Saturday, March 5, 2016

USATF Masters National 8K Road Championships - Brea, CA 2/28/16

During our course preview the day before the race, I had a profound thought.  I shared it with my teammate Lynelle as we coasted into the Brea Mall parking lot.  "Lynelle, there are two ways we could feel at the end of the race.  We could finish, feeling empowered and in control of our own destiny, or we can finish feeling defeated, without a care about our destiny, focused only on crossing the line so we can just be done.  The key to how we feel at the end will be based on how smart we run at the beginning."  

It occurred to me that I had experienced both on this very course.  In 2014 I was in top condition physically and mentally and settled on a pacing strategy that would prove to work out perfectly.  I went out 10 seconds slower than my intended overall pace and was able to make it up in the last two miles.  With a tangible clarity I still recall how I felt in the closing miles, picking off runners, dropping my time down enough to finish with a 5:30 mile, I had everything in control.  I wasn't challenged by any females at the end but I knew if I had been, I would have had one more gear if I needed it.  So that was that year.

Last year, 2015, was entirely the opposite.  I was mending from an injury, lacking confidence, unsure of my game plan because I just didn't know what pace I could realistically hold.  I went out too fast, struggled in the middle miles, and just didn't have much for the finish. That year I did have females to race against at the end and I remember, again with tangible clarity, feeling like I didn't care if they beat me, I didn't care how fast I was going, I just didn't care about anything except crossing the line so I could finally stop running.  I had no control over myself, no extra gear.  

Same course, same me, two completely different finishes.  I wondered how it would go this year.  It was good that this thought happened upon me the day before the race, and good that I verbalized it to Lynelle because it reminded me how important it is to run smart, set the right expectations, and hold to the right pace.  I didn't want to finish this one feeling like I did last year.

The Brea 8K has been host to the USATF Masters 8K Road Championships for the past 3 years and with any luck, they will agree to allow the SoCal Association to bid for another 3 years.  I have my fingers crossed.  Being that this might be the last time this national championship happens so close to home and on such a perfect course, we simply would not have missed it for the world.  We formed a women's 40+ team (me, Desa Mandarino, Jen Brown and Lynelle Paulick), and a men's 50+ team (John Abrami, Jim Adams, Richard Konoske) and we had three individual runners, Nash Jimenez, Ricky Ho and Larry Brooks. The team competition is fierce against the many LA teams, so also against teams that travel many miles to compete.  Our ladies were hopeful that we'd podium but felt it was a long shot to even hope for 1st or 2nd (which were the $ places).  But even when you feel there is no hope, there always is.

Here's how it all played out.  The whole group stayed at a hotel located right at the race start (same place we have stayed the previous years).  Race time on Sunday was 7:30 am, so we gathered (most of us anyway) at 6:15 am to go for our warm up. The air was thick with fog and getting foggier, but the temperature was clean and crisp and no wind.  The chill and moisture was refreshing and mixed with my nerves to energize me.  I don'the recall feeling extremely nervous but what I do know is that I was looking forward to running hard.  That is NEVER something I look forward to.  What was in that fog anyway?  We had a nice 3 mile warm up and arrived back to the hotel in time to change into our Rabbit uniforms and racing flats.  I packed a few things in a small backpack intending to place it near the start so I had it handy post-race.

One by one, we all made our way to the starting area to do our pre-race drills and strides. By now the 200+ masters runners littered the area, everyone doing everything they could to get their bodies ready to run hard.  This is the time when nerves begin to set in.  It doesn't help that a few things went wrong at this point.  Our 4 woman team looked for the uniform check in at the start (where they said it would be) but no one was checking teams at the starting line.  I learned that the other three ladies were waiting for me at the USATF tent as that apparently is where the check actually was. By the time I ran over there, the check in person had left and we were then told to go to the starting line to check in.  We were just a few minutes before start and were desperately just trying to check in and the stress level rose just a bit.  On our scamper back up to the starting line, John informed me that my little backpack had been confiscated by security as it was considered suspicious.  The police had been called and somehow or another my little backpack was put in jail. I get it.  I know why that happened but it was just another unsettling thing to add to our "check in" difficulty.  In the end, we never did find the person with whom to check in and had to let that go.  It was a frustrating distraction.  

The National Anthem was performed live and we settled into our spot a few layers in behind the finish line.  Heart pounding, eyes wide.  The fog remained heavy and I put my sunglasses up on my head, hoping to use them later.  At some point the horn sounded unexpectedly.  I missed the "runners to your mark" part.  So reaction time was a little slow but I realized it took everyone by surprise, sigh.  Old people.

My game plan was once again to go out 10 seconds slower than my intended race pace which meant going through the first mile in around 6:15.  The first mile was nice and smooth. Oddly there were some runners breathing so hard I wondered if they were going to make it 800 meters.  I am certain they didn't bother warming up and went out way too fast for their fitness level.  Both are huge mistakes and I wondered how seasoned masters runners could be so foolish. The fact that I was mentally analyzing these things meant that I was relaxed and in a comfortable place.  I spent time analyzing everyone around me. I looked up the road to see who was ahead of me and saw Nash. He tends to go out faster than me so this was a good situation and I locked eyes on him.  I listened to the breathing around me, and I listened to my own breathing.  I scanned my body from top to bottom to take inventory of everything.  I felt great.  I had energy, I was running off my toes, feeling power in my stride and was very comfortable with the pace.  I came through the first mile in 6:08 which was faster than I planned but considering how I felt, I was elated.  I kept my eyes locked on Nash and I tried to settle my pace a bit.  Being that the course is always fluctuating up and down, has a long hill in the middle but a lot of downhill in the final two miles, it is very difficult to get the pace right at first.  I didn't have an expectation of where I should be at each mile but I knew I needed to remain conservative and trust by body to have it at the end.  The second mile, which sloped down and then sloped up, felt great to me but I noted that Nash was a little farther ahead.  This mile had slowed to 6:23 and in my mind that was fine because that evened it out to the 6:15 pace I had intended.  The third mile is where the hill is and is the slowest mile.  It was in this mile that I spotted a blond runner in a pink uniform.  This was Tania from the Janes Elite team and she represented the opportunity to begin to dream just a little bit.  She is the first runner on the Janes Elite team which was the defending champions.  She also is in my age group and tends to run extremely tough.  Having her in my sights going into the third mile was both surprising and exhilarating.  She was still many yards ahead of me but I had a target.  When I hit a hill, I really want it to be over as soon as possible so on this one I tried to increase the exertion a bit and passed a few women (and men) in the process.  I fully expected to pass several women as I went out conservatively, so it felt good to already begin picking them off.  But blond/pink was still up ahead, although I had picked up some time on her.  At the top of the hill, I moved my glasses in place (the fog was dissipating), took several strides to get my breathing and effort level back under control and was stilling picking up time on her.  We passed the 5K mark and turned the corner to head back down the hill. I no longer paid any attention to my time or my watch.  I'm pretty sure I didn't look at it again and that was because it didn't matter.  All that mattered was that I catch my girl and give our team a chance to accomplish something great and unexpected.  We had less than two miles to go and I went into tactical mode (similar to how I ran the recent XC race - if you missed that race report, read about it HERE).  It was at this point that I somehow got one leg on the wrong side of the "caution tape" that lined the course.  How did that happen?  I was running while straddling this yellow tape wondering how I was going to get this straightened out.  I had to almost stop to swing my leg back over and lost some ground, and was just a bit frazzled.  I had to quickly regroup and refocus, pick up the pace and continue with the pursuit. Shortly thereafter, I caught blond/pink but I spent some time on her heels before I decided to pass her. I knew she would surge as I passed so I wanted to be sure I had an answer. I made the pass, she made an audible noise of frustration and tried to surge. I also surged and made a definitive pass and kept my pace strong. It occurred to me that today I am in control of the outcome of this race. We had just over a mile to go and now I focused again on Nash who was a few yards ahead of me. 

Many things entered my mind in this last mile.  First, I began to fantasize about the possibility of beating this unbeatable team.  I wondered if there was any other woman in my age group ahead of me. I had just passed the defending champion.  I had no other goals ahead of me. It mattered not to me if I caught Nash (I figure if I repeat this to myself enough I'll finally believe it).  I figured we both must be having outstanding races. Was he winning his age group?  I thoroughly enjoyed that last mile. I felt good. There was no way I was going to be caught. I thought of my teammates and how they were doing, and where they were in reference to the other Janes Elite team runners.  I passed a few struggling men, came around the few final turns and ran the final stretch. The only, I mean ONLY disappointment I felt that day was the time on the clock as I approached. With all that I'd just experienced I figured my time would be decent and within my expectation. It wasn't. It was (in my mind) slow. I crossed the line feeling like I had more in the tank but having accomplished all I really needed to.  It is not like me to finish with more to give. I quickly tucked this away to be pondered later.  Just a few seconds after I finished, Jen, having run a remarkable race, came across the line, also beating blond/pink.  My mind began to race, processing all of this.  Two of us finished before Janes Elite's top runner finished.  Jen and I (and Nash) high five'd or hugged or something (I can't really remember) and Nash began yelling for Desa.  Desa was coming in and without even being aware of it, everything was resting on her shoulders. Desa finished ahead of Jane's third runner and as we huddled in fatigue, the possibility begin to bloom in our minds. Did we just win this thing?  We yelled for our remaining runners, Lynelle and the guys.  I felt so many emotions at this point.  Elation mixed with disappointment.  Elation quickly won over.  The Janes girls grouped together and it seemed they were figuring it out pretty quick.  With an occasional glance our way, they realized they might have just got beat by some Rabbits.  

We made our way over to the expo and to the results.  I found out there was another in my age group ahead of me so I was second. Another slight disappointment but why dwell? Nash was also second but to someone he highly respected. He seemed okay with the outcome which allowed me to feel the same.  Lynelle also podiumed with a third.  She had a superb race and well deserved.  Larry Brooks also secured a second place age group finish. Santa Barbara just made a statement. However, there were no team results posted so we simply didn't know how we placed.  As we cooled down we hoped, we dreamed, we anticipated.

Team results were finally posted and it was official.  Santa Barbara Running and Racing women's 40+ team won.  Janes Elite Racing was second.  Cal Coast A team was third.  I tried to remain mature in my reaction but I felt like I was in high school again, the day we eeked out our 4th straight state championship title.  I felt giddy and excited. And I said it out loud.  We are National Champions.  Oh that felt so good.

Well wouldn't you know it that somewhere between the posting of the team results and the awards ceremony, things got messed up.  When the winners were announced they had Jane's in third, Santa Barbara in second (what?) and Cal Coast in first.  Seriously?  We sat there in our chairs, unable to rise to the podium because we were utterly confused.  They proceeded to hand out the first and third place awards.  Janes collected the first place award and Cal Coast the third place award (because they at least figured out that everything was announced wrong) but we remained seated.  I was waiting to speak with the official as soon as they were done.  It did end up getting corrected and everyone was exceedingly gracious. The Janes representative handed us the first place award and collected their second place stuff.  Coach Nash spoke directly to the race director to make sure the official results were correct, etc... We are assuming all of that will be officially corrected as there was (a little) money earned. So we didn't get that wonderful pleasure of going before the crowd to get the recognition but no matter.  Everyone was wonderful and we held many conversations of congratulations, and got our team photos taken.

Thank you Desa, Jen and Lynelle for doing so well, running with your heart, forming a bond that will always exist. This was a true team experience and you all mean everything to me.  I have tremendous respect for you and your courage to believe.  Many people count themselves out of something this big before ever giving it a shot. You are not like that.

Thank you John for encouraging me, training with me, doing these wonderful things together. Without you it would be meaningless.   Thank you Nash for pulling great people together and putting so much of who you are into us.  You are the greatest runner I've ever met. You have taught me so much. I thought I knew it all but I didn't.  And you race with us. Thank you Fred for the training plan that although aimed at some big triathlons, is giving me the fitness and confidence I need. I feel so blessed by every one of you and am truly grateful. Congratulations Ricky on your first Master's competition. You have now discovered that masters runners remain strong and fast.  These days no one concedes to age and science.  We continue to prove you can still run fast after 40.

Next up is Carlsbad 5000 in April and then from there, the Ironman 70.3 in St. George in May.

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