Another weekend, another race. Gotta love autumn.
This past Sunday, several teammates and I raced in San Francisco, in Golden Gate Park, at the GGP Cross Country open meet. I’ve raced many times in GGP before, but I’ve never run a XC meet there — remember, this type of running and racing is all brand new to me — so I had no idea what to expect. Apparently the organizers had to do a late-minute course change to accommodate some other event that was going on in part of the park where we’d be racing, so all I knew going in was that the race would be a 6k (3.7 miles and change, you’re welcome).
My teammates and I couldn’t have been more delighted to be racing on Sunday during our warm-up and course preview. Karl the Fog was out in force, so thick that we couldn’t really see across the polo field that was the starting/ending/staging area of the race, and the temperature was pretty perfect for racing: cool, crisp, and foggy. During our warm-up miles, Mona, Claire, Lisa, Christina, and I got a decent idea of what we’d be encountering on the course, and it promised to be fun — good and challenging fun. It seemed like right around the time that you’d start to get comfortable and settle in, something topographical would change pretty dramatically, and it’d behoove you to figure out how to change gears — and very fast. There wouldn’t be much cruising, but instead, lots of reacting and responding.
Our glee over the fog and autumnal racing weather was short-lived because probably around mile 1.75 of our 2 mile warm-up, Nature apparently flipped a switch and quickly exterminated the fog and threw some hot sun overhead for our race. The women’s race usually gets the better end of the weather deal in these XC races — compared to the men, who race an hour after the women, and thus, typically have much warmer weather — but this time around, we, too, would get some heat for a change. Another teammate, Julie, still in injury rehab mode, jumped in with us to race, and before too long, things were moving.
For being “just” a 6k, the terrain of this race was awesomely varied. We began our first mile with a lap around the polo fields, and from there, we jutted into an adjacent woodsy area that abutted the track. Once we got into the woodsy area, we had a couple little hills and chased that by cutting back over to the polo fields, running on some sidewalks, dirt paths, and mud in the process. The muddy path, parallel to JFK Drive, gave our backsides some sweet reminders of our morning’s work for the morning. Shortly after the mile 2 marker somewhere near JFK, we jumped off the muddy path and hopped into some sweet and delicious — and narrow — twisty singletrack, which made for a great and terrifying game of how strong are your ancillary muscles going to be today?! Hopefully strong enough! In this brief part of the course, being light and quick was paramount, else you’d faceplant over an exposed (or covered) tree root. Awesome. Following the singletrack, we popped over to a grassy area that, thankfully, was much more open — and more conducive to passing people (and being passed) — before we again hopped back onto some singletrack, got spit back onto the polo field track, and repeated another almost-lap around it. Many runners mistakenly thought that we’d be finishing our XC trek once we got back onto the track, but the leaders off in the distance revealed the actual truth: that we got to return to the woods, the hillier part of the course, for one final foray up, over, and through. Once we finished our second tour of the woods, we landed back on the track and finished the race with a final ~100 meters or so into the finish line, not far from where our race began just a few miles earlier.
A loose gravel track, sand, roots, mud, singletrack, grass, and a couple token flat sections: holy shit, cross country is tough!
… but man, is it fun.
It’s like playing tag with a huge group through nature, with some of nature’s finest obstacles thrown in for good measure.
When I show up to a XC race, so far, I’ve shown up without any goals or expectations beyond “I want to work hard and make the commute and time away from family worth it.” I find it difficult to set up a time goal or an exact pace goal simply because a) I’m still quite green in this department and b) I have no idea of how to estimate or scale my road paces to completely different terrain(s). I know this is totally earth-shattering, but it is really hard to run fast and hard while navigating terrain that’s not pancake flat. You heard it here first!
On Sunday, just about any time I’d think ok, this is good, I’ll stick here for a while, I’d find that we were about to encounter a topo change that’d necessitate some fancy footwork and a recalibration of effort, turnover … everything, really. A++ to the course organizers for the variety. You definitely can’t be bored in XC.
Perhaps needless to say, but I had a blast. This XC race and course was challenging in different ways than the Santa Cruz race, and I finished feeling pretty satisfied with my effort. If nothing else, I was sufficiently content with my run that I felt it justified the time away from the family for the morning. I think I have a lot of room for improvement in figuring out how to better pace these races — and in particular, learning how to let the course work for me — but that’s part of the fun. I have absolutely no idea how this all translates into marathon or road fitness, but it’s doing a wonder for my grittiness. This shit’s tough.
After the open women’s race, some teammates and I went on a long, 10k or so cooldown, putting me at a little over 11 miles for the day, a week after running the RTTEOS and two weeks out from pacing at SRM. Fun aside: while we were running on Great Highway, a quick stop at a bathroom blessed me with a most excellent encounter with a kite-high woman who was oogling over my legs — calling me badass and other questionable descriptors that I’ve since conveniently blocked from memory, after she finished sizing me up — so there’s that. Oh, SF.
I haven’t begun training in earnest for CIM, but I think that this XC business is a nice prelude to some hard marathon training efforts. If nothing else, these races are excellent in terms of mental engagement or fostering mental grittiness, insomuch that for me at least, I can’t imagine checking-out when I’m racing these XC runs. The distance passes quickly, for sure, but it’s an intense effort, especially when you consider how you have to try to manage the fatigue that your body is enduring while trying to run hard and not fall or trip on any of Nature’s assorted obstacles. In road races, it’s easy to dissociate from the pain, and you can do so knowing with a fairly high degree of certainty that you can autopilot; I mean, I guess there’s always the chance that you might randomly trip on something, but you’re probably not going to encounter a tree root, a path of sand, or a slippery mud spot in the middle of the SF Marathon or Rock n Roll San Jose. In XC, on the other hand, it seems that dissociating would actually be super detrimental, just because — at least on a course like this one — you encounter such varied terrain over so few miles that you absolutely have to be paying hyper-attention to how your body is feeling, the earth your body is encountering, and how much easier or more difficult this new terrain feels than what you were running on just moments before. It’s a mental game as much as it is physical. It’s cool.
As far as I know, these PA XC races are open to anyone, and they’re super cheap and no-frills. If you ever find yourself near one, definitely check it out! It’s hard as hell, of course, but I think that’s what makes it really fun, too. The discomfort is over quickly, anyway.