As the Bobcats await the starting gun on their season debut, Chad Pietig's race is already underway.
With just 20 members on this year's roster, the first-year MHS boys' cross country coach is scrambling to find any additional help he can to aid in rebuilding one of the state's most tradition-rich programs.
"I'm still recruiting. I'm still chasing guys down who used to be out or were out in eighth grade and haven't gone out since," said Pietig, who has picked up four more runners this week and is working to boost that number daily.
"I'm still tracking them down and trying to encourage as many as possible to go out."
Keeping an eye on the future, the girls track coach and former nine-year headman of the Bobcat junior high boys and girls cross country teams isn't setting a deadline on how late members can join.
"They may not be able to contribute this year, but I'm looking (toward the) future - especially with the freshman and sophomores," said Pietig, who has a mental cutoff date in mind for the varsity, but is keeping the door open otherwise.
"If you come run with us now, at least you've experienced it for seven weeks and you'll be ready for next year."
Junior Sam Johnson and senior Nathan Phillips represent the only returnees with "quality varsity experience" according to Pietig, who takes the helm for Tim Bell. The former athletic director led the Bobcats to the state meet 27 times as a team and qualified at least one individual for Fort Dodge 25 times in his 32-year run.
Marshalltown trails only Ames (31) for the most state meet appearances with 30, but must replace its top tandem of Zach Wells and Daniel Talbert. Wells, a 2011 state participant, finished 33rd in the last year's state qualifier, while Talbert was 31st.
Phillips (46th) and Johnson (54th) headline a group that also must fill the void left by fellow varsity runners Nestor Sanchez and Trae Peterson. Johnson has been the leader in early practices and is one of several Bobcats that logged plenty of miles this summer.
"Sam is a very strong, capable runner," said Pietig.
"He runs with a lot of fire and a lot of passion and you see it in his workouts,"
Seniors Hunter Barnard and Andrew Potter and junior Andrew Walker also earned some experience in the Bobcats' top seven last season.
"We have some experience, but we don't have a lot," Pietig said.
"There's going to be a really big learning curve for those guys these first couple of weeks as we get racing."
Senior newcomer Angel Pizano has been stride-for-stride with the top three runners in early practices and should break into the Bobcats' varsity after three years in the track program. Senior Konner Kacmarynski and junior Alex Mason are a couple others looking to make a jump.
While the top four (Johnson, Phillips, Barnard and Pizano) are pretty set, Pietig sees a total of 10 to 11 guys able to contribute to the top seven.
"Those other three could come from any one of those guys on any given day, which is good because hopefully that motivates them to push each other and race hard for those last couple varsity spots."
Pietig, a science teacher, brings a different training philosophy to the table that he's used for years with great success in the girls track program. The research-based program emphasizes less recovery time, applying more a more consistent 85 to 90 percent effort, rather than alternating the hard-easy approach of years past.
"Obviously what Coach Bell did was very successful too, but it's just a little bit different philosophy," said Pietig.
"The guys are adjusting to it, but it's taken them the full two weeks to really understand what we're trying to do. They're adjusting well and they're starting to come around."
The Central Iowa Conference hasn't changed much from seasons past - meaning the Bobcats will find elite competition at every turn. Defending state champion Dowling Catholic highlights last year's contingent of state qualifiers, which also includes Johnston, Waukee, Ames and West Des Moines Valley.
"You'd have to look hard to find a tougher conference than what we have with the 12 teams in it," said Pietig, whose squad is coming off a 10th place finish in the CIC in 2012.
"If we could get to the top half that would be a heck of an accomplishment this year based on the experience we have."
The Bobcat coach hasn't placed many expectations on his team this year. Instead, he's looking for individual improvement from each of his harriers.
"I want them to see that the summer work paid off, that they're a stronger runner because of the time they put in," said Pietig. "And that they're a stronger runner because they're here and committed to the workouts we're asking them to do."
While the heat has already altered the early practice schedule and could play a factor in their first meet, the Bobcats are set to open the season Thursday at Marshalltown Community College at 4:30 p.m.
The debut should serve as an ample opportunity for the Bobcats to apply the mentality Pietig wants each of his runners to carry into competition.
"No matter what the weather's like or where we're at training wise, you can always control your attitude and toughness on the course."