USATF XC Masters Nationals... season wrap up race!
Updated: Dec 26, 2019
With 2019 coming to a close in less than two weeks, I figured it was about time to update the blog with a race report from my final race of the decade. When Blue Mountain Endurance started nearly 8 years ago, I didn't imagine where things would be today, but am happy to report that despite many changes in the way things operate, things are doing very well and we have athletes around the country racing hard, improving and having fun in the process. Thanks to my friends on the west coast, particularly Javin Berg, who keep the team rolling on their side of the country, and also to new athletes and friends in Maine, and beyond, who've made training and racing more fun than ever, and allowed me to continue to improve at the ripening age of 41. For next year, the coaching load is filling up fast, and I think it's a testament to the great community that is the endurance world and all the support and success that is found in training with a purpose and with the support of others.
On that note, I've had many people reach out about my trip to USATF Cross Country National Championships last week, so wanted to take some time to give a race recap since I'm so thankful for the support and want those running nerds who are interested in hearing more to have that chance...being one of the those 'nerds' myself, I say this in the best possible way.
First off, thanks to my immediately family (my wife Kara especially) for pushing me and allowing me to go to the race while she takes care of the kids for the weekend. Since starting a new teaching job this fall, and Kara starting a new job as well, life has been very hectic and training has been very haphazard to say the least the last few months. I know that for nearly all masters athletes, nothing is perfect or goes as planned in preparation, so we all learn to wear many hats and become more resilient in not worrying about everything being perfect in leading up to a race. The increased business of home life, meant less sleep, very minimal training time and even less core work, stretching, drills, etc. However, I'd convinced myself to go to the New England Regional Championships to race the Masters 8k back in November in Boston, but was not sure how I'd fair after pulling a calf muscle 2 weeks before the race. Luckily with the help of my good friend and chiropractor Chris McBride here in Portland, I was able to get to start line literally taped together and hoping to get through the whole race free of pain. To my surprise, I ran a very competitive race with a Eric Blake who's an incredible runner and this years overall winner of the Mt Washington Hill Climb, but I was able to pull off a surprise repeat victory after winning in 2018 as well.
After coming off the race, I thought I was in the clear from injury, but again found myself with a strained hamstring a week later after too much work on my roof one day, followed by a long hard tempo run with some buddies who were prepping for CIM marathon. Again, I resorted to help from chiropractic work, massage, yoga, as well as a handful of cross training workouts as I got out my rollers and jumped on the bike, referring back to some of my tried and true triathlon sessions.
This year's National Championships for Cross Country were being held at the Lehigh course in Pennsylvania, which has a history of hosting huge, national scale meets. Luckily for me, my Dirigo teammate Andy Spaulding here in Maine was interested in heading to the race, regardless of the fact that we only had two of us racing. (we'd have needed 5 members to have a scoring team, so were going as 'individuals' to hopefully have a good overall place showing). Andy and I made quick work of the longish drive to Pennsylvania as neither of us are short on words. We jogged the course the night before, I realized my hamstring was a little tighter than hoped for, but assume that would be out of site and mind tomorrow once the gun went off, especially if I kept it loose the rest of the evening. We picked up our race numbers, went to dinner at a pasta place that every other runner in Pennsylvania must of have Googled as well.
Race day arrived at a much more relaxed pace than is normal, as we weren't racing till 12:15pm, so made for a relaxed morning. We also realized that despite the huge amount of rain the course had endured the last few days, there was a chance that we might not be getting poured on all day. That being said, there was 0% chance we'd not be getting muddy as the two races before us were sure to tear up the already wet ground, in addition to any extra moisture that came down on race day.
Fortunately, Andy and I analyzed the life out of racing tactics on way down to Pennsylvania on Friday. Since we had the option to line up where we wanted, since we didn't have a full team, we grabbed box 83, which was furthest outside to the right. I got out solid and tried to be realistic while gradually working my way across the opening couple hundred yards, while beginning to converge with the leaders who were moving up on my left. Once we hit the bottle neck where things begin to merge, I was able to have a decent line on relatively intact grass (vs. mud) and slotted into the top 10 heading into the first left half corner. My plan had been to try to get to top 10'ish' range and then settle in and see what happening around me. I had heard rumblings about guys who would win the race going away, so figured if that happened there wasn't anything I could do about it and I'd just have to play the cards I had with my dwindling fitness and compromised hamstring and calf.
To my luck, a pack began to form and I found myself running comfortable in a group of about 8-10 of the leaders through first grass climb heading into mile 1. I was happy to see that no one had tried to run away yet, but later realized we went 5:11 through the first mile with the climb and some mud, so it wasn't as though we were jogging.
The race pressed on as we went though first split point at about 3.5k and our group was down to about 6 with a few stragglers running within just seconds of our pack, which now included all the runners who'd finish in the top 6. With several guys right behind our group running solo, I was reminded that at these national champion level meets it's so crucial to be engaged and 'on' the whole race since there are always more guys who can take your spot if you let off the gas at all. As we went through the split point the announcer started name dropping the runners in our pack, this was the first chance I had to get to know the names of guys I was around, other than knowing who Jorge Maravilla was since I recognized him as last years winner. It turned out I was with Jorge Maravilla, Eric Loeffler (3 time trials qualifier and 2:16 marathoner...also running in 2020 trials next february), Peter Gilmore (2:12 marathoner, with top ten overall finishes at Boston, New York and Olympic Marathon Trials between 2007 and 2008), Jacque Sallberg (3:56 miler, 8:28 steeplechaser 2006)...so basically I was completely out of my league as am likely the only guy in top 50 who was a mediocre high school runner and didn't even run in college...fortunately I didn't know most of those stats until post race, so I just told myself to stay stuck to this group.
Around 4k, we hit another significant grinding climb that has a long muddy descent after that leads into lap 2. I was already started to feel more strained than I would have liked, but fortunately my legs were holding up better than the day before when Andy and I had jogged the course after driving 7 hours and my hamstring had tightened up badly. But after plenty of rolling and trying to loosen it up on Friday night and race morning, I was happy to see that my body was holding up as well as I could have hoped for, it just became a matter of fitness and mental toughness.
I managed to keep contact heading into lap 2 where we hit the long grass climb again and I was starting to feel the elastic stretch off the back of the group. I knew we had one guy behind our group by probably 10-15 seconds, and wasn't sure who else was back, but knew I needed to stay connected to the lead group or I could lose several places very quickly.
I don't think I've ever fought so hard mentally to stay connected to a race, which I'm proud of since I know my fitness isn't quite what I'd like, but I put in 3 or 4 little surges just to hold onto the group. I would start to come off the group and then tell myself '20 hard steps' and get latched back on the group in sections where they weren’t pressing too hard yet.
The course hits it's second timing mat around 7.6k, and then hits the muddy climb once more and I knew things would get crazy there, so I just wanted to hang on till the base of the climb so I could at least not have to run solo for too long and hopefully hold off 6th. Just as I suspected, the boys started cranking it up and really racing at around 8k, and I could not respond. I'd like to think if I'd had a tiny bit more fitness, that I'd have had a response, but the truth is, those guys are simply flat out faster than I am and I truly feel I gave everything I had mentally and physically on the day to stay engaged in the race, so I'm happy about that.
Heading into the final climb, I could see that Sallberg and Gilmore had pressed ahead and were starting to get out of touch, Maravilla was in 3rd, Loeffler 4th and I was 5th with Robinson Cook (4:04 miler) about 10-15 seconds back in 6th running solo. I convinced myself that I needed to race to the top of the climb, and even though my pace didn't indicate I was still racing in that section, I managed to stay close enough that I thought I might hold on for 5th. Meanwhile Gilmore and Sallberg were battling for the win, Loeffler had moved in front of Maravilla and I was hanging on about 4 seconds behind Maravilla.
The final K is mostly downhill and it was getting sloppy by this point, but I knew that I just had to keep cranking and try not to get caught. Into the final third of a mile the gap had stabilized with Maravilla and I thought I might be able to bring it back, but just didn't quite have enough to really make a serious charge, but was able to hold off Cook behind me to bring home 5th in the nation.
I have to say that all things considered, this is as good as I could have hoped for considering who I was surrounded by. Really happy to be able to stay mentally engaged and focused and not let myself check out and go backwards today on the course. I know not everyday ends this way, but happy to have this go so well to cap off an great season for myself!
Big thanks to Andy for driving me down and back to Lehigh and being great company, haven't laughed that much in a long time. Also to Matt Homich for putting in more miles with me this year that I'd done by myself, and giving me an inflated sense of self confidence that makes me think I should try doing things I have no business trying!
Looking forward to a great 2020, and thanks for all the support this year. If you're a coached athlete, friend of the team or team member, or are just reading this and would like to share your stories here, please reach out and let me know as I'm hoping to update the blog with more racing stories and successes in 2020!
**Photo Credit goes to: Clay Shaw and Kevin Morris