Saturday, February 13, 2016

2016 USATF Cross Country National Championships - Race Report

On the starting line of every major race in my memory, the same thought crosses my mind. "Why do I do this to myself?  Why am I here? I could be sleeping or sitting with a nice Americano, but no, I drag my butt to this spot. Why?"  And at the finish line of those same major races comes this thought: "Oh.  That's why."  Take a chance.  Do what is scary or out of your comfort zone.  Take a risk.  See what happens.  What if?

When something really matters and you feel like your whole being is on the line, you get nervous and begin to ask all of the "why's". 

Here's a "What If?" story. We traveled last week to Bend, OR with about 14 other Santa Barbara runners to complete in the XC national championship. "We" being myself and John, Coach Nash, my masters women teammates Desa Mandarino and Lynelle Paulick, the members of the open women's team - Lauren Capone, Jill Deering, Dani Moreno and Natalie McClure, and the masters men - Rusty Snow, Todd Booth, Jim Adams, Mike Swan, Marcelo Mejia, Steve Harding and Micks Purnell. There were Santa Barbarians all over the place.  It was, in a word, EPIC.

All I knew about Bend, OR prior to this trip, was that it had a really hard cross country course.  The course (in similar configuration) was used for the 2013 USATF National Club Championships and just from the little bit of video footage and the times posted, we knew it was a tough one.  But not having a full visual is always difficult.  You just have to train for every possible condition - hills, mud, snow, thick grass, soggy grass, clumps of crab grass, wood chips, rocks, steep up, steep down, sideways sloping fairways, freezing temperatures, rain, creek crossings.  Basically that is cross country in a big nutshell.

So we did a bulk of our preparation in the dark on grass surfaces (littered with palm tree obstacles many of which I narrowly missed colliding with) in the coldest temperatures Santa Barbara could muster, and miles and miles and miles of Romero Canyon.  Not only were the Romero climbs important but so were the descents.  We had at least one fairly significant blustery rainstorm worked into the mix which we thought was fairly laughable to try and train through.  We had to run 1200 meter intervals into some kind of insane wind, into rain so hard we could barely keep our eyes open (that was one of the times I had close calls with palm trees).  I turned to Lynelle that morning and said, "See what I mean about cross country?  It's all about snot, tears and blood.  No sweat involved."

We did our weeks and weeks of training, hoping we were coming close to the right kind of preparation and the tension began to build in the final weeks before the race.  I was anxious to preview the course so that I could have more realistic panic instead of just imagined panic.  

We arrived early Friday morning (the day before Race Day) - 1:00 am'ish, slept as much as possible, and then our small gang of housemates loaded up our nerves and our spikes and went to packet pick up and onto the course.  I noted that travel to the course, which was, as usual, on a golf course, was uphill.  This was not a good sign.  It also wasn't helpful that Todd, who'd been to the course already, said, "It's tough. It has two big hills."  Um, it's a 2000 meter loop with two big hills.  In other words what you're saying is the whole thing is uphill.  Breath, just take deep calming breaths.  It can't all be uphill. It's a loop.  There has to be some down stuff somewhere.

We arrived.  It was windy and cloudy, and kind of cold.  We walked over to the area of the start and stood near the starting line looking up the course.  The key word here is "UP" the course.  It starts with a gruesome, nasty hill (which I will call hill #1).  Not just a hill, but a messy, choppy, wood chippy, twisting hill of uneven grass, strewn with an occasional ground level, mostly buried boulder (upon which spikes don't work very well).  You look at this hill and you just puzzle over it and scratch your head.  Why?

So off we went to begin to jog the loop.  By the way, this type of cross country racing involves 2000 meter loops so everything we were now seeing and feeling would happen over and over and over (and maybe a few more "over's") again.  Keeping this in mind, we shuffled over the swamp, across the wood chips, and up the nasty hill.  Almost in unison we said, "geez, so glad we spent all the time running Romero."  Talk about luck.  We somehow managed to train ourselves perfectly.  The hill finally ended and we got to have a very special and fun downhill section which curved around into the next hill.  Hill #2 was totally different than hill #1.  Hill #2 started off with some fun muddy, messy, rocky dirt which finally popped up back onto the rough grass.  Unfortunately that was just the beginning of hill #2. It continued on and began to slope sideways so that you run up a hill but one foot is lower than the other because the hill also goes sideways.  And this lasts FOREVER.  It finally rounds a corner to the right, still climbing and then the sideways slope shifts to the other side.  And still climbs until we reach the happy tree.  The happy tree means hill #2 is almost done.  Of course it has to be a false summit and where you think you should be going down, somehow you're still climbing.  But finally it does shift to a downhill and this one is nice and long. We cross a slushy "what the heck is this" section and then comes King's Cliff.  King's Cliff is a sharp descent - short and NOT sweet.  Then you finish off the loop, round the lower bend and begin to head through the transition into your next loop - which, need I even say it, means you are now at hill #1 again.  So that thing haunted my dreams that night.  For the Master's women it was 3 loops of hell, for the Master's men, 4 loops and for the Open women, 5 loops of nasty.

Race Day - Master's Women were first up so the three of us warmed up, claimed our Warming Tent and hit the port-a-potties 15 times, while Nash and John napped in the car (which Nash insisted we park as near to the start as possible, meaning we parked basically illegally and pretty much ON the course).  The temperature race morning was bordering between 'manageable with only a tank top', and 'requiring full coverage.'  We each settled on what we thought we could handle, put on our spikes and went to the start.  John and Nash decided their nap was done so they came out and grabbed our coats.  Yes, I kept my Patagonia down coat on me practically until the gun went off.  Nash and John actually did more than just grab our coats. They offered encouragement and Nash drilled it into our heads at least 14 times - "Doooon't go out too fast."  We stretched, we jogged, we strided, we jumped up and down and finally we were called to the line.  This is when I went into my start line melt down of why's.  And then the gun went off and suddenly, who cares why.  We raced.

Photo by Todd or Skyler Booth
A quick synopsis because this is already getting a bit on the long side.  The one runner whom I knew from other competitions went out fast and separated herself.  I was content to let her do that because I was not going to blow this.  Too fast of a start on Mr. Nasty hill #1 could be a race ender.  The rest of the field was conservative so this made it easy to stay mellow.  I settled into second place and soon after, a woman in a white hat settled on my shoulder.  Up and down, around and through we went and loop #1 was in the history books. The lead runner
had a 30 second lead and I was in a clear battle for my second place position with a woman also in my age group and a member of the other scoring team against whom we were contending. Hence, this is why she settled on my shoulder.  She figured the race between she and I would perhaps determine a couple of medals and prize money.  My hope was that I would
Photo by Todd or Skyler Booth
come off of each loop totally stoked to get right into the next one and this is in fact how I felt.  So we moved into loop #2, starting again with hill #1.  I studied my shoulder buddy.  She was making me do the work. She drafted off me into the headwind and she was getting on my nerves.  I noted that she struggled on the hills and then caught and sometimes passed me on the downhills.  It went exactly the same in loop #2. She stayed mostly on my shoulder, and we actually gained some seconds on the lead woman. I decided to be thankful for my shoulder buddy.  We had now created a nice gap between ourselves and those behind us
Photo by Todd or Skyler Booth
so she was my only concern.  Coming down the hill on loop #2, she pulled ahead on King's Cliff but I eventually worked back to her on the more even ground.  We rounded the bend and were now looking at our final loop.  I love the final loop of any race. With every challenge you complete you can finally say, "ha, that's the last time I have to go up that hill, or over that mud, or whatever."  My shoulder buddy definitely struggled on the final round of hill #1 but she stubbornly stayed close and got back on my shoulder on the downhill.  This time though, I wasn't going to do all the work.  I slowed down so much she had no option but to pass me and I latched on to her shoulder as we came to hill #2 and the soon arrival of the headwind.  She was struggling at
Photo by Todd or Sklyer Booth
this point so I begin to recover as I stayed behind her using much less energy than I had been.  We popped up from the muddy rocky part and onto the slanted section.  I decided at some point in that section that I didn't feel like hanging on her shoulder anymore and I moved passed her, still on the hill, and I did so purposefully because I knew she was struggling on the hills.  I quickly dropped her this time and she had no response. I still felt great and I got to the happy tree with enough of a gap that I could no longer hear her anywhere behind me.  The last section was the final 800 meters downhill and I picked up my pace.  At this point, had I been within range, I would have set
Photo by Todd or Skyler Booth
my sights on the lead runner but she had at least 20 seconds on me.  I ran that last section imaging that my shoulder buddy was catching me (which she wasn't), rounded the final bend and ran the slope up to the finish line.  I placed 2nd, and about 24 seconds ahead of her. Therefore I won my age group (the lead woman was in younger age group) and positioned our team ahead of the other team at that point.  As soon as I crossed the finish line and got to double over and breath for a good long time, the same old answer to the tortured Why's
Photo by Todd or Skyler Booth
came screaming into my head.  THIS is why you do what you do.  I turned to wait for my teammates and watched for the opposing team scoring runners. Soon Desa arrived, third in our age group.  That meant two of our team crossed and only one of theirs crossed.  Just as we anticipated, Lynelle would be the key.  Desa and I watched and the remaining two women on the other team finished but just on their tail was our Lynelle.  She crossed and crumbled as her
Photo by Todd or Skyler Booth
legs gave out.  Clearly she gave it all and then some.  In the end we won by 1 point. If any one of us had lost a place to another scoring runner our team wouldn't have won. National championship medals and victories are not easy to come by. They are cherished no matter what the situation. We were elated and giddy, and pretty much freaked out.  Tears came.  It was EPIC.

We then watched our guys run!  We bounced all over the course cheering like mad people. All of the sudden that nasty course wasn't so nasty after all. We just
Photo by Todd or Skyler Booth
kicked its butt.  The guys ran just as brave and amidst a heavy and talented field of competitors, the 40+ team placed 2nd. Rusty won his age group and was 5th overall.  Marcelo ran incredibly even though he was horribly sick.  Mike had almost no sleep and ran well. Nash was 2nd in his age group.  The 50+ guys didn't have a full team but they all ran well.  We had an amazing showing at this race. Finally our Open women competed, doing their 5 loops.  They were so fun to watch and made it look easy. Jill ran strong even though she also was sick.  Dani, Lauren and Natalie placed solidly and made us all proud.  The women were adorn in Rabbit race kits.
Photo by Todd or Skyler Booth

It was a beautiful journey.  This story and our experiences are why I like to do things way out of my comfort zone.  It's scary, you might fall flat, but just maybe, maybe something magical will happen.  If you don't try, you leave no opportunity for the magical moments to surprise you.  I think Bend is a magical place.  Thank you John for journeying with me in everything. Thank you Nash for the hard, in your face advice, and for making us do Romero 15 times.  Thank you Desa and Lynelle for running with your hearts and winning the championship. Thank you Fred for the deep conditioning and mental toughness of the triathlon training that also added to this accomplishment.  Thank you Billy and Gi for supporting your super woman and for the photos. Thank you Todd and Skyler for more photos.  Thank you Rabbit for the racing kits, which we were so proud to wear. And thank you Santa Barbara Running for sponsoring our team.  Thank you to all who cheered on site and in thought. 
Photo by Todd or Skyler Booth

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