Bairu, however, has larger goals in mind. After finishing third in the 10,000 at the NCAA meet last spring, he wants to win a national championship this June. And after obliterating the UW record in the 10,000 at the Cardinal Invitational May 1, thus qualifying for this summer's World Championships, Bairu wants to be at the top of his game when he travels to Finland in August.
"In the long term the Big Ten meet for me is really just a stepping stone I guess to prepare myself for nationals and for worlds," Bairu said in a telephone interview this week. "I want to win this race but it's also at the same time I'm putting it in perspective that there are bigger things to come this season that I have to prepare myself for."
In cross country and track and field, pacing is not just a concern for a given race — it is a season-long test.
That is why Bairu finished 10th at the Great Lakes Regional cross country meet last fall. In the scheme of things, Bairu's only purpose in that meet was to qualify for the NCAA Championships, which he did with ease. Nine days later he won the national title, becoming the first Badger to do so since Tim Hacker in 1985.
"That's probably the one thing I'm most proud of because it's been a while since a Wisconsin runner has won one," Bairu said. "For me I just felt as though this was like my way to pay tribute to the guys that have worked at this program that have helped me along the way by bringing back the (cross country) title to Wisconsin."
Bairu keeps the long view in mind. He aspires to run in the Olympics — to represent both the nation of Canada and the University of Wisconsin.
"He knows what he wants, which are very high goals when you are talking about someone who aspires to the Olympic level of athletics in any sport that's pretty elite," said Ed Nuttycombe, UW's head men's track and field coach. "And then he is willing to put in the work and dedication to reach those goals. I can't say enough about him. I think the results speak for themselves."
Consider the record Bairu set in Palo Alto, Calif. May 1. The UW record in the 10,000 meters had stood for 29 years and Bairu was well aware of it. Last year, his personal best was the 28:28.69 he ran at the Stanford Invitational, just 3.51 seconds shy of the school record 28:25.18 Mark Johnson set in 1976.
"My coach has been giving me a hard time about that ever since," Bairu said, referring to Jerry Schumacher, UW's head men's cross country coach, who works with the distance runners as an assistant coach for the track team.
The record, though, was incidental to much larger goals.
"The record was in the back of my mind but at the same time I had bigger goals in mind," Bairu said. "I wanted to qualify for Worlds and B standard for Worlds was 28:06."
So Bairu ran the 10,000 in an incredible 28:04.75, besting the nearly three-decades-old school mark by more than 20 seconds. His ticket for the World Championships in Helsinki, Finland was stamped.
"I knew if I ran to accomplish my goal, which was to make Worlds, then obviously the record would come with it," Bairu said.
Do not expect Bairu to duplicate that record-setting pace at the Big Ten or NCAA meets, however. The Cardinal Invite included Olympic-caliber runners. Takayuki Matsumiya of Japan, the world record holder in the 30,000 meters, won the 10,000. Bairu finished eighth overall and was second among collegians to Stanford's Ian Dobson.
In order to achieve the mark he did nearly two weeks ago, "you have to stay consistent and healthy," Bairu said. "It is a lot of desire too. You have to want to do it. Because at the half-way point you are going to be running almost 10-15 seconds from your personal record in the 5,000. So you are going to be in a lot of pain with half the race to go. And it's all about just wanting it."
The caliber of the competition helped Bairu set a course for his World Championships qualifying time.
"There were pace setters in the race for 5,000 meters," Bairu said. "There were also guys in the race who were just like incredible internationally. Guys from Australia and Japan, Kenya. At the Big Ten meet it'd be hard for one person just to go out and do it. You'd have to have someone who has the ability to set the pace in a controlled way, which is pretty hard to do. To have someone run a 14-flat 5K, relaxed, is really hard to find…
"Nationals is also the same thing. It is more of a strategic race where guys position themselves to run hard in the last maybe mile or so. No one's going to risk losing the race by going out that fast."
Bairu is far from the only Badger distance runner expected to set the pace this weekend. In fact, the No. 2, 3 and 5 ranked athletes in the 10,000 are also Badgers: Tim Nelson, Antony Ford and Bobby Lockhart. Bairu is ranked third in the 5,000, with teammates Matt Tegenkamp and Chris Solinsky 1-2 and Tim Keller No. 9. Solinsky won the 3,000 at the NCAA indoor championships this year. Tegenkamp has won the last two Big Ten indoor titles in the 5,000.
Said Bairu: "I think that's probably one of the biggest advantages of running for Wisconsin is just that there could be a day when you're not really feeling good or you might be a bit off but… your teammates are going to be there to make sure that you pick up the slack…To have that kind of intensity at practice every day really helps you develop as a runner mentally and physically."