Monday, February 17, 2014

USATF National Cross-Country Championships

Thus begins my tale of twisted endings, of expectations contorted into unsightly figures, of a journey traveled with intentional strides, destination known, but somehow unfamiliar when face to face.  I set out to do something special this year.  I stepped into a commitment to compete as far out of my comfort zone as possible in hopes of attaining something truly worthwhile.  It occurred to me as I embarked on this journey with a few other brave souls, that this is truly living.  Why do something easy and less challenging when you can have a moment of brilliance doing something spectacular.

John and I stepped into the realm of national championship competitions as Master's runners this past weekend.  Though we had done many USATF events within our Southern California association (which is easily the most competitive in the nation) we had not ever done a Masters national competition.  This past weekend we embarked on our first - The USATF National Cross-country Championships in Boulder, CO.

The story began several months ago.  In fact I had targeted this race for about a year and had also hoped to form a master women's team to go in representation of Santa Barbara.  I discovered there are some amazing, brave and motivated, not to mention talented, master women in Santa Barbara and in the end, we entered a team of 5 women to compete.  Myself, Monica DeVreese, Desa Mandarino, DeAnna Odell and Teri Malinowski.  I am forever bonded to these women after our Boulder experience and I am so very proud of them, their fortitude and strength, and their perseverance.

Training began in early December right on the heels of the completion of our regular racing schedule.  The Ventura Turkey Trot was our year's best race.  Actually for me it was my lifetime best 5K performance and all the stars aligned for me that day.  It was the perfect launch into a new challenge - that of cross country at altitude against the nation's best master runners.

Training moved us off the track and onto the grass.  Out of racing flats and into spikes.  Out of the known and familiar into the unknown.  On the grass, our interval distances were marked by orange cones and I could no longer judge my pace based on laps around the track.  The grass was uneven, full of ruts and obstacles, lumps around the palm trees, holes, tufts of crab grass: a soft, sinking energy sucking green carpet.  This surface was going to be our new training partner for 8 weeks so we got to know it well.  Tuesday mornings we hit the grass before the sun rose.  Saturdays were reserved for longer tempo runs looping around the grass as many times as it took.  Workout after workout, we sought to begin to love the grass and make it work to our advantage.  Another goal was to maximize our oxygen efficiency as much as possible here at sea level in an attempt to lessen what would be an altitude shock.

Along with the grass workouts, there was my long run which I extended out to 15 miles (which is a lot for me), two days a week were double workouts combining a run and a swim, and then there were the accessory workouts such as weight training.  The 8 week period was relentless and I kept in mind that my competitors were doing the same or more and they were going to have a huge altitude advantage too.  Besides the training, I began to obsess over the race entries - who was entering and could I beat them?  I obsessed over the weather - would it be too cold, too windy, would there be snow, how would the course be affected?  The weather in Boulder was all over the place and clearly unpredictable.  The pinnacle occurred the week prior to the race when Boulder weather started setting records for negative temperatures.  My final obsession was over the race plan - how would I handle so many disadvantages and still do well?

The pain of training was lessened by a few factors.  1. We have had solid and persistent coaching and guidance from Nash Jimenez who is very familiar with this level of competition and knew exactly how to prep; 2. By the addition of a few more running buddies to join us in the pain - Desa and Amy.  Hurting through workouts with others is so much more fun.  It really is!!

So it went that we did everything we knew to do to get ready for this high level competition.  We capped it off with the Super Bowl 4 Miler which was used both as a time trial and a tempo run and provided the opportunity to practice our race strategy.  The Super Bowl went super great.  We had a headwind to deal with but apart from that, we ran the first two miles "easy and controlled" and picked it up the final two miles.  It played out perfectly and felt great.

Onto the final chapter - John and I left for Colorado one week prior to the race so that we could spend some days above our race altitude.  We were in Colorado Springs and did our final interval workout and taper along some amazing paths.  Everything felt good for me.  I think I felt the altitude but it never seemed to be that much of an issue.  The intervals were the hardest part but were doable and were done at a reasonably high level of speed.  After 4 days in Colorado Springs we headed to Boulder and had our first experience with the location of our race.  We went on an out-and-back path along Boulder Creek and ended with a nice hard tempo.  All I can say about that was when I finished the run, I was race ready and confident.

The rest of our ladies team arrived on Thursday to join us in Boulder and we previewed the course on Friday.  That was a nice run, comfortable and easy and we marveled at how great this course was and how miraculously the weather improved.  The race day forecast called for a high of 54 degrees, low of 37 degrees.  That sounded a lot like Santa Barbara really.  And the course was just amazing - velvet smooth fairway grass on Flatirons Golf course.  Yes there were some twists and turns and some slushy, soggy areas as well as a sick muddy curve, but it seemed so much better than what we had been training on.  Again this filled my heart with confidence that we had really done the right things to prepare.

That night, Friday night, a high-wind warning was issued and it was going to extend into the morning.  This was the first hiccup I felt in my confidence.  With other things to factor in, I didn't want to have to face gale-force winds.  That night I lay awake listening to the gusts hitting our hotel windows, rattling our loose door from the outside hallway (a hallway that was fully inside the building).  Not that I would be sleeping anyway, but I was wishing that wind to go away.  It gusted all night and at some point I dozed off to sleep for a short while.  When I awoke, I peeked out the window to see how hard the trees were blowing.  It had indeed died down a bit but there was still movement.  The shocking and odd thing was the pre-dawn temperature at 6:00 am was 54 degrees.  It was HOT OUT!!!  This was like some kind of Santa Ana episode and it left the air warm (relatively speaking) and dry. 

We took a shuttle from the hotel to the course and arrived to find our Athlete's tent had not survived the night and was in a broken heap.  The snow that remained on the course the day before, was now gone.  It was just an odd scene and coupled with the nerves and tension, it was just surreal.  The organizers had already implemented plan B and directed us to a brick building which was now the new athlete's tent.  I jested as we walked into it, "I see this baby is made out of brick.  Ain't no wolf gonna blow this one down." 

I started out with extra layers of clothing and quickly headed out for my long warm up.  The first thing I noticed was that I felt awful.  My chest was tight, I didn't feel comfortable in my stride, my running bra felt too tight around my ribs.  This was nothing like how my week had been.  I continued to jog, pulling off layers of clothing as I needed to.  I decided to change into a looser bra but even still, I found it harder to breath.  Was it just nerves?  I couldn't tell and there wasn't much I could do about it at this point.  After 3 miles of warm-up we finally slipped into our spikes, and removed most of the layers and our ladies team headed over to the starting line to present ourselves to the line judge to have our uniforms and race numbers examined for compliance.  From there we did strides and drills while the last few minutes ticked off until start time. 

There were about 70 women lined up, each team in a designated starting box.  We were in a far right position which meant we had to angle in a lot to get into the best position during the race.  There was still a wind blowing around too, and it was so oddly dry.  I felt thirsty and couldn't swallow.  I was able to strip down to my shorts and singlet, no gloves or ear covering needed.  I took deep breaths and an attempt to push out the negative thoughts that began to build.

The gun went off, the runners went off and I ran out ahead of those around me and made my angle toward the inside edge of our course where the leaders began to form a pack.  My goal was to finish top 5 and I knew exactly who would be ahead of me and which one of those I needed to beat.  The absolute ONLY thing I could not do in this race was go out too fast.  I knew what I wanted to do, I thought I knew what I definitely could do, and I pulled myself back from all of that into a pace that was slow.  I let the lead pack have their distance and I stayed with the others around me.  Not more than 800 meters into the race I knew something wasn't right.  I was clearly going very slow but I was having trouble maintaining even that.  By the time I hit mile 1 of this 6K (3.73 miles) race my quads began to tie-up with lactic acid.  I had gone out in 6:11 pace, hit the 2K right on but in all of that, I apparently had totally miscalculated what "going out easy" meant in this scenario.  I came around the first of 3 loops in the exact position I needed to be in but the problem was I was in distress already.  It was not long before I began to give up on one goal after another.  I already figured out I was not going to make my time goals, and I was not going to be able to beat the women I thought I could.  From there I began to go into survival mode.  With every step I took, the lactic acid continued to build and my quads screamed at me as if I were doing 300 pound squats.  I felt strain and pain and it made no sense to me.  Here I was running on a flat grass surface which I had trained for, yet my body was shutting down, yet I had felt great all week.  My race, the part that included my heart and soul, was over before I got too the final lap and I spent the remainder of it being passed by women who should not have been passing me.  It was like a nightmare and I just wanted it to be over.  I knew that when I reached the finish line, I might be done with the race but this feeling of agony was going to extend.  I was merely just moving forward so as not to completely quit.  My legs were totally gone, no strength, hardly the ability to pick them up and move them forward.  Each step felt like I was hefting 30 pounds of mud on my soles.  As the crowd cheered and the men's team shouted encouragement, there was just nothing I could do to respond.  Another woman passed me.  Would this ever end?  Finally I reached the finish, crossed it, clicked off my watch, walked a couple of steps, bent over and massaged my quads just so they wouldn't collapse on me.  That's all I needed.  To finish and collapse after running so poorly.  I would love to collapse after a great race, but to collapse after this one would have only been one more humiliation. 

Somehow I got through the chute, timing chips removed and John greeted me with my jacket.  He had to get going in preparation for his race so he left quickly to warm up.  I stood around and waited a short while for the remainder of my teammates to finish and I realized my hands and face were numb.  Somehow during our race the temperature dropped 15-20 degrees.  It was now in the 30's and I was cold.  I quickly began to shiver.  The girls came through in close proximity and we soon huddled together for a quick picture.  One by one we relayed pieces of our experience - my legs, Desa's heart rate soared and kept her from running hard, Monica was unable to breath.  It was just ultimately not what we expected.  Still we all made it and here we were.  On the other side of that finish line.

So you see how the journey began and ended with some twisted finale.  I haven't had time to process it all but when I do, I'm sure I will conclude the same thing - we did everything right in preparation.  The altitude affected me differently than I expected and my race plan was harder to implement than I thought.  A lot of lessens learned I suppose but still I woke up the day after and wished the whole thing was just a bad dream.  I wished I could wake up on race day again and do it all over.

In the end, I placed 13th overall, 4th in my age group and our team placed 4th.  My time is not worth mentioning since this is after all cross-country and in cross-country your final time is a non-issue.  But I will say that my time was 2 minutes slower than my conservatively thought out goal time.

So here I am back home and at sea level and I allowed myself to feel down-hearted for a few hours.  Now it's time to move on.  This coming weekend, mercifully I have another national championship race in which to compete - the USATF Master's National 8K Road Championships - and this one is in Orange County.  The competition will be very tough but at least I will have more control over how I do.  I'm just hoping my legs will begin to work by then since they are currently all but seized up with lactic acid.

Oh the joys of this new journey and yet I am still so very thankful because this race and this experience has made me feel that much more alive!  I am going to keep pursuing the greater things and am going to enjoy the journey.  I am forever thankful that John is on this journey with me, and Nash is too!  And now too we have some master's ladies who have tasted the sweet nectar of higher level competition and they may want to join me for some more soon!!!

1 comment:

  1. I think part of what makes you a great runner is that you have such high standards for yourself. I hope you're happier with your race this weekend.