The University of Maine men’s cross country team has fought hard this season, losing its first competition to Army West Point at home, finishing fifth at the Minutemen Invitational at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, winning against the University of New Hampshire (UNH) in their America East contest and then finishing 15th at the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown. The team is led by third-year runner Aaron Willingham, who has had a successful campaign thus far.

In his first season, the Farmington, Maine native and Mt. Blue High School graduate finished second against UNH with a time of 26:56.1, placed 18th at the America East Cross Country Championship at Stony Brook University with a time of 25:53.45, finished 120th at the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown with a time of 25:55.0 and placed 92nd at the Northeast Regional Cross Country Championships. However, time and experience can really help an athlete.

Last season, Willingham placed 11th overall at the America East Conference Championships, helping Maine finish as the conference runner-up. He also finished third overall at the New Hampshire Dual Meet with a time of 23:35.6. In last year’s meet against Army, Willingham finished 7th with a time of 26:01.06. He then finished 57th out of 221 runners at the NEICAAA Cross Country Championship. The third-year runner also helped Maine win the UMass Minutemen Cross Country Invitational by finishing in eighth place.

“Last season, we had a really good team. We had three seniors and a couple younger guys. We really focused on the conference meet and we only lost by one point which is crazy. Personally, I had a good season last year, definitely liked where I finished,” Willingham said.

Willingham started running when he was 14 and hasn’t looked back since. He also says that there are certain people in his life who he runs for.

“I started running to get in shape for football in high school, I guess it worked out. My little sisters are my biggest fans, they want to run but they’re not very athletic,” Willingham said.

Willingham is also one of six runners from the state of Maine, making UMaine an easy choice.

“I have a lot of friends here at UMaine so it wasn’t a hard decision to decide to come here. They also have a good KPE [Kinesiology and Physical Education] program, which is what I’m majoring in.”

Off of the UMaine cross country course, Willingham prefers to run in Maine’s only national park.

“If I could run anywhere in the world, it would definitely be the Carriage Roads at Acadia National Park.”

The most recent race was the competition against Maine’s rival, UNH. Willingham finished first in the five-mile course with a time of 25:54 for his first dual-meet victory of his collegiate career. UMaine ended up downing UNH 23-34.

“It felt really good to win, not just personally, but as a team. The time wasn’t as important, we were just going for place. It was really nice that it was my first win of my career here at UMaine,” Willingham said.

Now, only a few weeks away from the New England Championships to be held in Boston on Saturday, Oct. 7 and then the America East Championships to be held on Saturday, Oct. 28. The team and Willingham are getting ready to compete and ultimately win.

“Now, in training, we are starting to focus more on our overall speed so that we can be faster when it really counts. We’re not focusing as much on strength, but more on toning our bodies to be fast throughout the races.”

With the more intense and important races coming up, nervousness and anxiousness are to be expected, especially at this level of competition.

“I always get nervous before races, it’s pretty normal for me. I just try not to think about the race until the gun goes off because if I think about it too much, I’ll make myself sick,” Willingham explained.

In sports, there is always room for improvement and an athlete needs to understand that no one is perfect. As a cross country runner, you can always improve your time and overall, how well you run a race.

“One thing we need to improve on as a team is running together in a pack. By doing that, we can encourage each other as we run, which can help us stay strong mentally. So, in the next couple weeks, we will be working on that.”

The upcoming New England Championships will take place at Franklin Park in Boston. The women are scheduled to run at 11:45 a.m. The men are scheduled to run at 12:30 p.m.