Matt Baxter produced the best ever performance by a New Zealand man at the NCAA Cross Country Championships by finishing an outstanding second in November. Steve Landells chats to the rising talent from Taranaki about his incredible Stateside adventure.

Since arriving at Northern Arizona University aged 21 at the beginning of 2016, it is scarcely comprehensible the progress made by distance runner Matt Baxter.

Back then the 2015 New Zealand cross country silver medallist was clearly an athlete of some talent. But two years on the young man from Taranaki has emerged as a top-class talent finishing second in the uber-competitive and prestigious NCAA Cross Country Championships in Louisville.

It has been some journey and one which has surprised gregarious Matt.

"It was beyond my best-case scenario that the team would be a strong as we were (Northern Arizona won the team title at both the 2016 and 2017 NCAA Cross Country Championships) and individually that my performances would improve so much in the time Ive been here," he explains. "It has taken me two years to get used to the altitude, the team dynamic, the training programme and the racing schedule. All the pieces are starting to fit together and that NCAA performance is a result of everything coming together."

Born and raised in New Plymouth, Matt started distance running through the guidance of Taranaki Athletics coaching icon Karen Gillum-Green before later hooking up with Kerry Rodger, the two-time Commonwealth Games endurance runner, after moving north to start a criminology and criminal justice degree at the Auckland University of Technology.

Matt was making steady progress in his running career and in 2015 landed silver at the New Zealand Cross Country Championships - finishing six seconds behind Malcolm Hicks - as well as setting a 5000m PB of 14:10. Yet he wanted more and sought to head to the US to accelerate his running development.

Seeking advice from Kiwi distance runner Geordie Beamish, the former national junior 1500m and 3000m champion who was already studying at Northern Arizona University, he was encouraged by the ambitions of the university but found initially adapting to an environment where temperatures can plunge to as low -25c in winter and living and training at an altitude of 2100m tough.

"It was a shock to the system," he says of arriving in desperately cold temperatures from the New Zealand summer. "The place was covered in snow and I dont think I set foot on a trail for the first two months I was here."

Regular nosebleeds have become a hazard of the cold temperatures, particularly when coming inside from the cold, with Matt explaining that two garbage bins at the indoor track are rather grimly often chock-full of tissues soaked in blood.

Yet the resilient Kiwi has learned to adapt and cope with his demanding training environment.

"You just get used to bundling up for the cold weather wearing everything from beanies, hats, jerseys and sweat pants," he explains of running in sub-zero temperatures. "There is a progression over time when your body slower gets used to the colder temperatures. Ive also got used to the fact if cant run outside, I instead run at the indoor track or on the treadmill."

With no prior experience of altitude training it also took time to settle into running in the oxygen-thin air of Flagstaff. Initially wary of the unknown during the first semester his workout times were way down on what he would have expected when running at sea level and that chipped at his confidence.

Yet he plugged away and slowly started to improve his workout performances - and on a couple of occasions in his first year in the US started to feel the benefit of the living and training at altitude.

"One of the myths of altitude is when you race at sea level you suddenly feel amazing," explains Matt. "It is not quite like that but what I find is after living and training at altitude when I reach a certain point and start to tire I can now push through and maintain that level of pain for slightly longer."

After an underwhelming start to his university track life during his maiden indoor season he showed more promising signs in his first outdoor campaign, running a solid 10,000m best of 29:19.45 but failed to qualify for the marquee NCCA Track & Field Championships.

Yet the biggest takeaway from his first track campaign was the enormity of the NCAA athletics system - which provided a huge motivation for the young man from rural New Zealand.

"The collegiate system is unmatched anywhere in the world, the support and excitement around college sport is huge," he explains. "I had come from New Zealand, where with the greatest respect I was running many races as time trials, to a situation in America when every second weekend I would be running in fields that would be close to world-class. I became absorbed in the atmosphere. My confidence started to build and every race I started to push my body to new limits."

Later last year he earned a "breakthrough" moment by placing 11th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Indiana some 44 seconds behind race winner Aussie Patrick Tiernan, the 2017 World 5000m and 10,000m finalist.

This performance give him the belief he could "hang with the top guys" and then at the beginning of the year he received another boost when Michael Smith, a new coach, was recruited at Northern Arizona.

"He grew on us really quickly," he says of the impact made my Smith. "He puts a lot of focus on getting to know his athletes and making them feel comfortable. This enables the performances to comes naturally and it has he been a really positive change for the team."

He made progress during the indoor season wiping more than 25 seconds from his 5000m best to record 13:44.27 - and exactly match Michael Aishs national 5000m indoor record - albeit on an oversized track in Ames, Iowa.

Then during the outdoor season, he ran a new 10,000m PB of 28:48.02 in Stanford, before qualifying for the NCAA Championships where he finishing seventh in the 10,000m final in 29:09.83 at the iconic Hayward Field in Eugene.

He describes the performance as "bittersweet" and adds: "With the way I was training I knew I was capable of that spot. I made a couple of errors in that race. Coming into the last mile I was content to sit at the back of the main pack, where I felt comfortable. I kicked by a couple of athletes on the final lap but I probably should have made my move earlier. I now know if that happens in future, I have to put myself in a position to be in contention for a top five spot."

Motivated not to repeat the same mistake he stayed on the US at the end of the 2016 college year to focus on training, where he averaged 100 miles a week (approximately 160km) to prepare for the cross country season and the early signs were promising. Racing in September over the same course at Louisville he would compete at two months later at the NCAA Cross Country Championships he claimed an impressive win), which gave him he belief he could claim a finish top five in the premier cross country race of the US collegiate season.

Intending to push hard from the front - not only to achieve his individual ambitions but to help the team - he executed the plan to perfection. Leading the field alongside a team-mate into the final 200m of the 10km test - it was only Justyn Knight, the 2017 World 5000m finalist, who denied him victory with the Canadians strong kick finish proving too much for the talented Kiwi.

"It was an unbelievable feeling," he says of finishing second. "Wed been grinding it out for 10km and to finish second was good enough but to see my team-mates coming home to help us win (the team race) was something special. Id worked so hard for this my emotions were initially more attached to the team and it was only when I got back to the hotel and had time to reflect in the achievement could I start to think about what Id achieved as an individual. I got a feeling that from that point on my life might not be the same again. It could be the stepping stone to greater things."

The performance has given him a new-found welter of confidence, which he hopes will pay off during the forthcoming indoor and outdoor track campaigns, where he hopes to qualify for the 5000m at the NCAA Indoor Championships before he targets "at least" a top five finish in the NCAA 10,000m final in June.

"Im looking at running a really quick 10,000m, which could open up some doors for my post-collegiate future," says Matt, who starts his masters in criminology later this month. "At the beginning of last year coach Smith said I could run sub-28 minutes for the 10,000m and at that time I didnt know I was capable. But I now think this year Im going to go for it."

With the Commonwealth Games probably out of the equation due to his US commitments his longer term goals remain the 2019 World Championships and 2020 Olympic Games.

However, the down-to-earth Kiwi is not getting too far ahead of himself.

"I still have a lot to work on," he says. "I know I have to take my times down a lot further than they currently are. Ill have a much better indication as to where Im at during this track season. That will give me a much better idea moving forward as to whether Ill be a contender for the team in 2020 (Tokyo Olympics)."

- This story has been automatically published using a media release from Athletics New Zealand