Sunday, December 14, 2008

Club XC Nationals

On December 13th, I woke to my alarm at 8:30 AM. This wasn’t going to be a good day and I knew it before I went to bed. Normally I work through the night, so I was grateful to have slept, but turned the alarm off and went back to sleep. Eventually I couldn’t put off my impending doom any longer. I rolled out of bed and dressed in some sweats to step out and check the weather. When I opened the door, a frosty blanket of cold air wrapped itself around me before I could jump back and shut the door. The thirty-five MPH winds pelted my face with snow and ice crystals. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about dehydration today.

Normally I'll do whatever I can for an advantage, but no hat or running pants just wan't worth it. Some didn't even use long sleeves! I feel underdressed. Today I raced for Emde Sports, so about all I could sport for the military was a desert camouflage combat wrap (known as a buff to most of you).

My usual race day ritual is to shave my head and do some strategizing. I needed my hair for the cold and knew there was no reason to strategize. I was in way over my head and I knew it. At 1:30 PM I’d be racing in Cross Country Club Nationals. I’m not an XC runner. Heck, I’m not exactly a road racer either. I’m a well rounded triathlete. Being well rounded means I’m not quite what you’d consider spectacular at any one of the disciplines, unless you consider my transitions. We wouldn’t be doing a triathlon and I’m pretty sure you’d have a fight on your hands if you tried to push me outside in this weather after a swim. XC Club Nationals isn’t just a national championship. It’s a team championship. Every really fast guy would bring several of his really fast friends. With around 325 athletes signed up, I was expecting one of my lowest finish places in over a decade. The percentage of people likely to finish ahead of me today was going to be an embarrassing new high number for me.

Hanson-Brooks is next to us with a few straglers between. We actually had a great spot on the far left of the start corral. We needed spikes for packed snow and ice. Evan got spiked out there, but the blood froze to his leg before it made a big mess. Blood makes for a better story. Thanks Evan.

My usual mindset of denial, which usually happens somewhere between the start and finish, was replaced with a feeling of complete failure well before the race started. How could I train so hard, for so many years, and find myself in a race where I’d finish so far back that I’d have a hard time looking in a mirror and seeing an athlete? It’s times like these that I find out what I’m really made of. It’s hard to take away something that I’ve done for 32 of my 36 years to see what’s beneath.

You can see a large pack cresting the hill with a few straglers already dropped. I'm just barely able to keep myself from being one of them.

I found out XC Club Nationals was held here in Spokane when I was asked to run on a team. I was going to be the slowest guy on the team. In a race like this, I’m OK with that role. For some reason, Sims, Pileggi and I were bumped from the team. I was relieved to be avoiding an embarrassing defeat, but the runners that replaced us didn’t make sense. Moreover, I’m basically obligated to announce my participation in these races to my chain of command. In order to explain why I’m not racing, I have to know the reason myself. Repeated phone calls and e-mails to the team captain were not returned. Although I knew we were in over our head, I agreed to race with the other two on another team in hopes of extracting a little competition justice. More importantly, I had already given them my word when I agreed to race on a team with them. There are times when all a person has is his word, so I make it something people know they can count on.

This is the lead pack, which I'm still in. We're more than a mile in and I'm at the back of the quarter-mile long pack. Forest Braden took third, so he's probably right in the mix here. Bresson is in the middle of the straight just behind the bend. Hadway is probably somewhere around Bresson.

Despite knowing I was about to be destroyed, I don’t see myself having a loser mentality. If you’ve read my stories, you’ll know I’m realistic, but also try to push myself until I break. I prepared for this race in the same way that I do all my others. Although I was about to be annihilated, it would happen as I did the very best I could do. Perhaps that was the most frustrating part.

Here I am after a mile making a serious move as I've already passed about five runners. I'm sure my move was announced over the PA and the leaders were really worried.

When I arrived at the race venue, I attempted a warm-up. Ever run on uneven ice-covered terrain in winds blowing stinging snow and ice crystals into your eyes and any exposed skin at speeds almost fast enough to push you to the ground that was already primed for having your feet slip out from under you? Yep, that was so much fun I almost bought a hot chocolate and watched the race from my toasty car. Like always, it’s one lie after another as I soon found myself at the start line and ready to go. My team was lined up next to Hanson-Brooks, an Olympic Development Team, with at least one Olympian competing. That’s a real morale booster right there. Thanks USATF for demoralizing me even more before the race started.

Here we are about to run along the edge of the Spokane River ... I think. I never saw it as I was too busy trying to fight my way through the wind without falling on my caboose.This is Brian Sell of Hanson-Brooks. He runs his marathon right around 5:00 pace. That's 26.22 miles at 5:00 for every mile on average. Even though he's on fire, I bet he's cold too and having trouble running this course quickly.

Speaking of demoralizing, when the race did start, we headed through a large chute for well over a quarter mile. Before the bottleneck, we ascended a small hill. Just before cresting that hill, I looked to the left and could see that I was ahead of about six or seven people. The good news is that the bottle neck didn’t affect me. I didn’t exactly have to battle for position. My legs felt slow today, which was clearly the case as I watched Sims and Pileggi pull quickly away. Normally I can hang with them or keep it close. Not that it would have mattered much, but it would have been nice to not run like a turtle. The mile markers were off, but I was using GPS. Despite running poorly, I went off a little too fast for me today. Somehow I was able to dig deep enough to hold that pace, making me so tired it grew increasingly tough to keep my feet under me (more due to rubber legs than uneven icy terrain).

I'm just about to ascend the little hill to the right of the guy in the picture. Notice how his number is blown under his arm pit. Yep, thirty-five MPH winds will do that to 'ya, especially when you're running around 10 MPH into that wind for an apparent wind of 45 MPH! We're really not having a lot of fun.

Holding my pace despite the rolling terrain, wind and ice, I was able to start picking people off around a mile in and continued to the end. We wound back and forth so often that I would have had no idea what direction I was heading if it weren’t for the wind that often left me struggling to keep moving forward. After 37:27 I found my way to the finish line at 6.30 miles. Sims had 6.29 miles and we both had similar numbers from yesterday’s preview of the course. My average pace was 5:56.72 for the distance, but the web site didn’t account for the extra distance, which slowed my official average to 6:01.4. I came in at 265th of 314 finishers! That puts me in the bottom 16%. Hey, a new PW (personal worst). It wouldn’t have been much better even if several athletes didn’t quit. Even a good run would have been over 200th place today. Only a last place finish in a 1993 ultra marathon when I was a sprinter at EWU was a lower percentage. FYI, sprinters aren’t well suited for an ultra marathon. I should have known that without trying it, but it took just thirteen miles to find that out and many more miles to help me remember it FOREVER! The only time I placed worse than today during this decade was in the Chicago Marathon with a 2:41:55, which only netted me 303rd place. That race was one of the world’s big five marathons with an international elite field and tens of thousands racing. That was actually a respectable performance.

I'm fourth from last in this pic. I have no idea what lap we're in, but my guess is the second lap. I was able to gut it out and pass everyone in this pic. We're talking small victories during a major defeat.

I was third on my XC team, but was a long way back on the other team’s captain who replaced the three of us. On the other hand, the team I was on had a faster combined time than his team. Looks like I’m back to square one in talking about small victories. Although it was somewhat humiliating to be beaten so badly, I ran so hard that I nearly passed out well before the finish line. Only the dread of lying in the snow forced me to fight off collapsing at the finish line and for several minutes after. Just a few of my gutsiest performances rival the effort I put in today, which belies today’s poor performance. The primary reason I pushed so hard is that I cannot let my team down. They count on me and cannot do it for me, so I give them my very best because that’s what teams deserve. Several times in the past I’ve given up my spot on a team that would have broken a record with me competing instead of the faster guy I gave my spot to. It’s ironic, but sometimes nothing is the best thing you can do. I hate to say it, but Sims and Pileggi shouldn’t have been bumped from a team of runners faster than they are. They beat me by around 1.5 minutes and I finished well ahead of the runners they were replaced with. No matter how the pieces fell today, I knew I was going to be taking a beating for someone else. I just wish I could have done more.

I'm embarrassed, pissed off at myself, frozen, exhausted and ready to get this over with. If I could have run faster, then I would have been done sooner. I'm already thinking about the training I'll be doing to avoid this kind of whoopin' in the future. Sometimes you have to go through hell in order to get to heaven.

So I went to bed last night, knowing that I’d end up feeling like a failure and I was exactly right. I know that years of training for one thing won’t make me good at another, but feelings don’t always make sense. The good thing is that my experience revealed character. I think it will also lend to building more of it. We all see ourselves differently as a result of the things we experience. What I find important is how I respond to these things. In a race where even my best performance would have left me feeling completely outclassed, I raced terribly to make me feel even worse. I didn’t go home, have a really good cry and quit sports forever so I could take up fun things like: having a life, sleeping, not being tired all the time and having my HR under 160 BPM during dinner. Instead I found motivation and commitment sprouting in the fertile soils of defeat. Bad days happen, but how I respond is what really matters. As long as I’m trying to be a serious competitor, I will never leave another race feeling like I did today. Being outrun by over a minute per mile! Two-hundred and sixty-fifth place! There’s no excuse for that. Mark my words, because I promise you I’ll never get beat like that again.

Finally done! Too bad it took this race to make me realize that I've allowed myself to be satisfied with my results. Satisfaction is a word of laziness. This kind of reminds me of the 1985 Steve Camp song called "Shake Me to Wake Me" off his Doing My Best CD. It's a Christian song about living in mediocrity. He said "shake me to wake me." Today's experience reminded me of a song I haven't heard for a couple decades, but the message applies to how I approach all I do, including my races.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sudden Death run and other things

Comparing this year’s late October through early December to the same time last year, it’s clear what a difference a year can make. Looking over my journal from last year, we had plenty of snow on the ground and the temp dipped into the teens. Two of every three runs was on a treadmill. This year only one of six runs is on a treadmill. Last year I was suffering from a variety of serious health problems likely tied to my visit to Mumbai, which was safe for Americans at the time. People would cheer and chant “USA” whenever we came around. (On a side note, I was actually in the hotel which we often see in the news with flames and smoke bellowing out of the windows). This year, most of the symptoms are either gone or a lot more tolerable. Last year was literally a day-to-day struggle due to the weather and my illness. This year I have a clear path and am pounding the pavement, literally and metaphorically.

While shopping, I decided to take the opportunity to pose for a photo with some handy Walmart props. Gotta love the Incredible Hulk!

Tough times overcome with perseverance make for good stories. However, I sure feel a lot better when things are going my way. I’ve set two more PRs since my birthday on solo runs. I’m settling into a new schedule, so I haven’t had a chance to set up training with David (kicked my rear on my birthday) Jacob. With 57 days of leave, which I’ll only burn on a day of work, will make training a lot more productive and actually allow me the rare opportunity to put in some serious miles. Honestly, I have no idea how I performed the way I did on about 40% of the volume of most of the top local talent.

Booth hill behind Lakeland Village has some spectacular views, including this one of Mt. Spokane in the distance. It's also an extremely tough run with a mile-long hill with a rolling climb sporting grades over 20% in two or three spots.

The biggest shocker this year came in the announcement that I was named Athlete of the Year for the Air Force. With over 700,000 individuals among the AF, Air Guard and Reserves, they pick just one male and one female. The selection was made among athletes competing in any of the 22 All Air Force Sports teams, along with sports not contested at the Air Force level. Among those considered for the award were four Air Force Olympians who competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Three of them did not compete in an All Air Force Sport. In my opinion, an Olympian in any sport trumps anything I’ve ever done. I should also mention that I think it’s more impressive to compete in some sports over another, but that’s another story. I have no idea how I was selected. Although I’m very proud, I also feel undeserving. Olympians, and even Olympic Trials athletes, are far greater athletes than I probably ever will be. Perhaps it’s about more than level of achievement. One thing I did do was get out there and represent in a variety of sports several times per month. It’s important to me to show that the Air Force is a part of local communities and fit for service.

I've never gotten an award quite like this. It's a mirrored base with a plate with a photo copy of me in my uniform and a paragraph giving some key details on my performance for the year.

While in San Antonio, I felt famous. My picture must have been passed out and posted everywhere. Nearly everyone at the hotel and banquet, including staff, recognized me, knew my name and congratulated me. After the awards banquet, I went for an evening run. I left the hotel and headed east. It seemed like a pretty shady part of town. Eventually I headed up a hill and past a dark and ominous cemetery. I’m not superstitious, but I felt more and more uneasy as I ran further from the motel. Fenced in businesses were guarded by two or three dogs each. They really wanted a piece of me, so I looked diligently for open gates or holes for the four-legged demons to escape their pen. Eventually I found a grocery store and bought a drink and candy bar (love sugar). On the way back, I was chased by a dog that managed to escape. I believe I’m a lot smarter than dogs, so I ran across the road dodging traffic in hopes the dog would choose to stop chasing or be forced to stop chasing after being nailed by a car. Don’t get me wrong. I like animals and really don’t want them to get hurt, even the mean ones. On the other hand, I don’t want me to get hurt either.

There have been a combined 47 male and female athletes of the year since the award's inception in 1982. Each year and athlete is given a lettermans jacket with a giant Air Force logo on the back and his/her name embroidered on the front as pictured here. I've never had a letterman jacket before, so this is pretty cool.

Shortly after escaping the dog, I noticed a car drive slowly past that I thought I saw going past me before. About a half mile later I saw it stop in the distance, then drive past me and around a fenced area of some sort. As I watched it park, I realized that I had been distracted enough to not notice a person walking up the road and directly in my path. It was dark and he was wearing black, so I moved to the right a little bit. He moved over into my path again. I was wearing black shorts and a white shirt, along with being pretty light skinned, so I figured he saw me and did it on purpose. I moved to the left into my original path just in case it was coincidence. Again, he moved right into my path! In the same way I’m not superstitious, I’m not afraid of people on the street. I make eye contact, exchange a greeting, and display confidence in myself and others. On the other hand, doing the right things doesn’t eliminate a confrontation.

Some sunsets are absolutely spectacular. This is a photo Amanda took from our yard on the day I returned from San Antonio.

After seeing this individual clearly obstructing my path for the third time, I had two options: fight or flight. Fleeing down some side street in an unfamiliar area could lead to a dead end … literally (both ways). I could try to juke this guy like I did the ostrich, which would be more successful since my top speed is probably more effective against another person than it is against an ostrich. On the other hand, I felt the need to stand up for myself. Long story short, after he moved in front of me again, I said “fine, have it your way” as I leaned forward, accelerated and prepared to drop the shoulder. At the last moment, he moved out of my way, which is where things really got interesting for me. That car that I mentioned earlier had apparently dropped this person off to stop me. As I went past him, I heard a couple yells and looked back to see the driver and passenger running to flank me on the other side of the fence as the person I just ran past gave chase also. With the hotel about a half mile ahead of me and my pursuers behind me, I decided that I wasn’t even going to chance toying with them by trying to stay just out of reach. This is where fight turned into flight. Ironically, just as this happened, I heard the GPS beep my mile split. The athlete in me was curious to know just how fast I could run if my life depended on it. I knew I had a half mile, but the three people chasing me only had as long as it took to catch me. Their only chance was a quick burst of speed, so rather than running like I had a half mile to go, I ran like I was doing the 300m. In route to the hotel, I took some chances running red lights as I blasted through intersections, just missing cars, more by luck than skill. When I got to the hotel, I was alone and safe.

Amanda and me at my guard Christmas party. This is a bit embarrassing.

The bell hop, or whatever you call him, asked me where I ran and I told him. Before I could tell him what had just happened, he actually almost yelled as he said “NEVER DO THAT AGAIN! Do you know what they call that area? It’s called SUDDEN DEATH. Every three days a person is killed there. Sometimes they do it in hopes of getting money. Sometimes it’s gang initiation. A white guy like you clearly isn’t from there, so you’re even more of a target. It’s a crack neighborhood and you never know what will happen to you if you go there. Some people are lucky and are merely beaten unrecognizable.” Well, that’s a sobering thought. I guess all the dogs protecting buildings, the streets without any lights and the shady characters standing around painted the picture that made me feel so uneasy for a reason. That was my last night there, so I didn’t go run there again. Oh, just so I don’t forget, that last segment of my run, which was a negative elevation split, was 2:13.1 for .55 miles! We're talking 4:02 pace!

Now I’m safe and sound back home in Medical Lake. My training is picking back up and my plan is taking more shape. I should have a small quality group of training partners to help me get in better racing shape than last year. More people would be better, but I’m just not part of the in crowd. Later this week I’ll be racing in club XC nationals where world class runners on down will provide a butt kicking reminder of how far I am from the top. I already know the numbers, but the visual will probably uncover a little more motivation that’s hidden somewhere inside me. It’s that part of me that doesn’t like to have someone beat me so badly that I feel like a joke in comparison. I need that though. I have big plans for next year’s races and a few individuals on my list that I need to track down.