The PA USATF cross-country season concluded with the championship meet in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park a week ago, over at Lindley Meadow, very near where we were when we ran the GGP open in September. This time around, we had just a few noticeable differences: women ran two laps of the 2 mile-ish course (for 4ish miles), whereas the men ran 3 (for 6ish); we started and finished in the grassy Lindley Meadow, which was closed and thus, off-limits for us in September; and finally, we spent very little time running on the polo fields’ track and had a slightly different course coming into and out of the woods that abut the polo fields. Having run the September course, I had an inkling of an idea about what to expect for the day, but I nonetheless went into the race without thinking too much about it. If I’ve learned anything this autumn from doing XC for the first time in my life, it’s that a) this shit’s hard, and b) it’s unpredictable. Even if you run the course as a warm-up, everything still feels so different — and so much more challenging — when you’re trying to run it fast. (Einstein realization, I know).
Unfortunately, the ladies Wolfpack contingent has been struggling a bit this year due to the usual suspect of reasons: injuries, people relocating, scheduling constraints, and the like. Due to some weird, extenuating medical stuff that I’ve been dealing with, Lisa and I didn’t decide that I’d run until sometime the day before the race, so I was really happy to be there. I had no idea how I’d fare — hence, that aforementioned XC is so unpredictable sentiment — but I was happy to at least have the opportunity. With just a little time before our ladies’ race started, we had a complete team — hooray! — and we were ready to roll: Lisa, Claire, Megan, Lalida, and me.
The gun went off, and suddenly a sea of women began sprinting over wet (and probably muddy) grass before we left the field and picked up a dirt-path straightaway that ran parallel to the road in GGP. Just like in many of the other PA races, there aren’t chip-timed starts, so it behooves you to start as close to the starting line as possible. I hung a couple rows back at the line out of self-preservation mode more than anything else, maybe a 1 or 2 second difference, and I figured I’d go with the flow for the first lap, aiming to negative split on round two, just as Lisa had suggested. Once we were off the meadow and onto the straight, I avoided riding the downhill hard and just tried to stay put, working with the women around me and actively not passing anyone. (Shoutout to all the masters’ women around me here. For the first mile, mile and a half, I was pretty boxed-in by women who were 40+, 50+, and even 60+ years old. The only reason I knew their ages was due to the numbers they had to wear on their backs, demarcating their masters’ statuses, but hot damn: all I could think was god I hope to be kicking as much ass as they are when I’m their age).
Between miles .5 to 1.5, as far as I can remember, we went through the same little woods, singletrack, mud, sand, and grassy area that we did during the GGP open in September. These areas are especially tricky because of the quickly-changing terrain, and the narrow passageways, but at the same time, if you’re trying to run conservatively, getting boxed in isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you, either. Once we got close to the polo fields, we ran just a few strides on the track before hopping off and making our way into the same woods where we ran at GGP. Here, though, instead of running into the woods, making a hairpin turn, and running back down, we ran straight through, cresting the little mini-hill, and descended fast and furiously to the other side, where we then hung a hard left and began making our way back to the meadow — think running through woods, followed by running on pavement, followed by running on wet grass, thick with mud — before doing the same thing all over again for round 2, miles 3 and 4. It was a ton of fun, but shit. Cross country is hard. Trying to run fast while getting a bit “lactic,” as Robin said (perf description!), while oh yeah running through fucking mud or sand is crazy — crazy hard but crazy fun.
True to form, I didn’t look at my watch during the race and barely caught my splits when my alarm sounded. I was aiming for the this should feel pretty hard sentiment for the duration of the race, but on the second lap, I tried to open things up a bit and begin to cautiously and still somewhat conservatively pick-off women around me. At the end of the day, I finished in about a 29:16 for 4.06 miles — so nothing blazing — but with a negative split that left me pretty stoked. I’m pretty sure I played it a bit too safely out there — I think I should have gone harder, earlier — but with CIM just two weeks’ out from the XC Championships, my eye was on the bigger prize.
All told, it ended up being 12 and change for the day between the race, warm-up, and cooldown miles, and it was a lot of fun to have a little team picnic in the park after the guys’ race. Watching and cheering for them was also a ton of fun (as evidenced by the 100+ pictures I got of our team running). Abundant inspiration, friends.
The Championship race was only my third XC event of the season/my life — the other two being GGP and Santa Cruz — but I’m looking forward to next year’s XC season already. It’s such a different type of running — you’re inherently going to be slower than you are on roads, but it’s also not like you’re trying to sprint up something relentless and crazy steep like Monument Peak for miles on end — but the challenge is extremely gratifying. I guess you could call it a different opportunity to red-line. 🙂
I know I’ve said it before, but seriously, if you have the chance to do XC — even if you’ve never done it before in your life (hi!) — take the chance. It is such a good time.
And now, we CIM.