As the runners take their mark, all is still. The course is quiet. It is a moment bristling with both intensity and tranquility.
The sounding of the gun marks the beginning of the unparalleled test of physical stamina, and senior runner Zubeir Dagane has already cleared his mind.
“If you’re able to think during a race, you’re going out way too slow,” Dagane said.
This is a feeling many cross country runners know all too well. It is a sport so physically demanding that it zaps away any mental energy. There is nothing to consider, other than the next step, the next breath, the next goal.
“That whole time, I’m just thinking about how much pain I’m going through,” he said.
Eventually, after what feels like an eternity of mind-numbing exertion, the race draws to a close. At that point, Dagane is too tired to eat, but can resort to a Gatorade or Sunny D in hopes of regaining the energy the race took from him. And regardless of his finish, Dagane knows that running is, above all else, a journey.
Unlike many of the athletes he competes against, Dagane, now a senior, did not have the “flashy times” to attract the attention of a Division I program while in high school. When he arrived at Penn, he joined the club cross country team, and spent the entirety of his first semester getting into good enough shape to walk on to the University’s track and field and cross country programs.
“I was lucky enough to train with a good group of guys on our team, which got me into good enough shape for the tryout,” Dagane said, crediting his fellow club runners for the role they played in his progression.
After a semester of hard work, Dagane broke through and earned a spot on the team in the spring, just after the final race of the cross country season. But thanks to factors outside of his control, it would be some time before Dagane could take his rightful place on the course, finally donning the Red and Blue.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ivy League did not play any fall sports during the 2020 season, which would have been the debut of Dagane's collegiate cross country career. And while this would be an understandable setback for many athletes, Dagane credits it as the event which helped fortify his mindset.
“I picked right back up,” Dagane said. “I became more obsessed with running. I became goal-oriented, to contribute to the team once stuff came back.”
That obsession, that fixation on one’s goal, is a necessary trait for any great runner. During a grueling race, when the only thing on your mind is pain, determination alone drives you to the finish.
As a distance runner, Dagane runs for both the Penn cross country and track and field teams. On the track, he holds the ninth fastest 10,000 meters time in school history, a race which he describes as his “lucky 10K.”
“I don’t think I’m cut out to be a 10K guy,” Dagane said. “That’s my upper limit. I don’t think I’ll be returning to that anytime soon.”
Such a performance can never be complete luck, but it likely would not have occurred had it not been for the input of Dagane's coaches. On both the cross country course and the track, he takes their advice with diligence, a factor which has undoubtedly contributed to his success.
On the day he ran his “lucky 10K,” Dagane says he was originally slated to race the 1,500 meters, but switched after his coaches suggested trying out the unfamiliar race. In cross country, he allows his racing strategy to be informed by expert guidance.
“We just follow the coaches, whatever they think is best to do,” Dagane said. “For big meets, we usually try to keep it controlled, go with the top guys, then finish well from there."
That final step, finishing well, is what separates impactful runners from the pack. To do so requires a laser focus on the objective, which Dagane has, but it also requires another intangible quality, one which he cites as the biggest difference between track and cross country.
“You have to be a lot grittier in cross country,” Dagane said.
Grit and determination are challenging to develop, and perhaps even more difficult to pass on. But as one of the team’s fastest and most experienced runners, Dagane inherits the responsibility of being a dependable leader. Just as he once relied on other runners to help him get into good enough shape to make the team, he now hopes to set that example for a young, promising team.
“We’re still young. We’re still up and coming. The journey is a big part of it,” Dagane said. “Training-wise, the guys are geared to look up to some of the top runners. It just happens naturally … I just try to lead.”
From successfully walking on, to an unexpected place in the history books, to all the arduous races he has pushed through, many of Dagane's goals have already been achieved. And yet, with the majority of his senior year still to come, there are many more challenges to confront and conquer.
And if Dagane's past is any indication, his accomplishments yet to come are only a matter of time.