As runners, we are so extremely lucky to have such enormous latitude with our activity of choice: distances that are short or long, paces that are fast or pedestrian, mostly running with a little walking, mostly walking with a little running … the sky’s really the limit. All this variety, then, and consequently, all the opportunities for learning, growth, and feedback — the stuff that is the dreams of HR departments and self-improvement lovers everywhere — we can really use to our advantage to become better, stronger, and wiser runners and racers. If you’re constantly training and racing marathons and begin to feel like you’re not growing as a runner, change it up and go for the short stuff. If you’re on the shorter side all the time, challenge yourself with the long. If you’re only accustomed to the pavement, go blow your mind, and hit the trails. See what I’m talking about? Possibilities, people! So many possibilities! There’s never any reason to get bored in this sport.
You can safely assume that this long-winded preface was my internal banter in advance of my first cross-country (XC) race — ever — last Saturday morning down in Santa Cruz, in the hills above the UCSC campus. I never ran XC in middle school or high school, and in the years since moving to SJ and being on the Wolfpack team, XC was never really on my radar or seemingly logistically feasible with small kid(s) in the mix. This year, I’ve fortunately been able to spend more time racing many of the races on the USATF PA circuit with my team — shoutout to my wonderful husband for making that happen — and last weekend kicked-off the XC season. I’ve spent since the end of July recovering from racing the SF Marathon, getting fresh to pace at the Santa Rosa Marathon, and getting ready to dive into CIM training, and the Santa Cruz XC Challenge — a 4 mile race comprised of 2 2-mile loops — conveniently fit into the mix. I did literally no research about the course, although I remembered that Janet said it was hard and hilly, and just paid the $20 registration fee and told myself that you only have a first time at something one time, so go enjoy it. There were no butterflies, no pre-race nerves to speak of, no nothing; both the beginning and end of my race plan was to show up. I like variety in my running and racing, and XC was going to give me that variety last weekend.
Wolfpack fielded a full men’s and women’s open team, and I quickly learned that apparently, XC segregates its runners between men, women, and masters men. Mindblowing! (Backstory: if you look at the stats for these PA races, you’ll notice that at some of them — including the Santa Cruz race — there may only be ~30 open men racers and a good 100+ masters men. Combine that with probably another ~100 +/- women, open and masters together, and consider that when you’re running on trail systems, you have less available path to work with, and it makes sense that XC races are staged like they are. Logistically speaking, that’s a LOT of bodies in NOT a lot of carved-out-for-human-travailing space. For our PA races, the overwhelming majority of the time, the women race first, followed by the masters men, and then the open men). My other women teammates and I got down to the race about 90 or so minutes ahead of the gun and ran the course as a warm-up, noting where the steep and/or long ascents were and feeling the forgiving descents (and for me at least, noticing where it’d behoove me to be especially careful of my footing to avoid eating shit mid-race). It’s redundant to say and basically commonsense knowledge, but god is California ever beautiful. It is such a fantastic place to run.
With very little fanfare, the other women and I piled in and lined up as close to the front as we could reasonably get — remember, there’s no chip time, so if you start far back, you’re essentially needlessly penalizing yourself — and we were off. We began climbing literally within the first 200 meters or so of the race, and much of the climbing on the course occurred within the first (and subsequently, third) mile. Some ascents were quick and steep, and others were long and gradual. Sprinkled within that first mile were also some quick little descents — just enough to give your legs a wee bit of recovery and turnover before beginning to grind again — before starting the slower churn up the hill right before the mile 1/mile 3 marker. Fortunately, the trail was completely runnable, and the terrain was fairly straightforward and non-technical. Going into my first XC race blind, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t think that the footing would be as accommodating as road races, but I also didn’t necessarily think that it’d be so super technical that it’d necessitate “power hiking” instead of running. I’d describe it as somewhere in the middle. Parts were packed and firm, and other parts of the course, particularly in that first mile/third mile had tons of loose rocks, soft dirt that felt like sand, and rooty terrain. In mile 2/mile 4, there were periodically exposed tree roots, some of which were under the cover of fallen leaves, so if nothing else, you definitely couldn’t space out; you absolutely had to pay attention to where your feet were heading with basically every foot strike.
After the first mile/third mile, mile 2/mile 4 were the respites that my legs needed to recover from the climbing-while-trying-to-run-fast effort, a novel concept!, and a chance for me to work on turnover, make up “lost” time, and either carry the momentum forward to complete loop 2 or to propel me to a strong finish. It was hard not to laugh when I’d catch splits from my watch mid-race because both times, miles 1 and 3 had me in the 7:2x or 7:5x range, while miles 2 and 4 had me in the 6:5x or 6:3x range mere minutes later. In that way, it seems that XC resembles its cousin, trail running, since the terrain and relative ascent/descent largely dictate the pace each mile. I knew my mile 3 was a little slower than my first mile, so I wanted to finish as strongly as I could, all while trying to avoid a horrendous positive split. Marathon tendencies die hard. While miles 1 and 3 were in a more open/open-ish part of the woods in the hills, miles 2 and 4 enveloped us under a canopy of tall and old redwoods, and it was as gorgeous and wonderful and perfect as it sounds. For probably the first time since my earliest running races, at this race, I didn’t wear any sort of hat or sunglasses to shield myself from the elements. Though a little humid (relative to northern California standards), the weather was perfect. My, how lucky we runners are to do what we get to do in the environs wherein we get to do it.
From what I’ve gleaned, part of the beauty of team-scored cross country is that time matters less than finishing place. The ever-talented and lovely and seriously, so sweet Impalas were abundant at this race, and I had been leapfrogging with many of them throughout the event. Right before the finish line, I heard Coach Lisa and some of my male teammates implore me to go outkick some of the runners ahead of me right before the line, that that was what I was good at doing (huh? sure! whatever you say!), and while I knew that it likely wouldn’t move our team’s score up significantly, I’m always down for a quick game of tag. Low 5 average for a few paces, I can do that!
I finished my first XC race with that familiar feeling of god, wow, that was hard! But damn, that was fun! When do I get to do this again?! and the momentary thrill of a finish line surge. I immediately shared in lots of hugs, high fives, and good job!s, and connected with my teammates before the guys toed the line and before I took off on a long cooldown with most of my female teammates plus many of the Impalas. We cheered on the masters men as they began their race (though we, Wolfpack, didn’t have any on the line that day), and later, the open men. Cheering for my teammates, folks for whom I generally wouldn’t be able to cheer (because they’d be so far ahead of me in the same race), was a nice perk. Truly, Saturday’s race was such a low-key but genuinely enjoyable and inspiring morning of running and racing, and I’m so glad that I had such a positive experience at my first go of this type of running. What a fantastic way to begin a weekend, an XC season, and a marathon training cycle.