As a possibly historic storm system is bearing down upon our East coast, I jest to a New Yorker on the phone today, "Yah, ummm. It's ummm. It's 85 degrees and pristine today. How's it looking for you." I did wish the New Yorker safety and truly hope all our fellow countrymen stay safe and protected through the storm.
On Saturday, John and I took an evening trip to Ventura to compete in the first race of a Southern California USATF cross-country Grand Prix Series. Well, it was actually the third race in the series but the first for us, and will be followed by another cross-country race next weekend, and will culminate the week after that with the SoCal USATF Section Championship. Three cross-country races in three weeks. It almost feels like the college cross-country season again ... except I'm not 22 anymore.
The weather Saturday was as it has been lately, hot and dry and the later evening hour didn't cool the air at all. We were inland running the trails of Arroyo Verde Park. It is a new favorite running spot of mine. We arrived at 4:00 PM to register for The Twilight's Last Gleaming Cross Country Challenge. The race cost a mere $10 per runner ($8 for return runners) and you had to pay a $5 penalty for registering early. Andrew, the race organizer (he refers to himself as the race disorganizer) has a sweet sense of humor. In fact, he must have been laughing a deep belly laugh 27 years ago when he planned this USATF certified 4 mile race course. His primary course description goes something like this: "This course is un-runable. It is manageable only by Sherpas and mountain goats." He finds humor in this. I found challenge in it. The first mile includes a lengthy steep, unrelenting slope up a city street. But more on the course later.
I decided a few weeks ago, as I have been already dabbling in some of the SoCal USATF races and grand prix series events, to compete in the Cross-country grand prix. In order to fully qualify for grand prix prize money, I would need to complete two events plus the championship event so our friendly Ventura race was a must do. The remaining two races take place in Los Angeles.
So here we were, warming up on a grassy knoll in a wooded park that formed a valley, or maybe it was a wide canyon, in the middle of mountains. I read the course description twice. Neither time did it make a bit of sense, nor did it make any more sense when our humorous race disorganizer described it at our starting line. The race is challenging and has a lot of up - that part I pretty much grasped and I otherwise hoped for a lot of volunteers or at least lots of chalk to define the particulars. The Twilight's Last Gleaming has a 27 year history, and is characterized by uniqueness. For one, it is indeed an evening race, run in the twilight. Also, it is inexpensive and there is no chance of pre-registration. It is not a profit making event but rather an event of community and camaraderie; runners doing what they do. The age groups are segmented by 6 year increments instead of 5. My age group was 42-47. The fee covered only the essentials of park rental, sanction and insurance fees and awards. We registered by writing our name and address on a piece of paper, no race numbers were used. The average amount of runners to attend is 60, but there were fewer this year. There were only 6 females in this year's race. Andrew keeps a Top Ten times list and age group records. The female record is help by Sylvia Mosqueda, a former elite American runner and still a formible Masters runner. The four mile course takes approximately 5-7 minutes longer than the same distance on a normal course. For a female to go under 30 minutes would be a huge accomplishment and only a few have ever done it. This is just one of those unique perfect little races. Just my kind of race, just my kind of course.
Now to the real point of this blog post. Controversy and anguish. There was an LA team attending this year's race, among which were all men, and one female. They were fun and friendly, and like everyone else, were feeling the dry air in every pore wondering what kind of hell they were about to enter. Many of the other racers in attendance were those who never fail to show up to the yearly challenge in the twilight. There was also a 52 year old long time racer who held many of the top 10 times run on the course, including the record for my age group. Unusual for me, I was calm and looking forward to the hills and the challenge. I felt no feeling of competition but rather I felt we were all in this together - one of those "watch out for your fellow runner and leave no man or woman behind." But too, I was running for grand prix points, so yes, I did intend to win.
Sometime after 5:00 PM our race disorganizer called everyone to the starting line. He spent a gracious 8 or so minutes telling us the history of the race and detailing the ups and ups of the course. First there was the steep road mile, then the pitted hard and soft ground which constituted the trails that lead back down and through the park. There was this hideous thing called "The Wall" that was to hit around 2 miles, but there were a lot of other ups before The Wall, and many treacherous downs as well. So on he spoke while runners stretched and fidgeted, with a few nervous chuckles thrown in. Then finally the gun (and yes he used a gun - he's totally old school - I love it). We took off with long strides up, over and down a grassy slope, onto the park road, through the skinny, narrow "you could lose some skin here" gait out of the park, up a steep "are you kidding me" cliff and whew! out into traffic, up the street to the other street. The other street is the steep street and there was an immediate separation of men from mice. I had already settled well close to the front, with mostly LA running club guys in red ahead of me, with a few of the locals in there too. No girls though. No girls anywhere close. This was just one of those slow, steady, short strided grinds and you just do it. You just get it done. Up, up, up, very steep, then a leveling off, almost a slight down slope but then turn the corner and even more up, up, up. But now I can see where runners are leaving the street back onto the path and I know exactly how much hill hell is left. I shuffled past the first mile and received a nice "great job" from Andrew who had dragged his car up the hill in time to read out splits - not that you really want to hear 8:05 at your first mile, but he did warn us that this would be our slowest mile of the year. Now the narrow downhill along a ridge line lay ahead and I followed a youngster down this spine, wanting to pass but having no room to do so. I hung behind until we got vomited out (it was like a straight vertical path formed by water run-off that fed us onto another trail) onto a new and wider path and I challenged my young running buddy as we began to ascend another relentless part of the course. We came to an even steeper hill and I though surely this must be the dreaded "Wall." No, it wasn't. The Wall was still to come. Up, up, sometimes a little level and down, up, up we climbed toward the top of the park. There came a time when the trail stayed level and went straight but our course turned right and bam, there was "The Wall." I'm not a mountain goat and my lungs were beyond dry and dusty and screaming at me but I was catching the two guys ahead of me, Mr. Yellow and Mr. Sweaty Gray. We finally crested this monster and were greeted by sandy, soft switch backs back down to the park and I hung with Yellow and Gray and tried to enjoy the ride. We past the Beware of Rattlesnakes sign and proceeded straight across and followed the little flags that showed us the course. Unfortunately there really weren't many volunteers to help us find our way so, here it goes, Mr. Yellow and Mr. Gray ... and I ... missed a right hand turn that was to take us to a path just above where we were running. We followed a different set of flags and soon found that we were in the wrong spot. I have never, and I have run competitively since I was 9 years old, ever gotten a course wrong. Never. The three of us at some point knew that we were running parallel to the course but off of the appropriate path. We stopped, U-turned, ran back several yards until a spectator showed us we were supposed to be on the path just above. With me now in the lead, we climbed up a steep ravine (thank you very much) and got back on course. The remainder of the race was along this path, across the grass, onto a path on the other side of the park, up and down, until we came to a hairpin turn, down to the BBQ area, up around the round about full of palm trees, back onto the park grass until finally we had a 50 foot run up to the finish line. It was on this final up hill that I was greeted by the angry accusations from the LA coach that I cheated. He yelled at me as I was still running, so that for sure everyone in the area could clearly hear, that I skipped a section. He also informed everyone in the vicinity that I was not an official finisher (just me, apparently Mr. Yellow and Mr. Gray get to be official finishers but I don't). I crossed the line in 30:55 and my GPS showed that I completed 3.99 miles. Mr. Yellow's GPS showed 4.17 miles (and mind you, John's GPS said 4.00 exactly and he ran the proper way). We did indeed miss a right turn but essentially ran the same distance and the same basic slope in parallel to the trail up above. I knew we had made a mistake so that wasn't so much of an issue. What was an issue was the insinuation that I did so on purpose. Like I really need to cheat to beat a girl I was already 2 minutes head of anyway. It got even more ugly. I was fully aware of our mistake and was fully prepared to let the race disorganizer do what he thought was best. I did NOT appreciate a rapidly approaching LA coach yelling at me that I was disqualified from the grand prix. I told him I know we accidentally missed the turn and that once we discovered it, we back tracked and got back on course. I showed him my watch which showed the mileage I ran (he didn't bother looking at it). When his girl came through to the finished he yelled, loudly mind you, good job, you're the first woman. This was to clearly inform me and everyone else that I indeed didn't count. He looked back at me and informed me that I missed some huge section of the course. Really, I missed a huge section of the course but yet still ran the same distance? Later, one of the many compassionate on-lookers took me on the section I missed. Like I said, we paralleled the course. I ran virtually the same course except down below it and did not in any way miss a huge section of the course. We also had backtracked, ran on a grass and wood chip path instead of dirt, had to stop, panic and u-turn, and ran up a steep hill to get back to where we needed to be. I felt assaulted by this man and for what? There was no logic in his motive except that he was looking for a cheap one single point for his female runner whom I easily beat. But the fact remained and I knew it, that I did not complete the USATF course. I could blame it on poor course marking and/or lack of direction on the course, or I could blame it on Mr. Yellow and Mr. Gray whom I was following. But the fact is, it was my responsibility and I had to settle in my mind that this year's cross-country grand prix was not to be. If I was disqualified I wouldn't have enough races to qualify for prize money. It was in the hands of Andrew and Andrew had already been well informed by LA coach that I was not the official winner, that I cut the course, that I didn't complete the officially measured USATF course. In the midst of this, the theme of The Twilight's Last Gleaming faded as the sun set. I did not feel camaraderie any longer. I felt attacked by a fellow runner/coach, relentlessly and discompassionately.
I turned in my finisher's card and wrote on the bottom that I had missed a turn, ran the wrong way, back tracked as soon as I knew, and that my GPS read 3.99. When Andrew was placing the finisher cards on the results board, he called my number and I walked up and began explaining. He gently interrupted me before I finished and said, "I know what happened, and this is how I'm going to handle it. I'm not going to disqualify you because that would put you out of the grand prix. However, I can't name you as the winner but will still award you with your age group win. Your time won't count for any records or Top Ten." He pointed out that he himself is in charge of the scoring for the grand prix and since I'm in the Master's division and my fellow LA competitor is merely in her 20's, there is no reason why my race should be stripped as it would be no benefit to her anyway. I thanked him exceedingly for not disqualifying me and for allowing me to collect the points, received my age group award tile pictured above and went home with John feeling like I had snakes in my belly. I couldn't easily or readily get the whole experience out of my mind. My time would have placed me 7th on the top ten list but I will have to wait one more year and hope for another strong race next year in order to officially post it.
Next Sunday I will head to Pacific Palisades to run another cross-country race. I will see LA coach again. Perhaps he will be less vocal this time, especially since John reprimanded him for his conduct.
It remains to be seen how this will really play out. I'm unclear on how I will be scored for this race and don't know if I will even be listed among the participants in the results. Will I be listed with an * next to my name which let's everyone know of my mistake. Oh, and by the way, Mr. Yellow and Mr. Gray were completely unaffected by this little mistake. No one even noted that they too had missed a turn. LA coach could care less. He was interested in pointing the finger only at me because he felt his runner had something to gain if I was disqualified.
I believe Andrew is an excellent race disorganizer and he handled the situation in a way that worked out for everyone. By next week, hopefully this will be out of my head and I'll be ready for the next one, and then onto the championship race and possibly a little prize money. And like I told Greg, the coach from San Fernando Valley who apologized to me on behalf of all coaches for the conduct of LA coach, it's yet another lesson learned.