On Nov. 20, 2021, the Harvard men’s cross country team traveled down to Tallahassee, Fla. for the NCAA National Championship. Entering the race ranked No. 25 in the country, the Crimson men ran their best race of the season, placing 12th ahead of many ranked opponents. This race was the capstone moment of a historic year for Harvard distance runners. Leading the charge for the Crimson throughout the year were senior Matthew Pereira and sophomore Acer Iverson.
When asked about his favorite moments from his Harvard running career so far, Iverson responded quickly:
“Proudest moment was definitely finishing 12th as a team at nationals for cross country,” he said. “Wrapping up our trio of All-Americans made it all the better.”
The Crimson were actually led on that day by freshman Graham Blanks, who placed 23rd. However, just behind Blanks finished Pereira in 35th and Iverson in 40th. All three runners were selected to the NCAA Division I All-American Team, which, as Pereira noted, was an honor only four teams in the country accomplished. For Pereira, this finish cemented his breakout senior season, bettering his finish in the 2019 NCAA championship by 30 spots.
“Performing at that meet is our primary focus of the entire season, so it felt like the previous two years of training had led up to it,” Pereira commented.
Pereira improved dramatically across his four years as a runner, a rarity in collegiate distance running, which is typically dominated by underclassmen and blue-chip talents. The Kildeer, Ill. native was not a scorer for the team as a freshman, placing 67th in the 2017 Ivy League Heptagonal Championships. By 2018, the then-sophomore was the fourth highest-scorer for the Crimson, placing 17th overall at Heps. As a junior, Pereira improved to be the third scorer, crossing the finish line in 12th on the way to a second-place team finish at Heps and an All-Ivy League Second Team nomination.
In his senior year, Pereira flipped a switch when Harvard traveled to the Nuttycombe Invitational in October. In the field of over 230 runners, Pereira paced all Crimson runners, placing 27th overall. By comparison, at the same race in 2019, he finished 200th. Two weeks later, Pereira won the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships, becoming the school’s first individual champion since Kieran Tuntivate ’20 in 2018. At NCAA regionals, the Kildeer native placed fourth, helping Harvard qualify for the NCAA championships in back-to-back years.
In 2020, the suspension of athletics across campus due to the Covid-19 pandemic pushed Harvard distance runners to take more agency over their training. To support this effort, a group of approximately ten male and four female runners, including Pereira, moved out to Flagstaff, Ariz. to train at 7,000 feet and bond as a unit.
“During the early part of Covid, training was very isolated for a while and pretty difficult. Later in the pandemic, taking time off from school or remote learning gave a few of us on the team the unique chance to train in Flagstaff, which was a really fantastic experience as it’s basically a distance running mecca,” he said. “Flagstaff was beautiful, and the consistent high-mileage, hilly altitude training was a really big boost for fitness.”
Pereira also noted the importance of his durability during his college running career. In a sport where keeping your body in peak physical condition is critical, injuries can reduce training time and keep runners sidelined.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to not deal with any serious injuries in my time at Harvard, so for the past 3 years I’ve had the chance to string together a lot of great high-volume training blocks,” said Pereira when asked about his improvement over the years. “So the consistency of heavy training has been a big help, as was the spring in Flagstaff with challenging workouts and long run spots that made it easy to build fitness.”
Following his strong cross country season, Pereira continued to string together excellent performances in indoor and outdoor track and field. In the winter, he put up the 3rd best time in school history in the 5k and placed second in the 3k and 5k at indoor Heps. At the Payton Jordan Invitational, Pereira had his greatest individual moment yet, when he set a school and Ivy League record in the 10k with a blazing time of 27:45.77. The time, which was the second fastest in the NCAA East Region this year, broke both a 20-year old Ivy League mark held by Dartmouth’s Tom McArdle and Iverson’s Harvard record set earlier that winter. At outdoor Heps, Pereira crossed the line in second in the 10k, behind only Iverson. These performances have cemented him as one of the best distance runners in the nation.
A Harvard long distance runner competes in the Crimson Elite meet on Jan. 30, 2020. This season, the Crimson had two elite distance runners – sophomore Acer Iverson and senior Matthew Pereira. By Zadoc I. N. Gee
Iverson has come into his own in the recent months. The Roseville, Minn. native began his Crimson career as a freshman in 2019, when he was well outside of the top five-scoring members of the team. After taking a year off during Covid-19 pandemic, Iverson also saw incredible growth as a runner.
“We were able to make the most of 2020-21 by taking a gap year. It allowed me to take on some internships I wouldn’t have been able to, while giving running my full attention,” Iverson noted. “We are seeing the results of the development that happened over the gap year.”
In the fall, Iverson was part of the trio of All-American runners that helped push Harvard to be one of the top programs in the country. At the cross country Heps, he finished in fourth place and at NCAA Regionals, Iverson finished in fifth, one second behind Pereira.
After his strong fall performance, he found another level during the winter track season. At the Boston University Valentine Invitational, Iverson ran the 5k in 13:32.31, breaking the Crimson record previously held by Maksim Korolev ’14 by ten seconds while also setting a new Ivy League standard in the process.
At indoor Heps, the Roseville native captured individual titles in the 3k and the 5k, with Pereira just behind in second place for both events. The sophomore’s 5k time of 13:42.88 was a meet record. In the spring, at the Raleigh Relays, Iverson finished the 10k in 28:24.56, which bested the previous record set by Olympian Kieran Tuntivate ’20. At the Payton Jordan Invitational two months later, Iverson set a school and Ivy League record in the 5k, besting a 26-year old Harvard record by over 15 seconds, which was previously held by Ian Carswell ’97. The performance was also enough to top the Ivy mark of 13:30.79, which Dartmouth’s Jim Sapienza set in 1985. In the 10k the same weekend, Pereira broke Iverson’s new school record in the 10k.
“Matt set a very impressive school record in the 10k this season,” noted Iverson on his goals going forward. “He’s raised the bar and redefined what it means to be a good runner at Harvard. I’ve got my eyes set on that 27:45.”
At outdoor Heps in the spring, Iverson continued his dominance in the Ivy League, capturing two more individual titles in the 5k and 10k and helping lead the Crimson to a second place finish and its best point total since 1983.
The Harvard cross country and track and field teams have come a long way in recent years, becoming a force not only in the Ivy League, but also in the NCAA as a whole. Both Iverson and Pereira are talented individual runners who are representative of the strength of the program across the board.
“Our training group is incredibly cohesive and talented this year,” Iverson commented. “We’ve been able to push each other harder than ever before. I think that’s the biggest key to the recent surge in success both individually and across the program.”
While Iverson has two more years of eligibility to run for the Crimson, Pereira will be graduating and moving on to different pursuits.
“After graduating, I’m going to work as a software engineer and probably take a break from serious running for a bit,” Pereira said. “I’ve loved my experience running competitively at Harvard, but I’m ready to see how things are with running playing a smaller role in my life. I think I’ll miss it pretty soon though, we’ll see.“
Despite graduating a decorated individual contributor like Pereira, the men’s distance team is in good hands. Iverson and Blanks represent a strong duo looking to build off their record-setting 2021 seasons, while junior captain David Melville and sophomore Ben Hartvigsen are two scorers returning for Harvard next year. With Ivy League coach of the year Alex Gibby at the helm, big things await Iverson and the rest of the distance running team.
–Staff writer William Connaughton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.