partner in Alexandria, who trains with her to keep each workout honest. Diana tends to run for something bigger than herself. Her teammates have taken on the same mentality, learning to run as a team rather than for themselves,” said Walker.
García Muñoz first arrived in the U.S from her native Mexico when she was 4, and only began running in 2011 to better prepare for her first love, soccer.
“I always played soccer, and some of the cross-country runners would join us late because they were going to other meets. They didn’t have to worry about conditioning or getting in shape because they already were,” said García Muñoz, the MVP of her Tempe High School’s soccer team.
For her efforts last year, García Muñoz received all-conference honors. She was named the Southland’s Student-Athlete of the Year on the strength of a 3.75 GPA as an accounting major. She then went on to compete for the Wildcats in the indoor and outdoor track seasons.
As for this season, it was clear Wildcats were focused on a conference championship.
“The best part about all of this is seeing the congratulations our kids are receiving on their hard work and commitment,” Barnier said. “They are getting what they deserve. They did the work. They didn’t win the distance lottery … I can’t think of a better leadership example for this team to have than Diana and Alexandria in all areas: lifestyle, spiritually and emotionally.”