So this was my second cross country race in 17 years. Now I remember why I enjoyed cross country so much more than track in high school. Too bad I only had one year of CC in high school.
We previewed the course Friday and it was covered with 2-3 inches of snow which had been packed down by hundreds of other runners who had previewed the course earlier in the morning. But the temperature warmed and it rained all night long.
When we arrived this afternoon at around 12:30 the course was a disaster. It was windy, 35 degrees and threatening to rain. The Men's Open race was the last of four races and the frozen tundra of Friday was the sloppiest, muddiest thing I had ever seen. Pigs would have thought it too messy. Fortunately I bought a pair of spikes and put some 1/ 2 inchers in for good measure.
The course was two full laps around Voice of America Park in West Chester, Ohio plus a third lap that was slightly shorter. The start and the finish were slightly uphill, although uphill in Ohio is basically flat.
We warmed up as a team which is something I really enjoyed and missed from my high school CC days. An easy three miles was plenty. I joked with the rest of the guys that we marathoners aren't used to such a lengthy warmup. I felt pretty good during the warmups and the strides felt fine as well. But, I was a bit nervous. It had been so long since I ran CC in high school that I had forgotten a lot of the strategy that made it so much fun. Plus, every other guy on my team had run collegiate cross country, most of them for the University of Washington. So I was an old rookie.
One big difference from high school was that we had nearly 500 runners who started the race. The start must have looked like a scene out of Braveheart when the gun went off. Another first was that I didn't even wear my watch so I have no idea what any of my splits were. Time is irrelevant in cross country so it seemed pointless to wear a watch. With all the mud, I wouldn't have been able to see it anyway. Plus, I wanted to run off of feel.
By race time, it had warmed up, the wind had died to just a light breeze and the sun was trying to peek through. I ditched my skull cap but stuck with my gloves and the long sleeve tech shirt underneath the singlet. Good choice.
My goal was to finish in the top 100. That was a fairly random number and I picked it before I found out there were so many runners. My strategy from the start was to stay in the back of the front third and just pick people off who thought it was a good idea to sprint the first 800 meters. My marathon strength and endurance was going to be a huge asset on this course so I just needed to run smart and be patient. Any race that becomes a track meet will always be to my disadvantage.
When the gun went off, it was a crazy scene. The first 800 meters was nearly 100 yards wide but closed quickly after that to a pretty consistent 10'-12' wide. For the first mile or so it was so congested in the middle of the pack that I had to really slow down to avoid barreling into people. That was kind of distressing as it certainly impacted my time without saving me much energy.
By mile 2, it was still crowded but you could pass people if you were sneaky and determined. It was at mile 2 that we encountered our first hay bale. Yes. We had four hay bales we had to jump over each lap. Since they don't have hills in Ohio, they decided to make it a Midwestern steeplechase to add a little excitement. I only saw one person bite the dust on the hay bales. I guess running in muck for six miles can make hay bales look like brick walls.
At the end of two miles, I was starting to feel stronger. I had passed all of my teammates except one (he being Mike Sayenko who finished 29th in the Olympic Trials) and felt like I was at a pace I could easily maintain. I kind of wish I had worn a watch only so I could look back and see how consistent I was thorughout the race. I felt like I was getting stronger throughout which of course is the opposite of how I feel in a marathon.
I continue to be amazed at how many really good runners don't run the tangents. This course has many twists and turns and provided ample opportunity to make the race muh longer than 10k. The mud made tangential running a bit more challenging but the toll this course took on the body made it all the more important to make it as short as possible even if it meant running through a mud puddle. Fortunately, by running the tangents I was able to find what precious little grass there was left to run on.
At mile 4.5 you start the final, shorter lap to the finish. I was feeling very strong until I rolled an ankle in a mud hole. It sent a pain all the way up my leg but I kept going as the pain was brief and I didn't appear to have actually hurt anything.
By now the field was thin enough that you could pass anyone you had the energy to pass. With a mile or so to go, I felt fantastic and really focused on reeling as many people in as I could. I saw two guys in blue jerseys ahead of me and that they were two guys from a rival running club in Oregon so I passed them only to realize they were two guys from Boston Athletic Association. Oh well. A double pass is a double pass.
Then I saw one other guy I knew from the Seattle Running Company. He beat me at the Super Jock and Jill and there was no way I was going to let it happen again. However, I have a rule. I don't pass anyone unless I can keep them behind me so I waited for about a quarter mile and then blew by him. He put up no fight.
The finishing chute was nearly 400 meters long. This was new territory for me. Kicking at the end of a race was a distant memory from my high school track days. So I had no idea what I would have left. So I let it all loose with 400 meters to go and wound up passing ten guys in that final 400m. The last guy I passed tried to take me with about 10 meters to go but I found an extra gear and my chest crossed the line before his. One problem though. My time chip was on my back foot and his was on his front foot so while my chest crossed first, his chip beat me by .1 of a second. Now I know why they had us wear a chip on each foot. Oh well.
Using that extra gear I had came at a price. After crossing the finish I laid down and tried to catch my breath. I had all the energy in the world left but that last kick really put me in oxygen deprivation mode.
I finished in 34:13 which was good enough for 97th overall and 76th among scoring runners. I was the second scorer on my team beating out three guys on my team who are sub 30-minute 10kers. The winning time was 31:46 and then the rest were all in the 32s and higher. The slower, more tactical race definitely helped me out. I think if there had been hills it would have helped me even more but I gained a renewed love for cross country and a bunch of fresh experience.
I was very happy with my race. Cross Country is a very unique animal and I ran as smart as I did hard. In hindsight, I could have gone out faster and quite easily dropped my time into the high 33s, but experience will help me recognize that sooner and have greater confidence in my kick. I would also like to further test my ability to start a bit faster to get farther up in the pack, but do so without jeopardizing the rest of the race.
I plan to run 16-18 tomorrow morning before heading to the airport but after that, I'm taking two weeks off. I need a break. The good news is that I'm finishing a training cycle that has lasted 2.5 years and I'm doing it on a high note.
I haven't finalized my 2008 plans, but I know I need to get stronger and faster so I'm tentatively planning to do no marathons until September when I hope to run Berlin. Until then, I'm going to really focus on shorter distances and speedier workouts while trying to put in the same marathon-type mileage to keep my endurance up to snuff. I'm also going to run a few indoor meets this winter and then do a full outdoor track season for the first time in 17 years. Hopefully, I can get fast enough to run in the USATF Track Nationals in Kansas next summer.
I'm looking forward to Cross Country Nats next year as they will be just a few hours from my house in chilly Spokane, Wa.