Sunday, March 9, 2014

National 8K Masters National Championships

I blame my brothers.  Ah, the adventure and pressures of being a little sister with two older brothers who like to place bets.  My first memory of racing is when I was 5 years old (maybe 4), in a Santa Clara, CA neighborhood where my family lived.  My oldest brother, 7 years my elder, taunted another neighborhood boy who was also 7 years my elder, "Ha, I bet my little sister can run faster than you!"  Little sister Cindy observed two things.  1) My older brother believes in me, 2) therefore, I believe in me.  I was a tough little tom-boy like many young girls and that day, early in life, I learned that I like to win.  Not only that, I like to win against the odds.  I also like to make those who believe in me, proud.  What we have inside of us lives there and at some point we discover it.  It's nice to discover things early on.

Here I am ... many, many years later having lived with this internal flame that burned many different temperatures over the years.  I find it burning the brightest now.  And I'm not the only possessor of this flame.  You have it too.  All of us have something in us that wants to succeed at every level possible.  I enjoy running and competing every bit as much as I did when I was 5 years old, racing in a cul-de-sac against an older, stronger boy, trying just to make my brothers proud and help them win that bet. 

The Brea 8K hosted the Master's National Championships for that distance this year.  Location:  Brea, CA.  The course: rolling slopes with a few hills.  The competition: The Southern California Association of USATF offers the highest level of competition, combined with the nation's best masters runners from all over the country!  My goals:  My best chance of success was an age group win though I was down the list a bit as far as favored.

I want to do races that pull the very best out of me and this was one of them.  Masters runners are seasoned, experienced, smart, fast.  Today's 40+ year olds are proving that 40 is the new 30, and 50 is also the new 30, and what the heck, so is 60.  They just keep getting faster and are staying faster.  It is tumultuously inspirational.  I find myself more honored than ever to enter these high level races and to see these competitors grind it out, hang on through searing pain, grit their teeth and get it done.  The bigger challenge for a masters runner is not the race itself but getting to each starting line healthy.

So here we were, honored to be in Brea and looking for something special to happen.  For this race, myself, my sweet husband John, our fellow master runner and coach, Nash, my Boulder XC teammate T (Teri) and our old faithful, John Brennand were in attendance.  The masters race was run separately from the community wide Brea 8K.  We got to start at 7:30am when the air was still very crisp.  The conditions were absolutely perfect.  The temperature hung in the low 50's, the wind was clean and calm, the sky was clear and it just felt yummy out. 

We began our warm up about one hour before race start, taking our time covering the first 3 miles of the course and a piece of the final mile as well.  A nice long warm up it was, and I have learned here of late that this is a good way to prepare.  An 8K is about 40 yards shy of a full 5 miles, so our warm-up was close to the full race distance, but nice and easy.  It was a happy warm up meeting others along the way.  Some from Northern California, some from other states, many from So Cal.  Everyone clearly feeling a bit of healthy tension but also feeling a connection.  It was all somehow so comforting as I tried to keep my own nerves in check.

I kept my eye out for the "neighborhood boys" I was to compete against, namely those bearing the mark of 45 on their backs (signifying they age group of 45-49).  I already knew who they were and I already knew I was the underdog.  The great thing about that is because I was the underdog, they weren't keeping an eye on me.

Race time approached rapidly and John had already made his way over the starting line while I waiting in line for the port-a-potty ... again.  It was about then that I heard the National Anthem being sung and I realized I was about to miss the start.  I abruptly shot off toward the starting line, which was about 400 meters away.  The runners were already packed into the starting shoot solid with no gaps and although I mumbled a few "excuse me's" and tried to move up a bit, it was really no use.  There were about 200 bodies layered in and I was not where I needed to be.  With nothing more I could do about it, I relieved my anxiety by reminding myself I had a chip on my foot for timing.  My time would begin when I crossed the start line, not when the gun went off.  Or so I thought.

The gun went off and my group of "70 and older guys" in front of me didn't move very quickly.  There was about a 5 second gap between the gun and my crossing of the starting line, and then from there I had to make my way around the runners in front of me.  Because of my placement back in the starting pack, it was an inefficient start but I calmly went about my business doing what I could to get to where I needed to be.  I paid absolutely no attention to any other runner in the race.  I didn't know where the lead women were.  I didn't know where my age group contenders were.  I didn't know where my fellow Santa Barbara runners were.  I had one thing on my mind and that was to run this race by my race plan and not in reaction to any one or anything else.  My plan was to run conservatively to begin with (at my intended race pace of 6 minutes) for the first two miles.  I wanted to be feeling good when I attacked the hills in mile three.  The final piece of the plan was to come out of mile 4 having made up the deficit in time created by the hills and then find something deeper to pick it up in the final mile.

I loved this race.  From start to finish it was lined with cheering spectators and the atmosphere was electric.  There were wonderful interactions happening between the racers and the spectators as masters runner are also full of class and appreciation.  Mile 1 per clock time was right on at 6:00 minutes exactly.  My watch time was 5:55 which was also my chip time but I was at this point going off of the official gun time and what was being called out to me at every mile.  Mile 2 was slightly slower but the course created more strain in that particular section so I wasn't worried and I came through at just over 12 minutes.  From here it was a sharp left turn into a loop and up a long, steady climb.  It was here that I passed my first significant competitor as she struggled a bit with the hill.  I kept my effort steady and my pace slowed appropriately for this particular mile of the course and I came through 3 miles in 18:18.  Mile 4 was the other side of the hill and allowed for some recovery, relaxation and build up in pace.  It was in this mile I feel I really began to gain on those ahead of me and where I felt my conservative start was serving me well.  Toward the end of mile 4 is the turn back onto the main street that headed back to the finish line and in fact, the buildings and structures near the finish were clearly in view up ahead.  The final mile was not flat, nor necessarily fast but it was going to need to be my fastest mile of the race.  That was the plan and that's what I needed to do.

As I passed mile 4 in 24: ... something, I knew I was to that point not where I had hoped to be but I was still feeling so good and strong.  I didn't realize I was actually picking up the pace until I began passing runner after runner after runner, including my final age group competitor.  I passed her early in the final mile and by the time we finished I had put almost a full minute on her.  I still had no idea who was ahead, how many women, how far, but someone shouted to me, "now go catch Julie."  I know who Julie is and I wondered for several meters of increasing speed how on earth I could be anywhere close enough to catch her.  What I did know is that up ahead there was a battle going on.  Nash was in a group of men, two of which were in his age group.  As I approached from the back, closing in on about 800 meters to go, I saw him pass one of the men but the other lingered ahead of him.  Nash had his own cheering section at this race (his wonderful family came to support him) and I heard them cheering and yelling in desperation.  My consuming thought was then to get on Nash's shoulder and push him past his competitor.  Somehow or another I still had lungs and strength and I got right up onto his shoulder.  He
became aware of me and I know it ticked him off a bit.  That was what I was hoping for.  I moved along with him and just a bit ahead of him and he picked it up and came with me.  We kept the tempo and rounded the turns into the mall parking lot that housed the finish line and then made the final turn toward the finish.  That part is always and ever will be a blur in any race and this one was no different.  I had the vague awareness that the guy Nash was trying to catch finished right ahead of me, and Nash finished right behind me.  Not the outcome we were hoping for.  I also remember seeing my time on the clock.  I was sure I had missed my goal time of 30:00 (6 minute pace) and when I looked up and saw 29:40, I then and there, that was the final mile I had hoped and dreamed I'd have.  It turned out to be a 5:27 (which was 40 yards short of a full mile, so was at about 5:35 pace).  I never did see Julie but discovered she was only 7 seconds ahead of me when it was all said and done.  I also soon discovered that Julie was third female overall.  I therefore was the dreaded 4th!  Just out of the overall medals, just out of the money.  Go figure, but I soon also learned that I had in fact won my age group and that was a very big deal.  My watch time which matched my chip time was 29:38.  Though it didn't make any difference in the end, I also learned that in official national championship races and races that award money, they go by gun time not chip time so my official time was 29:42.  I had to eat those lost seconds that I accrued at the start but I was also glad.  Being caught behind gave me the ability to forget about anything going on ahead of me and gave me the opportunity to run a negative split and make it count when it needed to count.  I was happy.

John finished not long after and he found me jogging around in all kinds of excitement.  Ah, those So Cal/LA girls made a big mistake.  I talked with girl #2 in my age group after the race and she said, "man, I was sure I was set with one mile to go.  No 45 or older women were going to pass me and then, boom, you just flew by."  I explained how I went out conservatively and was just so thankful to have it when I needed it.  And as it should be, there was now mutual respect.

I earned a small amount of money, but more importantly, I own a patch that says USATF National Champion.  Wow, that is humbling, exciting, special and most importantly has made me hungry for the next one!!

Thank you immensely to you who cheered from afar or who participated in the post-race facebook excitement.  It just matters that much more if others share it and care.  I am forever appreciative and want to be there to do the same for you.  Blessings to you.  Thanks to God for the opportunity to run for when I run I feel God's pleasure.