By Ross Millington
Now into his second year at the University of New Mexico, graduate distance runner Adam Bitchell is beginning to assert himself as a strong presence on both the men’s track and cross country programs after a tumultuous first year, and believes there is a lot more to come in the rest of 2013 and into 2014.
One of Bitchell’s strongest runs as a Lobo came at the recent Wisconsin adidas Invitational where he placed 24th in an extremely competitive field with a time of 23 minutes, 44 seconds, a marked improvement on his 52nd-place run of 24:01 at the 2012 edition.
Bitchell’s run at Wisconsin, where he ran second on the team just 14 seconds behind three-time All American Luke Caldwell, combined with the impressive performances of his teammates, saw the Lobos finish fifth overall at the meet in Madison, Wis. That finish has elevated the team to a No.9 ranking in the nation, their highest since 2010.
His race in Madison came after a not-so satisfying run out at the Notre Dame Invitational two weeks earlier, where he placed 29th in 24:59 and the team sixth overall.
“Notre Dame didn’t quite go to plan individually, and the team also had a below-par day finishing sixth which is nowhere near where we know we were capable of finishing on a good day,” Bitchell said.
The race wasn’t a disaster by any means, but it didn’t reflect the work he and the team had been putting in since August, so it was to satisfying to see the training pay off more at Wisconsin.
“On the other hand, I came away from Wisconsin feeling a lot more satisfied with my own personal performance, and with how we performed as a team. It was certainly my best cross-country performance since being here and the team finished fifth overall, getting vital wins over a lot of teams that were ranked above us nationally,” Bitchell said.
Coach Joe Franklin stated that this was one of Bitchell’s top runs during his time at UNM so far.
“That was his best run over cross country since being at UNM by far. A few days after the race I saw a picture of him coming down the finishing straight, and he was going after it, showing the will that he needs to have to accomplish the things he wants,” Franklin said.
The picture in question, showing Bitchell looking to the heavens and grasping for air, certainly paints the picture of a man willing to put everything on the line for his Lobo teammates and for personal ambition.
Bitchell came to Albuquerque in the fall of 2012 after completing his undergraduate studies in Sport and Physical Education across the pond at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff in the United Kingdom. An already accomplished runner on the UK scene after picking up wins in the British University Championships over 3000 meters and 5000 meters, and having represented Great Britain at the European Under 23 Championships over 5000 meters in 2011, the idea of studying in the U.S. had always appealed to Bitchell.
“I had always liked the idea of coming out to study in the U.S. Coach Franklin and [assistant cross country coach ‘A Havahla] Haynes got in contact with me fairly early on in the recruiting -process and immediately made a positive impact on my thoughts about coming to UNM,” Bitchell said
He listed many factors in his decision to come to UNM, noting that Franklin and UNM had already had success with previous British athletes such as David Bishop and Ross Millington, with whom he had spoken to before he came to UNM. The city of Albuquerque, and its ideal training environment also appealed to Bitchell.
“Franklin mentioned that Albuquerque was a great place to train, with good weather all year round and of course the altitude factor. In addition, I had known of other Brits that had previously come out to study at UNM and been successful like [Ross Millington] and David Bishop so that also showed me that Albuquerque could work for me as it had for others before,” Bitchell said.
However, Bitchell’s time so far at UNM hasn’t been as fulfilling as he had hoped coming in. Food poisoning at the 2012 NCAA Cross Country Championships meant he was unable to finish the race. Motivated by this bitter disappointment he delved into winter training and came blazing into the 2013 indoor season, recording an altitude converted mile time of 3.59.83 at the New Mexico Invitational and looked set to qualify for the NCAA Indoor National Championships in March.
Disaster struck though, as, just a week after his impressive performance in Albuquerque, Bitchell began to experience some pain and discomfort in his left thigh, and was soon diagnosed with a femoral neck stress reaction, putting an end to his season.
“It was the first serious injury of my running career and came as a shock. It was tough to take because just a week before that I had run a 3:59 altitude converted mile and training was going really well,” Bitchell said.
The injury also ate into his preparation for the outdoor season, as Bitchell wasn’t able to run for two months, which meant he only got to race once for the Lobos. He subsequently ended his outdoor season after failing to qualify for the NCAA West Preliminary Round.
Franklin was equally devastated with the news of the injury. After watching Bitchell run that mile in Albuquerque, he had hopes of a 3.58 time further down the line, and a place at the NCAA Indoor Championships.
However, despite the initial disappointment, Franklin has seen it as a learning curve and something that can now benefit the both of them going forward.
“It was a tough pill to swallow. But we have been smarter about training as a result. If he can stay healthy and consistent, that is the key,” said Franklin.
Injuries are part of being an athlete at this level, something Bitchell understands, and something that has left the senior with a sense of redemption, which could make him a dangerous competitor as the Lobos head into the championship part of the cross country season, and onto the track in 2014.
His short and long-term ambitions as a Lobo have been lit by the frustrations of the last year, as Bitchell hopes to become the latest in a long line of All-Americans at UNM.
“My short-term goal would be to help the men’s cross-country team qualify for the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute in November. Individually, I’m aiming to finish in an All-American position at those championships,” Bitchell said.
“In the long-term, I hope to qualify for an NCAA Championship final over the mile or 3,000 meters indoors, especially as the NCAA Championships are held in Albuquerque next year. Outdoors I also hope to make an NCAA Championship final and gain an All-American spot in the 1,500 meters or 5,000 meters,” Bitchell added.
Franklin echoed his athlete’s ambitions.
“I think All-American in cross country is very realistic. And I think qualifying for NCAA’s indoors and outdoors is also realistic, and to get there he is going to have to run fast so I think running personal records across all distances is going to happen,” Franklin said.
After his performance at Wisconsin, Bitchell is certainly on track to accomplish his short-term goals for the cross country season. And should he stay healthy into 2014, the stoic Welshman will be looking to turn his flash of brilliance from the 2013 indoor season into consistent performances on the national level.
Editor's note: Ross Millington is a current University of New Mexico cross country and track & field athlete.