Ah, November. You can just feel it in the air these days – it’s xc championship season. It used to be such an exciting time of the year for me as I prepared to peak for the most important races of the season.
Soon, it will be the ten year anniversary of going to Nike Team Nationals (TEN years – I can’t believe it!). So as high school teams around the nation gear up for their biggest races, I thought it would be fun to look back on one of my most exciting races in my career, and hopefully provide some inspiration.
Nike Team Nationals – Portland Meadows, Oregon, 2006
The sky is almost clear except for a few translucent clouds. Mt. Hood looks even more magnificent with the azure sky framing its snowy cap. A drumline is set up in the middle of the field and they pound their snares in a rhythmical cadence, and I feel my heartbeat speed up with the tempo. After a slow and careful warm-up I pull off my trainers and triple knot my spikes before my coach tapes the laces down with multiple layers of duct tape. A voice over the loudspeaker booms for all girls to report to the staging area. My stomach is in knots but I ignore it.
Before I know it I am standing on the starting line. Hundreds of other girls join us striding across the field. We jump up and down in our box trying to stay warm, trying to shake the nervousness away. The cold air bites at my bare arms and legs, and chills run down my spine. I ignore the uncontrollable shivering, knowing in a few minutes it will be the last thought on my mind.
An official yells over the loudspeaker it is time to clear the course, and after a few final words of advice Coach disappears. The crowd and drums grow quiet as we ready ourselves on the starting line and an official announces there will be three commands.
“On your mark.”
My heart lurches as I lean forward and try to stop the flood of doubts rushing through my mind. Are my shoes tied tight enough? What if the tape doesn’t hold? What if I trip in my spikes?
Oh my God, it’s happening. I get into my racing position and try to focus on my breath spiraling out in front of me. There’s no turning back now. What if I can’t do it?
I fly off the line and my mind goes blank, my nerves disappear. As we sprint down the straight away I watch Ashley and Bri disappear into the pack ahead of me. Fireworks explode into the air as we advance down the straight but I hardly hear them, let alone see them. All I can focus on is the first turn and not getting caught on the inside where the mud is deepest. I push to the outside and as we round the turn I encounter the hungry mud for the first time trying to swallow my shoe whole. I feel my foot sink down and the suction pulling at my heel as I push off. A girl goes down in front of me and I narrowly miss her as she tries to pull herself up.
I become aware of the steady beat of the drumline. It sounds tribal, savage almost as the vibrations sink deep into my skin, urging me to run faster. The crowd screams and cowbells clank incessantly. I feel like I am running down a gauntlet and I know I have no escape from the upcoming obstacles.
Our race is an object of entertainment for everyone, a point of speculation of who is the best in the nation. But that is what racing is all about after all, the opportunity to prove yourself. And I decide to do just that. I focus and begin picking one girl off at a time, never taking my eyes off the back of the next jersey.
We hit the rolling hills and much to my delight I barely feel them as I mechanically lean forwards into the abrupt ups and downs. They feel like a joke compared to Holmdel. I glide through several more turns and hit the hay bales. I jump them just as we practiced for weeks before and it feels effortless. I pick up the pace, excited by the screaming spectators, the mud and obstacles. I am prepared. I feel unbreakable.
I see Coach multiple times but cannot hear him as he glances down at his clipboard and yells garbled words at me. I wonder where my teammates are and how they are feeling. I wonder how I am even doing because it is impossible to tell pace-wise with all the mud. I am covered head to toe from running carelessly through deep puddles and getting caught in the kick-back from other girls’ spikes. Even though it is under 40 degrees and I am soaking wet, only wearing a singlet and briefs, I do not feel cold. I only feel alive.
The second lap proves to be more taxing and I begin to feel the familiar ache in my quads. Pushing harder, I reassure myself the finish is now closer than the start. I am more cognizant of the puddles I step in and with each misstep into deep mud I can feel the heaviness grow in my legs. My breath is ragged and I pump my arms harder, trying to trick my legs into turning over faster. Coach screams something at me and I know I am doing well, if only I can hold on. The drumline continues to drill its beat into my mind and I try to use it as motivation.
I think about all the training runs it took to get here. I think about Bowl Repeats at Holmdel, I think about early Saturday morning workouts and lost Friday nights in order to rest up for important races. I think about the weekly ice baths to quell aches and pains in my legs, and I think about how I have been working for this one day on my calendar for over a year. I push harder, telling myself the pain will be over soon, and this one moment will be over forever.
And then the finish line is before me. If possible, the crowds are even louder and I begin sprinting, a grimace spreading across my face with each step. I only have my eyes on the finish line and I fly right not one of the deepest puddles on the course, almost losing control and falling to the ground. Somehow, I manage to stay upright and I lean into the finish line before slowing to a stop.
I cannot stop smiling.
It is madness at the finish line as teams cluster together and wait for coaches and family to find them. As we finish, my teammates and I hang tightly onto one another, continuing to smile and hug as we catch our breaths. As we huddle together, nothing else matters. In this moment, I see only my team and they are my world.
Our parents join us as we make our way back to our team to throw our warm-ups and trainers back on. We laugh as we recount our favorite parts of the course and wait for the official results to come in. Prior to the race we were seeded 11 out of 25.
As we change our shoes Coach comes barreling into the tent.
“You girls took fourth!” He yells and we all scream at the same time, jumping up and down like little kids on Christmas morning. As we all come in for a group hug our parents clap and pride seizes my heart. I have never been happier.
© Allison Donaghy 2016 All Rights Reserved