Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Race Report: USATF National Cross Country Championships Masters Women’s 6k

Ellen, Donna, Ruth, and me ready to race!
(Photo courtesy of Mitch of the Ann Arbor Track Club)

This past weekend I had another great opportunity to run with the Playmaker’s Elite/New Balance Master Women's Racing Team at the National Cross Country Championships in St. Louis. I was accepted to the team this past September, but have been in a pretty sorry state since joining running-wise, with medical problems severely limiting my ability to train. I attended my first and second cross country events, including the USATF National Club Cross Country Championships, which I wrote about in an earlier post, with very spotty training, and my times definitely reflected that.  I was looking forward to this race as a chance to redeem myself somewhat (although I am still in the early stages of rebuilding my fitness).

This race was the start of the USATF Masters Club Grand Prix Series so was the first team event of the year. These are a series of events which include team races in the various 10 year age groups.  Unfortunately, not enough 50+ women were available for the weekend for this race, so I was running as a solo runner. However,  I was traveling with the 60+ team, who are an amazing group of runners and who are defending national champions in their division in the series!

We headed out early Friday morning in the cold, snow, and ice here in Michigan, but as we headed south, although it was still cold, the roads cleared. By the time we got to St. Louis, there was no snow on the ground. We drove to the course in St. Louis’ Forest Park, which is a huge park filled with museums, sports fields, theaters, and other recreation areas.   It was easy to spot the cross country course because many of the teams were out running on it. We took a quick look but did not have time to run it ourselves because we needed to get checked in at the hotel and ready for the pasta dinner and movie that evening.

Not running related, but one of the cool sculptures/statues in Forest Park
We were staying at the Sheraton about 10 minutes from the course. It was not the host hotel, which was the Crowne Plaza, but was just around the corner from it. We checked in to our beautiful room with a great view of the city, including the Arch, and then headed over to packet pick-up at the Crowne Plaza. That went smoothly, and we got ready for the pasta dinner and showing of the movie The Long GreenLinewhich is about the legendary cross country coach Joe Newton and his team from York High School in Illinois. I will cover that in more detail in another post. I will just say here that it was a wonderfully motivating experience that put us in the right frame of mind for the race the following morning.

Our race on Saturday morning was at 9:15 am. There was a 4k community race before ours, the master’s men after, then high school and junior races, and the men’s and women’s Open divisions following that. There was quite a crowd for the open race because it was a selection race for the national teams. Several elite athletes were there for the race, including Deena Kastor and Shalane Flanagan on the women’s side and Dathan Ritzenhein and Matt Tegenkamp  on the men’s side.

We arrived at Forest Park. It was a chilly morning, so we were relieved to find that just as promised there were ample warming tents for athletes to be able to get out of the cold. The community 4k race was just starting, so we got a chance to get a look at the flow of the course by watching the runners make the circuits. I was delighted to find that the course included a very long section of downhill that was covered on each loop. Of course, on a loop, what goes down, must come up. We had seen the uphill side of the course when we parked. It was also a fairly gradual uphill with a few steeper climbs mixed in. I felt the course suited my strengths pretty well and was optimistic.   

Course Map (We did 3 loops)

As I mentioned, the course is a series of loops around the park. The 6k, which is what the master’s women run, was three loops of the course. There was not much chance of getting lost on the course, as it was all open and extremely well marked (partially because one of our runners had made a wrong turn the year before on one of the loops). The race director had really taken care that the course was well staffed this year and that there would be no chance of a mistake.  Even so, we decided to take a warm-up jog over to look at the turn we needed to make on the second loop of the course.  It revealed an even steeper downhill than the other two loops, something that I filed away in the back of my mind as another positive of the course for me.

We spent the rest of the pre-race time talking to some of the other women. We ran into Terry and Sara from Lexington whom we had met at the pasta dinner, and also ran into some of the master’s men from the Ann Arbor Track Club who were also down for the men’s event.  We picked up our box assignments and were ready to go.  As we approached the starting line, I had two goals for the race: run a smart and evenly-paced race and improve my time over the poor performance in December.

We lined up at the start. This race was much smaller than the Club Championships, with only about 30 women (rather than the 90 in the Club Championships). I promised myself that I would not go out too fast as I had in December, so when the gun went off, I held back the best I could.  In these races, I am still at the very back of the pack, and it is so hard not to want to try to run further up where I would normally be in a typical local road race.  I was more prepared for this than I had been in December, though, and was able to hold myself back. I had planned to go out at about 8:20 pace and was pleased to see, as I went around the corner and started the long downhill that I was at about an 8:10 pace. I hit the first half mile split at about a 7:52 pace, but I was okay with that because I felt very comfortable and knew that the downhill had helped push the pace up a bit. I was pretty sure I was not out too fast, but time would tell.

As we were making the first circuit, the men from the AnnArbor Track Club were just fantastic. They were running back and forth on the course to meet us at various sections and cheer us on.  They did not know my name, but they would cheer for me “Go, Playmakers!” and I could hear them cheering for Ruth by name, as she was running close behind me. It was so great to have their encouragement out there! (Thanks, guys, if any of you are reading this!)   

We made a left turn at the bottom of the long downhill portion and began the uphill side of the course. I settled in and adjusted the pace down to closer to the 8:20 that I was hoping for.  I was pleasantly surprised at how well I was handling the uphill. I have been doing regular hill training since the last meet (where to my extreme mortification, I had had to walk on the uphill section in front of a gaggle of spectators – I was anxious not to repeat that performance. There is nothing like fear of humiliation to keep the motivation level high for training).  As I completed the steepest of the uphills and the first circuit of the course, I was feeling great. My pace was faster than expected, an 8:04 for the uphill section of the course, but I was sure that I was not out too fast. Even so, I pulled back just a bit on the start of the downhill to recover some from the uphill section.

By this time the runners had sorted themselves out. For the last half mile or so I had found myself running behind one woman who was in the 55-59 age group, with a few more women in sight ahead of her. (In the USATF races, we wear our race number on the front and a bib with our age on our backs.) As we made the second loop of the course we came to the turn with the steep downhill. Suddenly the 55-59 women put on a surge. She was hauling down the downhill, intent on passing the women ahead. I thought, "I need to go now too. This downhill is my chance." I surged after her, passing two other women in the process (my first passes in one of these races – in December almost the entire field passed me). 

We settled into the next circuit of the uphill section.  I am used to being passed, or at least dropped, in uphill sections of races. My goal was just to sit off her shoulder and recover from the surge, but I really expected her to run away from me. I settled in about three or four stride lengths behind her. As we hit the first and smaller of the true hills on the course, I noticed that I was suddenly right on her shoulder. “Damn, “ I thought, “I think I can pass her!” So I did.  I was elated, not because she was in my age group or that the place really mattered, but because I had actually passed someone on an uphill and late in the race. Buoyed by that I looked ahead and saw that I was closing on another woman. It was Ruth’s nemesis for the race, the other woman in the 65-69 age group. By this time we were on the steepest part of the course, and I did the unthinkable (at least for me). I sped up. I went by her. In my mind, I thought, “This is for Ruth!” 

I hit the long downhill section for the final time and tried to relax and recover some. I snuck a peak down at my watch and saw that my overall pace was 8:05. I was still way ahead of my goal pace. One neat feature of this course was that runners could hear the announcer from everywhere on the course. About this time, he was announcing that the winners were coming into the finish.   That gave me hope. It would be over soon.  I checked my watch.  I was at about the 3 mile mark – less than a mile to go!  

 As we turned onto the uphill section of the course, I did not dare to look back. I was sure that those women that I passed were probably right behind and waiting to pounce. These fears were amplified because I could hear the cheers from the crowd calling another runner by name. I knew she must be close. It was starting to hurt at this point. My legs buckled a few times as we started the uphill, and my breathing started to get a bit restricted, which is a sign that I am tensing up. “Come on,” I told myself, “this is just like those .5 mile hill repeats you did last week. You can do this!”

As I got to the steepest section of the uphill, I had to resist the devil on my shoulder. He was whispering in my ear “You know, you are way ahead of your time goal. You could slow down some. It might be good to walk this hill. It won’t matter.” I told him to shut up and picked up the pace. I could see the finishing chute. It was a long one, probably about 100 yards.   I was terrified that one of those women who were stalking me was going to pass in the chute.  I was wheezing by then, but I dug deep for a finishing kick. As I got close enough to see the clock, I saw that it was under 30 minutes, but just barely.  I saw 29:50 click over! I desperately wanted to be under 30:00. It was going to be so close! I sprinted as fast as I could, but it was not meant to be. I went across the line in 30:02.  Still, I was elated. It was a 3 minute, exactly, PR over the race in December.

I knew that Ruth and the other two runners, Donna and Ellen, would be not too far behind, so I turned around and ran up along the spectator area at the finishing chute to cheer them in. Sure enough, there came Ruth. I could also see Donna and Ellen coming around on the uphill section. Our wonderful Playmakers/New Balance singlets are such a unique and beautiful color that you can spot our runners easily on the course. I cheered them all in. Everyone had great times.

After finding all of our gear, we hung around for a while, waiting for awards and returning the favor by cheering for the Ann Arbor TrackClub men in the men’s race. Just as they were finishing up, the announcer was calling us to the stand for the women’s awards. We dashed back to the awards podium. As I said, our team is a force to be reckoned with in the over 60 age groups. Donna and Ellen both took first in their respective age groups, Ruth got second in hers. The 60+ team won the team competition! I was honored to be in the company of such amazing runners. The awards were presented by 3 time Olympian and 2 time World Cross Country Champion Craig Virgin.

The 60+ Women's Champions and Craig Virgin

It was fun to play photographer while my teammates picked up their awards. At that point, we had a huge decision to make. We all wanted to stay and watch the open races, but there was still two more hours before the first one even started. We had a nine hour drive back to Lansing, and there were reports of snow in Michigan. We decided that staying for the open races would not get us back until around midnight, so we opted to leave. We were sad to miss what were some amazing races, but “you gotta do what you gotta do.”  I also wanted to say that the race director and the Big River Running Club did an excellent job of putting on a wonderful event.

Despite my improved performance, I was nowhere near the awards. I came in 6 out of 7 in my age group. However, I was delighted to find that I had moved from the bottom 15% of overall finishers to the bottom 33%, a definite improvement. I was delighted, though, to have met my goals for the race. I had run a very smart, evenly-paced race and had a 3 minute PR on top of that. I am still nowhere near where I want to be or even nowhere near where I used to be, but it is progress, and I am pleased. I guess for some reason the running gods are still smiling on me. I will enjoy it while I can. 

I would just like to end this by thanking Playmakers and NewBalance for sponsoring us and for giving me the opportunity to run with such amazing women at races of this caliber. I am honored to be on the team, and I know I speak for all of us in being thankful for their support. 

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