Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Race Report: USATF National Club Cross Country Championships

Picture courtesy of Tetongirl Photography -- Thanks, Lisa!!

This past weekend I ran in the USATF National Club Cross Country Championships in Lexington, KY. It was an amazing experience that I can’t wait to tell you about, but first let me back up a bit. A few months ago, I got accepted to the Playmakers’ Elite/New Balance Women’s Masters Racing Team.  I was super-excited about this opportunity. I started running as an adult, so I had never had the experience of running with a team. I came onto the team at the end of the racing season. They had been participating in the USATF Masters Long Distance Club Grand Prix Series.  I was very happy to be on the team, but having never run cross country before I was also pretty nervous. Our fearless leader, Ruth, assured me that I would have a great time and that I would do fine – she was half right.

In our boxes at the start 
The Race:
First of all, you may be wondering why I was worried about running cross country when I am used to running trails. How different could it be, right? Let me tell you right now, it is totally different! In the trail marathons and ultras, I am used to cruising along the trails, conserving energy, walking when necessary and enjoying the scenery. Cross country is flying over the terrain, pedal to the metal. You actually have to be in very good shape for this type of running -- which I, of course, am not right now. The only part of my trail training that carried over was that I was never worried about the footing.

The course itself was fantastic and did not seem particularly difficult, from my inexperienced point of view (or at least it would not have been for someone who was actually in shape to run this type of race). It was almost all on grass, with just a bit of mud. The terrain rolled through most of it, with just a few hills, but nothing I would call killer (although they did kind of wear on me by the second time around the loop). I was glad I was not in the men’s race. They did three loops. Our race distance was 6k. They did 10k.

The course was pretty wet. It had rained the day before, and it was still raining on and off the morning of the race. Thankfully the rain held off for the women’s and men’s masters races, but the open races got pretty wet.  Because I had not run cross country before, I did not have spikes. I really wanted to wear my Pure Grits, which are my favorite trail shoe, but which are not that great in slick conditions. I made some homemade spikes with my Grits and some hex head screws. They ended up working perfectly. I did not slip at all.

Pure Grits for Cross Country

The start was crazy. We lined up in our boxes which were marked out on the ground in chalk. All of the masters women’s teams (40+, 50+, and 60+) were lined up together, 21 teams in all. Looking down the line was pretty impressive. We were starting on an uphill, with a right turn about 100 yds out, followed by a more or less level section. I was lined up at the front of one of our boxes, with my 50+ teammate Sue at the front of the box next to me. I knew that I was not in condition to go out too fast so was planning on holding back and running a sensible pace. The gun went off and the field took off like a huge wave. I was at the back of the pack quickly, in the last third of the runners, and the pace was still way, way too fast.  So much for the plan. 

After topping the hill and making the turn, I glanced down at my watch. It said 7:10 pace. “Shit!!” I wanted to be no faster than 7:50 in the first mile. I knew I was in trouble. I dialed it down a little and was promptly passed by several runners. We all had our ages pinned to our backs, so it was easy to know if the person passing was in our age group. I thought it would be nice to know, but it was actually quite annoying. Before the race had started, our coach, Jim, had said “Don’t get discouraged.” I actually smiled then as I thought of that. It was exactly the advice that was needed at that point.

Somewhere around the half mile I started to wheeze. I have a condition called vocal chord dysfunction that sometimes causes my vocal chords to close. I had not had problems with this in a race for almost ten years, but I felt the familiar "breathing through a straw" feeling. It was probably the combination of the severe cold I had had a few weeks ago, anxiety, the thick damp air,  the lack of conditioning, and the too fast pace that had brought it on. I was hoping that on the downhill that I would be able to relax, do the stupid little throat stretching thing that sometimes helps, and get rid of the wheeze.

I did get a short break in the wheezing, but as we started the rolling back part of the course, the wheezing returned. At this point, I was surrounded by several of my team members, and that really helped. I focused on the back of the person in front of me and just tried to hold pace. Somewhere on the first loop Ruth passed me. I tried to go with her, but just could not pick it up.  I had to settle with keeping her in sight. On the back side of the course for the second time the wheezing was really kicking in. The last mile of the race is just a blur of all kinds of hurt. They should have a new motto for cross country races “All the pain of a road 5k – plus!!”

I finished right behind Ruth, where I had been running for most of the latter half of the race. In case you don’t know Ruth, she is 68 years old --- and the new National Champion in the 65-69 age group! We also had two other National Champions on our team, Kari Chandler in the 60-64 age group and Sharon Dolan in the 70-74 age group. I, on the other hand, finished 21 out of 23 women in my age group. I think it was my lowest finish in a race ever. I definitely have lots of room for improvement!

The men’s race was absolutely incredible! Our Playmaker’s Masters men, as well as the men from the Mid Michigan Track Club did absolutely awesome!  I had never seen a men’s cross country race before. So much toughness and testosterone! The start actually gave me chills.

Speaking of testosterone, there was a men's team there from Atlanta with singlets that said "Team Testosterone" on the front and “No I am not on steroids, but thanks for asking” on the back. I thought it was hilarious (Okay, I admit I was a little oxygen deprived). I went over to take a picture of the back of the singlet, and one of the runners, Grant, asked me if I wanted to trade shirts. I could not give him my new Playmakers sweatshirt, so I ran back to my bag and dug out my Dances With Dirt Hell shirt. Unfortunately, it was a women’s medium, and let’s just say Grant was not. Still he was a good sport, and his wife probably has a new shirt by now. Interestingly Grant also mentioned that he has a running streak of 30 years. I looked him up on the United States Running Streak Association web site, and sure enough, there he was. He has run every day since 8/28/1982. Amazing!!

My new friend Grant looking very buff in his new DWD Hell shirt

I am embarrassed to say that I did not see either of the open races. It started to rain, and I was in that post race freezing thing that I go into all the time. I was huddled in the car trying to get warm. I am sure they were even more awesome for running in the rain!

I have to say that the team atmosphere was just as amazing as the race.  Everyone was so supportive and so friendly. We were all staying at the same hotel, and it was like a summer camp for adults. My abs are sore from all the laughing. I am sure the staff at Jalapeno’s restaurant in Lexington is still talking about those crazy women runners.

Probably the highlight of the trip for me was the music night.  We have some incredibly talented people on the team. Not only can they run, but they can make beautiful music as well. Chere Pepper is an amazing singer and songwriter, and she was joined by Carol Levack, Mike DuCharme, and Tom Halm for an impromptu concert in the lobby of the La Quinta on Saturday evening after the race. It was the perfect end to the day.

Rockin' the Lobby of the La Quinta 
 It was a wonderful trip with a wonderful group of people. I can’t wait to run more events with them. Only next time, I hope that I can have more good training under my belt.  

I was lucky to room with Lisa Soros, our team photographer. She put together a slide show of the trip and was nice enough to agree to share it here.  If you get time, be sure to visit her site: Tetongirl Photography.

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