Track and field saint John athlete will race against top collegians at this week’s CIs meet
   Middle-distance runner Matt McNeil isn’t expecting miracles overnight when he represents the Dalhousie Tigers at this week’s Canadian Interuniversity Sport indoor track and field championships, but the 20-year-old has a hunch that a personal-best time isn’t too far down the road.


   Oh, let’s say, about 3,000 metres away.


   The Saint Johner is peaking at the right time heading in to the national collegiate meet, which runs March Thursday to Saturday at Edmonton’s Universiade Pavilion – better known as the Butter-dome – on the campus of the University of Alberta. He earned his place in the field with a gold-medal performance at last month’s Atlantic University Sport championships, posting a time of eight minutes 32.82 seconds to claim the 3,000-metre title. He’s confident, albeit quietly,that’s there’s more in his gas tank.


   “I’ve been running close to my personal-best times – 8:32 indoor and 8:31 outdoor – all season”said the third-year civil engineering student.“My workouts have been showing that I am ready to run a fast time, but everything hasn’t come together yet in the right race. Hopefully, it all work out for me on Friday.The plan is to latch on to all the top guys in the country and hope to get pulled through to a fast time. Essentially, it’s easier to zone out and run with the pack than it is to concentrate when you’re running by yourself.”


   McNeil also won silver in the 1,500 final at the AUS meet, but his time of 4:01.38 did not meet the CIS qualifying standard of 3:50.10. In 2013, he earned AUS silver medals in both the 1,500- and 3,000-metre disciplines.


   The gifted runner is one of a number of New Brunswick athletes qualifying for the nationals. A combined UNB-UNBSJ team is sending five athletes, including the AUS gold medal-winning 4x200-metre team of Daniel Brown of Hampton,Brandon Cleghorn of Salisbury,Alexander Williston of Miramichi and Jeff Retallick of Fredericton.They will be joined by UNBSJ’s Kyle Lefort, a Cheticamp, N.S., resident who won the men’s pentathlon competition.


   In the Canada West Athletic Universities Association, all-Canadian Grace An-near of Hampton was a triple medallist. She won golds as part of the University of Victoria’s 4x400 and 4x800-metre relay team. The 4x400 team set a school record of 3:47.98,led by Annear’s blistering 55-second anchor leg. The Vikes’ 4x800 team finished in 8:55.24, cruising to a 14-second victory over the Trinity Western Spartans. They will head to Edmonton as favourites to repeat as national champions.


   Annear also picked up a bronze medal in the 600 where she posted a personal-best time of 1:30.18.The time was faster than her 1:30.72 clocking that broke the McGill Team Challenge meet record in January, and also beat the CIS qualifying standard.


   Moncton’s Genevieve Lalonde and Chris Robertson also punched tickets to the Butterdome after qualifying at the Ontario University Athletics meet. Lalonde and her Guelph Gryphon teammates copped a silver medal in the women’s 4x200-metre relay to easily meet the CIS standard with a time of 8:54.47 while Robertson won a silver medal for the University of Western Mustangs in the men’s pentathlon to secure of one of two available OUA berths.


   Like most athletes,McNeil prefers running outdoors, especially on cross-country courses in natural settings. Indoor running is a whole different game – it employs race-specific strategies since there are fewer opportunities to jockey for position and pass competitors on narrow tracks and tighter turns that come up quickly on the athletes.


   “On a 200-metre track, you have to make sure about your positioning,” Mc-Neil said, “because the turns slow you down and there’s more of them, as compared to running on 400-metre outdoor tracks. It’s harder to pass, so you have toplan where and when you’re going to make your move.”


   There will be 14 athletes jostling for elbow room on the six-lane, 200-metre Butterdome track when they toe the starting line on Friday for the men’s 3,000 race. McNeil is ranked last in the group, but welcomes the challenge in front of him.


   “I love racing against the top guys in the country – not many people get to do that,primarily because you have to qualify for the championships,”he said.“It’s a great opportunity, and I want to take advantage of it.Most of the battle is mental


   – I’m fit and ready to run.It’s a short race, so I want to latch on to the leaders and hope for the best.”


   McNeil plans to stay in Halifax and train this summer under Dalhousie head coach Richard Lehman and assistant coach Lee McCarron, competing in road races and building a strong base for the fall’s cross-country season, his discipline of choice. For now though, it’s all about soaking up the CIS experience and racing the big boys.


   “This is my first CIS championship


   – I’m looking for it to be a good experience,”he said.“I plan to use all my college eligibility, so my expectations will be different in my final two years.”


   Among his collegiate goals are eclipsing AUS records set by another New Brunswicker, Joel Bourgeois of Grand-Digue, whose 3,000-metre (8:25.70) and 1,500-metre (3:53.60) records have been on the books for 23 years after he established the times in 1991 with the l’Universite de Moncton Aigles Bleus.


   Bourgeois would go on to a storied steeplechase career: he would represent Canada in two Olympics, win gold and silver medals at the Pan-Am Games and silver and bronze medals at the World University Games. Getting his name in the record book, at Bourgeois’s expense, would be a feather in McNeil’s cap.


   “I have definitely thought about them” said McNeil of the long-standing records. “I want to take a shot at them. Those times aren’t that far away from where I am now, so I think that will be a realistic goal”
Matt McNeil of Saint John, who is an engineering student at Dalhousie University, will compete in this week’s national university indoor track and field championships. Photo: Submitted