I ventured to Lexington, Kentucky with 8 others guys from the Georgetown Running Company to compete in the USATF Cross Country Club Nationals at Masterson State Park. After a long, but pleasant, 9-hour drive, we arrived at our hotel on Friday evening. Lexington was filled with the country’s best cross country athletes and tomorrow we would do battle with all of them.
We stripped off our jackets then stripped off our pants. We slapped our naked legs with our hands and threw our arms in the air. We jumped up and down while some of us prayed to God. We high-fived and wished each other good luck. Then we paid attention to the man with the gun.
“On your marks”, the starter barked into a microphone.
Three hundred runners crept up to the yellow starting line and crunched into position. There was a long silence. During those few moments, runners from both coasts and America’s heartland collectively waited for the report of a starter’s pistol.
Runners from Atlanta, Boston, California and everywhere in between, stormed forward like angry hornets molested from their hive. Six hundred spikes began to chew the bluegrass to shreds. I blasted off the starting line and bee-lined for the USATF flag whipping in the Mid-Western wind about a quarter mile away. I was out hard. It was probably too hard, but pacing wasn’t on my mind at the moment. I decided I had to relax my cadence, but soon I was swallowed up by a tide of runners whose spikes chomped at my calves. “No”, I told myself, “press forward and get above that ridgeline”. I stormed to the top of the incline and found myself in 7th place. Madness. I settled into a groove and let a dozen runners pass me as I tried to regain a normal 10k cross country race pace. Soon another dozen runners charged ahead. Then another dozen. “It was okay”, I assured my psyche, “let them go, find your groove and then get racing”. Hoofs of fellow harriers cracked the frozen ground all around me and slapped the occasional patch of grassy muck. Nervous bodies threw elbows and hips as we rounded tight corners and began to circle the course. The race was just getting started.
As I crested the first of many hills I saw the clock at the mile mark. 4:46. Shit. This was suicide. If I had the energy, I would have laughed, but I knew now I would need as much energy as possible to get through the race in one piece. More runners surged ahead. I looked around helplessly. I knew I couldn’t go with them. I was already in over my head, but it pained me to see so many bodies rolling by me when the object of this game was to beat as many runners as possible. I had to put my finger in the dike and stop the leak…but it was far too soon. If I pressed ahead, I would be in a hell of a lot of trouble. I hit 2 miles in 9:56. Okay, a 5:10 last mile. I can work with this pace. No longer were runners passing me by the bushel, now I was at least starting to race.
Up and down. Down and up. There wasn’t a flat piece of ground anywhere on the course. That being said, the hills weren’t killer, but they were there. Up and down. Down and up. Hold on.
I hit mile 3 a few seconds over 15:00 and 5k in 15:40. I had actually run my last mile faster than my second. Maybe I had found a new groove? Was I in better shape than I thought? Either way, the negative split gave me a little bit of much needed confidence. I was halfway done, but the worst was yet to come.
As I looped into my third, and last, (two mile) lap around the rolling horse park, I began to feel the effects of my stupidity. I shook my head and, with it, thoughts of defeat. If there was ever a time to make a move, it was now. I hit mile 4 in 20:10 and then settled into a good rhythm while coasting down a long downhill….and, once again, we all streamed back up the hill on our way to mile 5 (25:20). I thought for a moment. 25:20 would be a good 5-mile road time given my present fitness and here I had just hit that mark in the midst of a cross country 10k. Perhaps I wasn’t running that badly after all? Though, soon thereafter, the wheels fell off. My body was revolting. I had pushed it too hard and now the legs, stomach and everything else were turning against me. My right side stitched up. I turned to spit and felt like I wanted to vomit. I was running on my red line. “Hold it together”, I told myself, “just get up this last hill easy and then turn it on and finish strong”.
I leaned like a sideways “L” into the hill and threw my body forward. I looked around (without turning my head – since I had no energy to turn my head) and realized everyone else was beat too. I FINALLY began to pass some runners, but surging up that hill had been the nail in my coffin. As I made the turn towards the finish line my objective was to hang on to the guys I was with and then try to out kick them in the final straight-away. I was exhausted. My back was still bent from the hill as I drove past the 6 mile mark (a pathetic 5:30 last mile). I rounded the turn and then opened up whatever I had left in my tank. I caught one of the foes I had been battling with for the last 2 miles before throwing myself over the finish line. 31:57. I was breathing like a nicotine addict out for his first jog. The cool windy air had ravaged my throat. I ripped off my spike and took off my timing chip and then curved my back into its normal position over the hood of a race official’s minivan. I saw fellow GRCer Matt Ernst in the finish area. He watched me wither in discomfort then smartly asked “how was that?” I rolled my eyes and turned over on the van. I caught my breath and waited for my teammates to finish. A few minutes later I was stumbling back over to our tent to put on warm clothes. Then I cooled down and felt good again.