USA Cross Country Championships Race Report - Getting Even

To be honest, this is one of the better races I’ve run in my life.  Not the peak of what I’m capable—I’m not really in 12k shape and have very little lactate tolerance at the moment—but rather the very best I could have hoped to get out of myself on the day; a tactically sound and intelligent race. 

When I first heard that St. Louis would be hosting the USA Cross Country Championships, I knew I would be making the trip down to compete.   The US Cross Champs are just too storied a meet, too cool an opportunity to pass up when so close to home.   I found racing on the track in my prep and collegiate days satisfying enough, subsequently the roads, and now the trails as well (perhaps a much closer relative to XC, this last); but cross country was unequivocally my first love.  As for this year's Champs, the way the timing worked out in my current training phase—the meet three weeks removed from a goal marathon—I knew that I would be fit, but not necessarily very 12k race ready.  As such, I just hoped to run intelligently and not embarrass myself too badly. 

I headed down to St. Louis Friday evening with Dave Strubbe, a fellow attorney and past Race Judicata champion, and an all-around good dude.  We slipped into the Crowne Plaza seven minutes before packet pickup closed, grabbed our bibs and (rather nice) long-sleeve race tees, and headed to the nearby Sheraton to check in for the night.  Grabbed a late dinner at Araka, which I mention only because the food was incredible—honestly one of the best meals I’ve had in years. 

With a 2 p.m. race time, we were able to sleep in until 8:30 a.m. or so the following morning, a rarity on race day.   After a cup of coffee, Dave and I hit the lobby where we ran into fellow Chicagoan Kyle Brady, also readying for his morning shakeout.  We did an easy two miles to wake the legs up and then all grabbed breakfast together.  Dave and I also ran into Desi Davila on the elevator and congratulated her on her Olympic berth.  Man is she tiny.  

Sunny skies greeted St. Louis on Saturday morning, but so did a dusting of snow and a stiff 25 mph west-northwest wind.  With seven races taking place on the 2k-loop course prior to the Open Men’s race, I worried that things might get rather sloppy out there. But then I reminded myself that any perceived negatives such as mud, wind, and cold would naturally act as equalizers, allowing me to capitalize on my relative strength versus most other runners’ speed.  Dave and I ran 20:00 or so for a warmup, and my feet finally unfroze near the end of our run.  We caught the end of the women’s race, where a leaning Sara Hall edged Molly Huddle, who made the classic mistake of celebrating a moment too soon.  After lacing up my barely-used cross country spikes and pulling on my lightweight Salomon cap, I cycled through some light form drills and strides.  As we toed the line, Dave and I reiterated our shared goal of running intelligently and conservatively, picking guys off as the race progressed.  A call to our marks— a shot.  We were off.

I found myself somewhere in the mid-forties place-wise as we rounded the first bend.  The field was not all that large, so I wouldn't really have any trouble with crowds during the race.  Focusing on staying comfortable, I rolled through the 1k mark in 3:07—5:00/mile pace.  Over the course of the first two 2k loops, I steadily picked off runners, hoping I wasn't pushing too hard too early.  I was passing runners with less frequency after that, but I had yet to be passed myself and I was feeling pretty decent.  I was hovering in the mid-twenties past 6k, trying to bridge the gap to the strung out group of five or six runners ahead.  As I made my way to the back of that pack, I realized it included a number of guys I knew, all with Chicago origins: Mike Popejoy, Kyle Brady, and Chad Ware.  By a bit past 8k, I was nearly with Chad and Kyle, and on a short downhill section, I put myself on their heels. After a short respite in the pack, somewhere between 9 and 10 kilometers, I made another push and started to break away.  By now, I was in 17th place, with a long gap to 16th place ahead.  I knew I couldn't finish any higher than my current position, so my goal was simply to keep this thing from going to a sprint finish.  I was able to push just enough to do so, with my final clocking of 37:54 giving me a five second gap on a hard-charging Navy runner.

I haven't seen any official splits from the race, but I was keeping an eye on my own times (there was a clock at each K marker), and I remember the following: I passed 6k in 18:57, 8k in 25:20, and 10k in 31:34.  My splits ended up being remarkably even.  My final time of 37:54 equates to 5:05 per mile or 3:09.5 per kilometer (an average of 6:19 for each loop).  My first 6k and last 6k were both run in 18:57.  My slowest 2k loop was actually from 6k to 8k, which makes sense, as I was essentially running solo (with the wind) for this whole loop.  I'm pretty sure my 8k split of 25:20 betters my previous 8k XC PR, and my 10k split of 31:34 also betters my 10k XC PR.  

Twelve kilometers is a long way to race cross country.  I heard a number of competitors say something along these lines post-race, and I share their sentiment.  On a course that had some fairly muddy sections and some moderate hills, coupled with strong winds, it was definitely a tough race.  My current strength from marathon training came in handy.  However, I still would have been in real trouble if I hadn't stayed relaxed early on.  We hear it time and again: running even splits is the best way to run fast.  But that is much easier said than done (as evidenced by the fact that I wasn't passed a single time in the race).  I don't think I've ever even-split a cross country race the way I did this one.  A nice positive lesson to have reinforced.  

The race was a great confidence boost, and a great training stimulus just three weeks out from the Albany Marathon.  I'm a fan of gaining a bit of under-distance race sharpness as you head into a marathon.  Not that you change your training to peak for the shorter distances, but rather, run the race(s) on marathon strength, without backing off in your training, using them to help marathon pace feel that much easier.  I did the same thing three weeks out from the Grandma's Marathon last year, racing the Chase Corporate Challenge and Solider Field 10 Mile.  Two more big marathon specific sessions to go, then it's time to taper and let it rip.

"After the finish all the suffering turns to memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure."
     —Tim Krabbé (The Rider)