The Smell of Fall: Cross Country

I woke up this morning and I could finally feel autumn trying to creep in – the crisper air, the gray sky, the smell of changing leaves.  For me, fall has always signified my favorite season: cross country.  As much as I’d like to hit the wooded trails and be encompassed in nature, I can’t right now.  So in honor of cross country season, I’ll share an excerpt from a piece I’m working on about running.

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I can’t find any photos of me racing at holmdel.  so there’s this.

Holmdel, New Jersey – 2006

The chilly autumn days were always best for racing. Today is perfect. The multi-colored trees shed more of their leaves on the path each time the slightest breeze blows, leaving a satisfying crunch beneath my feet as I run. The spectators already crowd the trail’s edges dressed warmly in winter jackets, sipping hot chocolate as they cheer on the racers. High school cross-country teams are everywhere. Anticipation laces the air.

It is still only a few minutes into the race –early – and I settle behind three girls, watching their ponytails’ bounce with each step, letting them carry me through the first mile. You’ll be done in less than twenty minutes, I reason with myself. To get over my nerves I always reasoned with myself like this, trying to bring the brevity of the race into perspective. I knew I was going to eventually hurt, but for less than twenty minutes out of my entire day? I could live with it. My coach stands at the top of the first hill and when he sees me he starts yelling blurbs of advice.

“Relax your shoulders, shorten your stride, lean into the hills, Donaghy!”

It hardly registers. This is our first invitational of the season and I am dead set on proving myself.

Holmdel Park is notorious in New Jersey and the Northeast in general as being one of the toughest cross country courses. Holmdel is full of hills and narrowing paths, and one hill at the midpoint of the race appropriately named “the Bowl.” I loved this park, and as I fly by Coach I settle in with a larger pack of girls as the path narrows and we flow into a series of short, rolling hills in the woods.

Somewhere before the first mile I leave the pack. We are on the brink of the Bowl now and my coach is standing underneath a tree at the one mile marker calling out splits again. I hate the tree – always too greedy to cast a shadow big enough for us to rest beneath during summer workout “Bowl Miles.”

“Alright Donaghy, that’s it! Keep it up. Relax your shoulders!”

I nod my head in acknowledgment, so slight no one will notice but me. We start our way into the Bowl and the atmosphere changes remarkedly. As we plunge down the steep, grassy hill I am only aware of the girls rasping at my side, their breaths ragged, already tired. I feel the familiar surge of adrenaline as we round the bottom of the hill, making our way towards the other end of the Bowl, the legendary part. The uphill.  I begin to pick up the pace as I look towards the top.

We reach a small wooden post pushed into the ground marking the bottom of the Bowl. A small crowd of spectators lines the path at the bottom of the steep hill and their cheering is deafening. Their screams feed my adrenaline and I shorten my stride, lean into the hill, pump my arms harder, and significantly pick up the pace. Hills are my favorite, and if there was one hill I liked to smash my opponents on it was the Bowl. All summer long I ran the Bowl at least three times a week, countless bowl-mile repeats and bowl-hill sprints, and my body automatically falls into the same rhythm I had been practicing for months.

To reach the top of the Bowl it was best to break the hill up into sections. It was mostly a straight shot with only one very steep turn right before you crested the peak. There were five four-by-fours pushed into the dirt of the hill to stop erosion of the trail and the planks provided the perfect break-up of the hill.

Plank One. I step on it and lean more into the hill as the grade steepens. I think about summer practice, hitting this plank with my teammates, calling each one out by name as we push up the hill together. One! We would whisper it under our breaths, afraid to use too much energy, but it signifies just the beginning of the pain. Now I easily pass two girls as I keep my eyes on Plank Two, digging my spikes into the soft earth.

Plank Two. I begin to feel the dull ache in my quads but I ignore it. I feel like a machine as I plow up the hill and pass another girl. Hills are my thing I tell myself, convincing myself to pick it up even more.

Plank Three. I step over it and know I am in the thick of it now. I can hear the small crowd below me cheering on other runners just hitting the beginning of the Bowl. At least I am already half-way done this hell I tell myself. Ignore the pain in your quads, you’ve only done this a million times.

I begin bargaining with myself at Plank Four. If you hold this pace you don’t have to pick it up for the rest of the race. Just catch one more girl. Slow down, don’t you think you’re going too fast? You still have over a mile to go ‘til the finish. I push the racing thoughts out of my mind and focus on the crest of the hill, so close now. The grade steepens dramatically and I feel like I am crawling as my stride shortens to baby steps.

We make the small turn, the steepest part, and my breath is ragged now as I hit Plank Five, the Push-Off Plank. I hit it at the same time as another girl and there is a sense of relief knowing the rest of the race is predominately downhill. I do not take a moment to relish the fact I just made it to the top and instead I open my stride immediately and pick up the pace for twenty steps or so, successfully leaving the girl behind.

I pass my coach at the two mile mark, the strain of the race beginning to show on my face. I look right at him, waiting to hear some sort of advice. Anything.

“Fast mile there, Donaghy – just hold the pace!” He yells looking down at his precious stopwatch. He scribbles a number down onto his clipboard.

“This is it now,” he yells, doing a sort of backwards run although I’m already past and no longer focused on him. “All downhill. You look good!”

We curve around some tennis courts and I see the opening in the woods where we are to disappear until the trees spit us out at the finish line straightaway. My dad is standing on the edge of the woods with many other spectators. This is the last place they can see us until the finish.

“Time to say goodbye, Allison,” he says confidently, calmly. I focus. I know exactly what he means, referring to our favorite song, “Con Te Partiro” by Andrea Bocelli. When we were younger we would sit in the car together and listen to Bocelli before runs together. As we grew older, he would play the song for me and Erin after summer practice at Holmdel Park.

“Imagine this song while you’re running,” he would say, turning the music up to a roaring volume in his SUV. “Imagine picking it up and leaving your opponents behind in the dust as this song picks up.” I would close my eyes, threatening to fall into a light sleep especially if it was after a hard practice, and try to see myself out running a competitor: my legs carrying me effortlessly, my arms swinging powerfully at my sides. We would drive in complete silence until the song was over, consumed with nothing other than our own thoughts of past races and visions of races to come.

We plunge into the woods and it is darker, quieter. I pick it up, leaving the other girls in my group behind. I hit the first steep downhill and I lean into it, letting my feet fly safely beneath me as momentum quickens my stride and makes every muscle ache. But I am used to it. Not only did our coach make us practice uphill running but downhill running as well.

So, I lean into the hill and let gravity do the work. I was trying to kick, trying to leave the other girls behind before we hit the final straightaway. My coach learned quickly in our track workouts I was a horrible kicker. I did not have the speed for those all-out sprints vital to 1600m and 800m race finishes. He understood I was pure distance, and consequentially, I was always told to begin my kick at least a half-mile out from the finish.

My lungs scream. I know I am less than a half mile away and my breath is ragged, my muscles tight. I can hear the faint roar of the crowd out on the open straightaway and I long to be there, already in the yellow-roped chute and done. I push harder and realize nothing is left. I can only hope to hold steady.

I burst from the woods and the field is lined with every spectator in the park. They scream in excitement and I know someone is right behind me. I try to sprint but I cannot tell if I have even slightly picked up the pace. I can hear the girl on my shoulder now, her breath just as ragged as mine and I think I can hold her off as she comes up to my side. The crowd goes wild and we run a few strides in step before I feel her pulling away much to my dismay. Just let her go, the tired part of me urges, but I pump my arms harder anyways. Don’t let her get away, the competitive part of me screams. She opens the gap easily on me making it seem like I am out for a casual stroll in the park. Mentally I know I let her go the minute I heard her on my shoulder.

I cross the finish line and relief floods my entire being. I stumble a few steps and stop, wobbling down the finish chute as I grab my knees and try to take in all the oxygen in the park.

“Well we’ll just have to call that the Donaghy kick,” my coach says to me giving me a pat on the back. I know he is poking fun at me and I can tell how excited and proud he is of all of us. Our team raced well and we know Nike Team Nationals is attainable.

Slowly, we all start trudging back to our sweats and sneakers so we can cool down and get back on the bus to school. I begin to shiver as my body cools and the sweat drips down my back, but I am happy. I feel strong, powerful. I look at my teammates laughing with one another and I realize these are the friends I was meant to make coming to Colts Neck.

We were family. Destined to do great things together. And for the first time, I felt like I actually belong somewhere.

© Allison Donaghy 2016 All Rights Reserved

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