My goal going into the USATF Cross Country National Championship was to not finish last. It wasn’t an entirely unreasonable objective- I would be up against some of the toughest runners in the country!
I arrived in Boulder two days before the race with my husband Andre. That afternoon, we went for a little hike to catch a view of the Flatirons overlooking the town. I noticed the effect of being at 5,000+ feet elevation right away because I could feel my breath getting short just from walking.
The next day, Friday, I went to check out the race course at Flatirons Golf Course and do a little pre-race run. I thought the course would be relatively empty, but it turned out many other runners had the same idea. I ran into a few members of Oiselle’s Project Little Wing, a professional training group based in Bend, Oregon. Collier Lawrence and Christine Babcock would be racing and Lauren Fleshman was with them as their coach. Collier and Christine were finishing up their warm up drills and asked if I’d like to join them for their shakeout run. Of course I said yes! Moments into the run, I once again felt the effects of being at a higher altitude. We were running at a comfortable pace, but I could feel my lungs working hard to keep up with my legs. I eventually found my rhythm and began to feel pretty optimistic about the next day’s race. The sky was clear, the grass we were running on was nowhere near as muddy as I predicted, and my legs felt fresh. After completing one 2K loop around the course, we merged with a group of women decked out in Brooks gear. It was none other than the Brooks Beasts (great name), another pro training group including Katie Mackey and Angela Bizzarri. The Brooks and Oiselle runners knew each other and we completed the rest of the second loop together. As this was happening, a guy with shaggy blonde hair and a light, choppy stride skirted around us. I recognized him right away- it was Ryan Hall, the fastest ever American marathoner. He must have been there to support his wife, mid-distance specialist Sara Hall, who I saw warming up just a bit later. Then as we were finishing our run, there casually walking by was Dathan Ritzenhein, one of the favorites for the open men’s race. I’ll admit, I was a little giddy being in the presence (and running with) some of the top runners in the country.
Race day morning, I was still feeling pretty optimistic. My legs felt fresh and it was a gorgeous day. I arrived early to cheer on my coach Greg who was defending champ in the Masters 8K. It was a nail biter of a race. The men went out REALLY fast. Greg stayed right in the mix and even took the lead at one point. In the end, he placed second overall. It may not have been the result he wanted, but he ran a smart race and gave it everything he had. In fact, he ran 11 seconds faster than his winning time the year before. I was very inspired after watching him run, and knowing that we had done similar workouts in preparation for the race gave me a lot of confidence.
Before long it was time to get ready for my own race. I warmed up with a fellow Oiselle runner, Arlene Espinoza, and her teammate Ashlee from Dukes Track Club. I found our team manager, Kristin Metcalf and gave her a big hug, and I did a few drills alongside the Little Wing gals on the warm up field. There is something to be said about being part of a team when charting such unfamiliar territory. I’ve run cross country before, but not in such a high caliber meet and not in the foothills of the Rockies. I was really happy to see some familiar faces (and singlets)!
As I changed from my training shoes into cross country spikes, I felt relaxed and positive. I told Andre I had a pretty good feeling about the race. I made my way to the starting area, did a few strides, and joined my teammates at the start line.
The gun went off, and the women attacked the eight kilometer course at a blazing pace. I thought I would have to restrain myself from doing the same, but it turned out I didn’t have to. I was huffing and puffing within the first thirty seconds. I tried to find a pace that was fast enough to get some good leg turnover while still maintaining breath and composure. The majority of the field quickly got away from me, but I knew if I tried to go with them I’d crash hard. Along with my primary goal of not finishing last, I kept in mind my secondary goal of not being passed in the second half of the race.
I went through the first two kilometer loop in 8:08, around 6:30/mile. Not bad (for me), but already my lungs could not keep up with my legs, and I had to slow down. I’d like to think that fading so early was a foreign feeling, but it brought back some very specific memories from when I first started running in high school. I ran countless cross country meets in which I’d run an excellently optimistic first mile, then crash hard in the second and third, walk some, and ultimately place somewhere toward the back of the field. Now I was reliving it all over again. The field had gotten away and I was straggling behind. I tried not to panic and focused on the things I could control. My breathing was out of control, but my legs and arms felt great. I focused on making my stride crisp and efficient, I ran the tangents of the course whenever I could, and I made it my goal to catch and pass the next woman ahead of me.
I went through the 4K mark at 16:59. I had majorly slowed down and still had two laps to go. I was already suffering, but I tried to keep it together knowing that I wasn’t the only one out there having a tough time. No matter where anyone was on the course, we were all gutting it out together. I tried to stay strong for the people I knew were out there watching- my husband Andre, my coach Greg, my Portland friends (shout out to Kelly Kruell for cheering in no-man’s land on the backstretch, it helped so much!), and the Oiselle crew including Colorado team members, Kristin Metcalf, the Oiselle founder and CEO Sally Bergesen, and pro runners Lauren Fleshman and Kara Goucher. Everyone cheered loud and shouted words of encouragement each time I ran by, though they could probably see I was hurting. I had to keep it together for them! Every time I heard my name, I perked up and picked up.
In the third lap, I felt like I had found my rhythm. I began to gain on the runners in front of me and matched the pace of my second lap. I passed two women and going into the fourth lap I targeted another one. She could hear me approaching and clearly wasn’t going to let me go without a fight. Every time I gained a few steps toward her shoulder, she strode out. She zipped around a sharp corner, but I covered the move. Speaking of high school memories, I remembered my coach in high school always saying to “pass with authority” so I did just that. I passed her and kept my pace up until I was sure there was at least a few seconds between us. After that, I focused on closing the gap between myself and the next runner ahead of me, Drea McLarty of Oiselle (who wrote a wonderful recap of her race here). She was pretty far ahead of me, but chasing her gave me something to focus on and pull me to the finish line. With about four hundred meters to go, I mustered up whatever kind of kick I had in me (which wasn’t much). I thought my heart might burst out of my chest. Andre later told me I looked a little pale toward the finish, which is pretty evident in the photo below. I crossed the line with a time of 34:32, my final lap twenty seconds faster than the previous two, placing 62nd out of 75 women. It was not a pretty race, but I accomplished my goals. I didn’t place last and I didn’t get passed!
I took away a lot from racing in Boulder. First of all, I loved getting a chance to meet/reconnect with the Oiselle crew. This was my first time meeting Christine, Collier, Arlene, and Drea, and they were all so sweet and genuine. There are Oiselle runners all over the country and being able to make those in-person connections is really meaningful.
Second of all, the race left me feeling very humbled, but more motivated and inspired than ever to be a better runner. I got to witness some incredible talent up close by sharing the starting line with some of the best runners in the nation. Christine’s stunning 13th place performance was good enough for a ticket to Colombia for the Pan American Games. Jen Rhines, a runner I greatly admire, made the podium at the age of 40, qualifying for her 7th USA world cross country team (check out The Rejuvenation of Jen Rhines via Running Times). If my eyes weren’t open before, they are now. Since returning from Boulder I’ve dived back into training with more purpose than ever.