A couple of months ago I came up with the idea of doing some cross country races this fall. I never ran cross country (or track) in high school or college, so I figured it would be a really fun change of pace.
A lot of colleges have cross country meets with open classes so I put together a small schedule for this fall. I wanted to do all cross country meets, but most of the races with open classes were in September so I had to mix things up a bit and throw in some trail races and turkey trots to round out my schedule.
Runningwarehouse.com had some smoking deals on closeout shoes, so I bought my first pair of spikes for my XC season....
Pretty schnazzy, huh? $25 with free shipping and a free pair of socks.
Saturday was my first race at the UW-Parkside meet. It's a true cross country course, meaning it's not on a golf course. It's a really nice course, but very challenging. Lots of hills, gravel, dirt, grass, leaves, etc. It's the site of my final "A" race of my XC season, the Footlocker Cross Country Midwest Regional Championships, so this gave me a chance to preview the course. For those unfamiliar, UW-Parkside is in Kenosha, just south of Milwaukee (not far from the site of the Racine 70.3).
I've never run in spikes, and I've never run a cross country race so I was pretty nervous. I didn't know what to expect, other than bringing up the back of the pack because the open class runs with the collegiate race at this event. I'm not a great runner by any means, but I tend to do fairly well at local 5Ks. I run toward the front and occasionally break the top 10, and on the rare occasion I might even break the top 5 overall. This was a different league. I checked out past results and knew that I would be in the back of the pack. It was expected, but it's a different and humbling experience when you're used to racing toward the front and it's all you can do to keep your competitors in sight.
This is a few minutes prior to the start. The official is giving instructions to one of the college teams.
Lining up for the start.
Immediately at the back and we're running a 5:15 pace right here. A little too fast for me.
Nearing the first hill, a very long climb.
The race was an 8K (4.97 miles). I would have preferred to start out with a 5K because I took several easy weeks after the Ironman and have only put in two weeks of decent run volume (this being the end of week 2) so I was afraid a hard 5 mile race might be a bit much for my first cross country race, but I didn't have many options.
The race started out very fast. I wanted to be conservative, but I didn't want to fall way behind either so I hung with the pack even though we were running too fast for me. The race starts downhill and a little ways into the race I glanced at my watch and saw we were running about a 5 minute pace. That slowed as the ground leveled, but I was still losing ground as I adjusted my pace to a 5:40 as we approached the first hill. It was a very long difficult climb and the pace stayed very fast. I finished the climb with an average pace of 6:10, which is about the pace I thought I could hold for the entire race so I was feeling good about where I was. We were now away from the crowds and entering the woods so I figured I could now settle into my pace, hold it for the rest of the race and maybe pick up a few places as people pay for going out too hard. Easy peasy.
A long, gradual downhill that runs parallel to the long uphill on the start straight.
The real runners.
And then there's me. About the 1.5 K mark.
So the first K was good. I felt good and was happy with my pace. The next seven Ks sent me through about seven different levels of hell. I have never suffered so much in a running race and each K brought on a new and different level of agony. I didn't know the course was as hilly as it was and I wasn't in top running form AND I went out too fast. The hills were relentless. Aside from the long one on the start straight, none of them were really brutal. They were short, steep and plentiful. There wasn't much flat ground and the constant up and down took it's toll. Some of the climbs had gravelly/sandy soil that really drained my energy. My spikes helped keep me from slipping, but it was proving to be a very tough course. I held a 6:20 average until the 4K mark when I really started to struggle. Too bad it wasn't a 4K.
This is getting close to the 5K mark and we're parallel to the start straight.
Running down the start straight again past the spectators.
One of my few passes in the race. We're running toward the start straight hill, which
really took its toll on me and he got me back and pulled a gap as I continued to fade in the final 3K.
Teams warming up for an upcoming race would run the course in the opposite direction and cheer people on so you had to watch out for them. You'd think it would be annoying, but it was pretty cool because it added to the experience and gave it more of a college feel. It didn't help me feel any better, however. I was hurting. My legs were really tired, my stomach hurt and my heart rate had been near max for about 20 minutes as we approached the long hill on the start straight for a second time just past the 5K mark. The hill put a serious hurtin' on me. I tried to hold my pace and stay strong, but I felt like I was barely moving. I lost two positions and they eventually pulled a gap as I couldn't get it back together after that hill. I faded and struggled more and my average pace was now 6:30.
Back into the woods, I knew we were running toward the start and weren't too far from the finish. I couldn't breathe, my legs ached, my stomach hurt and I really wanted to quit. I wanted to walk. Then I saw a sign that I was sure was the 7K marker. Just one K to go. I can do one K. Just dig deep and get it done.
It was the 6K sign. What? How can I have 2K to go. I no longer wanted to walk. I wanted to crawl into the shrubs and curl up into the fetal position for a while. 2K? I don't have 2K left in my legs...and I'm pretty sure I'm going to vomit.
On the backstretch approaching the 7K mark...finally.
Approaching the 7K sign, I had lost contact with the runners I was racing with early in the race. We swapped positions and pushed each other early on. It was really fun. One runner and I must have swapped places five or six times. In the end, he proved to be the stronger runner and pulled a sizable gap in the final 2K.
I was more or less alone for the final K and had to dig deep for motivation to keep pushing. I was tired and wanted to cruise to the finish, but I didn't go there to take it easy and coast to the finish line. I went there to race a full 8K.
Coming into the finish.
I really thought I would be able to break 31 minutes, but I ended with a 33:03, which is about a 6:36 average pace.
All in all, it was easily the hardest running race I've ever done. I struggled a lot and had to dig really deep to keep my pace somewhat respectable. I was way behind the main pack and several minutes behind the leaders. Courtney said they broke 26 minutes. Despite the agony and the many levels of hell I experienced, I had a lot of fun. Running in spikes was fun, the course was great and I loved running with great runners that never give up a spot without a fight. I was pushed way outside of my comfort zone and I'm looking forward to improving my running before my next race. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any more collegiate races to do so none of my upcoming races will be quite the same.
I've got a trail run in Janesville coming up, a couple of Turkey Trots, possibly the Border Wars race back at UW-Parkside if it fits into my schedule and finally the Footlocker race. I'll definitely have some tough competition at these races, but I really want to do another collegiate race even though I can't hang with the main pack. I'm convinced I can do better if I get a second chance.
My legs stiffened up on the drive home, and I instantly collapsed on the sofa and napped away the afternoon. One month ago, I did an ironman and qualified for the World Championships. Today, and 8K race gets the best of me and leaves me unconscious and drooling on the couch for a few hours. I'm a sorry sight, that's for sure.
There was no point during the ironman where I wanted to quit. There was no point during the final 4K in the cross country race where I didn't want to quit.