It’s been a hot minute. My 57 mile run (actually 59.8 – but who’s counting?) for Lyme disease awareness is over and it was spectacular! I can’t believe it’s over and I do plan on writing a recap of the day, but it’ll have to wait. Today, I want to post an old piece of mine about Meet of Champions back in 2006. The recent autumn weather has been giving me all the feels about past cross country seasons, and because NJ Meet of Champions is tomorrow, I decided to post an old writing piece on when my team and I won it in 2006.
Tomorrow, the girls Colts Neck XC team lines up in Holmdel Park to go for the win again. I wish I could be there, so this is me being all nostalgic and what not for the days when I was an xc machine.
November 17, 2006
November always meant the end of cross country season. The days were shorter, the air was colder, and by then the trees stood half naked, barely holding on to their brown and dying leaves. November was my favorite month. It meant I was at the peak of my training and I was ready to run fast.
In November of 2006, my team had more than a state championship title on the line. We had Nike Team Nationals. We needed more than just a win the next day. We needed speed. We needed heart and courage, and the ability to put everything on the line without fear.
Silence. None of the eight of us spoke during our shakeout run the day before state championships. The sun was already setting and we moved steadily through the somber air. We ran close, together as one. I could hear the crunch of gravel beneath our feet and when I exhaled my breath frosted up in front of me like a wispy cloud in the sky. It was a beautiful evening and the wind blew the dead leaves across the path in a swirling pattern, dancing together. As we looped the soccer field, the sun was low enough to peek through the thin trees on the other side of the park, causing great rays of light to escape, creating a striped pattern on the field.
Our captains stopped toward the end of the run and the rest of us huddled around them knowingly. Words were not important at this point. Or at least they were not as important as the electric feeling in the air. We were ready. From the moment we lost the bid to Nike Team Nationals the previous year we began our preparations for success in 2006. Practice six times a week. High mileage weeks. Speed work. Hill work. Long runs. Tears. Blood. Courage. Friendship. I looked at my captains and realized this was it. There would not be another Colts Neck high school cross country season for them when they graduated at the end of the year. We knew the only way for us to get to Nationals was for each and every one of us to give our all.
We huddled together only for a few moments, but it seemed like hours. I felt serene, despite the nervous energy pulsing through every vein in my body. I knew I would never forget this moment.
After practice, Erin and I walked from the locker room to my mom’s waiting car. We did not say anything to one another. I looked down and closed my eyes as the car drove away, sputtering exhaust into the dark sky.
I visualized the race the next morning. I saw the park littered with people, teeming with its own heartbeat as spectators gathered by the starting line. I saw myself racing through the woods, going up and down and up and down with the rhythm of the progressing hills. I followed the girls ahead of me like the rolling swells of the ocean. I felt my lungs screaming, my legs growing heavy, and I felt the pain and embraced it. I could smell the crisp, autumn air and hear the undying roar of the crowd urging me onwards to the finish line. I could test the fear of my competitors and sense their aches and pains, so much worse than my own.
I could see the finish. Feel my feet giving out from under me. Feel my entire body screaming as the last of my energy escaped my gasping breaths. I could feel the scratchy, yellow ropes at the finish chute, and could feel my breath come back to me as the ground slowly stopped spinning beneath me and I finally felt anchored in place.
I was ready.
November 18, 2006
I can hear the screams of the crowd through the woods. I am close, within a mile. I have run Holmdel so many times before it now feels like I am greeting an old friend. I know every inch of the course, every tree root, bend in the path, and certainly every hill. I know when I am supposed to feel fresh, dig deep, hurt, and hold on. Now was the holding on part.
Despite my nerves and the extra electricity laced through the air the race started like any other. When the starting gun rang clear I jolted off the line like a coiled spring let loose. I felt lost within the hundreds of girls sprinting across the field as we jostled for position before the course bottle-necked up our first real hill. I settled in. This was my sit and wait time.
No longer did I feel the pressure of our team placing first. I had one goal: focus on the moment. Catch the girl in front of me. Lean into the hill. Don’t. Let. Go.
And now the finish line was close. My father had been standing at the entrance of the path right before we plummeted back into the woods at the 2.5 mile mark, yelling his support. Con Te Partiro, Time to Say Goodbye, he shouts in his always steady voice. We both know I am running the fastest I ever have at Holmdel. If only I can hold on. Earlier, when I emerged out of the Bowl and hit the two mile mark my coach yelled out one of my fastest miles at the park, even with the monstrous uphill.
My father and the rest of the crowd disappear as the path curves into the woods. I have no idea where my other teammates are but based off the crowd excitement, I know we are doing well. A few other girls surround me as we race down hill after hill, making our much deserved descent to the finish line. I can hear the booming cheers from the finish, beckoning me forward. My body is screaming and I swear my lungs are going to burst, but I push it more anyways.
Without a win this will be our last cross country race of the season and then it would be onward to the endless loops of the indoor track. I wanted more xc and I wanted to win and go to nationals more than ever. I push up the final hill, short but steep, and pass two girls as we hit the crest. I open up my stride at the top just like my coach taught me and I am confident I can beat them out on the homestretch as they fall quickly behind me.
When I burst out of the woods the atmosphere is like none I have ever experienced. The homestretch is completely lined with spectators and they jump up and down as they cheer in a wild sea of colors. The roar is deafening and their screams fill me with adrenaline once more. Some individuals are standing on their cars and RVs parked on the far side of the field and they frantically wave signs in the air as they try and balance. I begin to sprint and the crowd catches on, screaming so loud I am afraid the girls I passed on the final hill are catching me again. But I dare not look back. I push harder and I can hear my coach screaming, GO GO GO, and I reach for more inside but there is nothing left to give. My legs are numb and my breathing is almost hyperventilating, but I am upon the finish line. I can see my two teammates already finished and I hear them screaming my name, giving me the final push to lean forward across the line.
An official steadies me by the arms and pulls me gently, almost nicely, from the finish line where girls are continuously coming in. With a pat on the back she pushes me forward into the finish chute and I grab the yellow ropes to steady myself as I stumble forward with the other girls. I have finished 35th out of 181 girls. As I gasp for breath I catch eyes with my finished teammates and before I know it I am in their arms as we hug and wait. Within minutes the rest of our team is finished and my coach has already calculated the score on his clipboard. We have won the Meet of Champions by 66 points. My parents hug me and then hug Erin. I look around, at my teammates, my coaches, and I see nothing but smiles and laughter.
A little while later we are standing atop a podium accepting our first place medals and trophy. My smile has not left my face since finishing and I happily look down at my parents and friends as they cheer and clap ecstatically for us. Cameras flash. And in that moment we are not only standing atop the podium but it feels as if we are atop the world. Invincible. Completely untouchable.
Good luck to CNXC tomorrow! It was fun for me to look back on this memory. If you’re feeling even more nostalgic, you can re-read my post about NTN HERE.
Stay tuned for my Penn State to Bucknell Run Recap in the next week or so!
It’s time to talk about Ragnar! I had SO MUCH fun this past weekend in Tennessee with my team as we raced from Chattanooga to Nashville as an Ultra team. I struggled a little bit out there for sure, but with the help of my team I was able to make it through all my legs right around the pace I projected myself hitting.
My team, Stucco Running Club Ultra Club, took seventh overall in the race, and we were the first Ultra team across the line (we are technically ranked in the men’s ultra division because we had 4 men and only 2 women). So, let’s just jump into the dirty details of what went right and what went wrong.
Wednesday Night (Pre-flight)
I could not sleep for the life of me. Most of it was from excitement, but as the time passed by, I started to stress out from my lack of sleep. I didn’t really sleep well at all Monday or Tuesday night so I started thinking about how the lack of sleep was going to affect me. I ended up getting five hours, but it really wasn’t enough.
Thursday – Day Before Start Dave and I woke up at 3:45 AM with two of our teammates who spent the night, to get to the airport for our 6:00 AM flight. I didn’t even feel tired because I was so excited, and I couldn’t sleep on the plane.
I think the first mistake of the weekend came today. My stomach was really upset this morning (maybe from taking all my medicine at 3:45 AM? Something I never do?) and I couldn’t eat breakfast. I managed a protein bar but it made me want to throw up for a good 2 hours. By the time we landed in Nashville I was so focused on having some coffee, I didn’t get anything else to eat. While we waited for Erin and our other teammate’s flight to land, Dave and I went to pick up our snazzy 15 person van from the rental place in Nashville.
Once everyone landed we started our 2 hour drive down to Chattanooga. It was a really pretty drive as we went through some of the mountains, and then I realized we were going to be climbing right back through them the next day. It wasn’t until we neared Chatt and many hours later did I realize how hungry I was. Erin and I ate some pistachios while shopping for some race necessities in Walmart. Once we were done shopping we headed straight to the hotel to offload our stuff and immediately go out for lunch.
We ended up at a Panera and I had some tomato soup, salad, and potato chips. Honestly, not ideal the day before a race, but I told myself I would have a heartier dinner to make up for the lack of breakfast and lunch. We walked around the waterfront after lunch and Erin and I re-lived some Ironman memories from her race this past fall, and then we all tried to nap for a bit in the hotel. I only managed 15 minutes of sleeping in the hour I laid down.
We had team check-in at 6 PM, and I knew I wanted to squeeze a shake-out run in before we headed across the river. I hadn’t run since my massage on Wednesday, so I headed out the door with Erin and Jeremy for a veryyyyyyy slowwwww 2.5 mile shakeout. It was glorious. My legs felt amazing and it was such a beautiful evening for a run by the river. The shake-out made me feel confident and ready for the race the next day – my calves felt fine, my achilles were loosened up, and I didn’t really have much leg pain. I was so excited!
The rest of the day consisted of the team check-in and dinner. Erin, Jeremy and I ended up going to Whole Foods because we figured it would be my best option to find gluten-free and dairy-free options, but because it was later in the evening they didn’t have much out on their hot bar. Even though the food I ate was really good, I knew it wasn’t enough. I should have gotten more, but because I wasn’t really hungry I just brushed it off and went back to the hotel to sleep.
FRIDAY – DAY ONE OF RAGNAR
Woke up around 8 AM after not a great night of sleep. It took me a super long time to fall asleep because of surrounding noises, and I forgot I had my ear plugs until 1 hour later into trying to fall asleep without them. Erin and Jeremy went down to breakfast and I stayed in bed, and actually managed another hour of undisturbed sleep before rolling out of bed to catch the free breakfast.
There wasn’t anything for me to eat at breakfast. I had a little box of Frosted Flakes and a banana, but nothing else offered was gluten free. I meant to make myself some gluten free bread with peanut butter when I got back to the hotel room, but I completely forgot while getting ready because we left all of our food in the car overnight.
We headed over to the race start around 11 AM-ish because we needed to check out of our hotel. Our start time wasn’t until the last wave, 2 PM, so we still had plenty of time to wait. Erin and I ran a few last-minute errands to pick up some needed van items, but most of the time we just sat around waiting for 2 pm. We did decorate our van during this time and it came out awesome!
FINALLY, 2 PM rolled around and our team was able to start. I was #4 in the line-up of six runners, so I still had a few hours until my first leg.
3:34 PM – LEG #1 (10.2ish miles, 1119 ft gain) – I was incredibly nervous for my first leg. It was my hardest by far, and I was nervous about how I would feel climbing up the mountain. When Justin handed off the bracelet to me, I flew out of the transition area way too fast. I wanted to go around 8:30 min/mile pace, but whenever I looked down at my watch during the first two miles I was between 7:20-7:45 min/mile pace. I tried to keep myself under control but my adrenaline was still pumping. We had to run on the “shoulder” of this big road, but the shoulder was so small (and the rumble strips took up most of it) it was incredibly unnerving to run, especially when huge 18-wheelers flew down the mountain past me.
I have to say running along this shoulder was probably my least favorite part of the race because of how dangerous it felt. I had one dog come after me, and after I wasted my energy screaming at it as I trucked up the mountain, it decided to stay on its lawn and not keep coming after me.
Around five miles (still climbing) I decided to try and fuel, but realized my stomach still felt way too uneasy to eat my Gu. Luckily, I brought cliff blocks as well and I forced myself to eat two of those. I was also sipping Tailwind (MY SAVIOR) so I felt pretty confident I’d be able to get through the rest of the leg without bonking.
I walked three times trying to make it to the top of the mountain, but it was planned and I felt very much in control. When I finally reached the top and saw the downhill road before me, it was such a glorious feeling even though I still had 4 miles to go. As I ran down I felt like I was flying and everything was effortless. I forgot about my stomach, and all I felt was happiness. Despite the road being treacherous, it was an absolutely gorgeous run along the river and it made me feel so grateful to be in Tennessee with my friends.
When I finished, they handed me a medal for running the “hardest” leg of the race. We hopped in the van shortly after I finished, so we could beat our runner to the next transition and I was feeling pretty good. I chugged a gatorade as I sat in the van, and slowly I felt my stomach pain returning. I tried to eat a picky bar but I ended up only nibbling at the corners because I suddenly felt so sick.
I don’t know what set off the stomach pain, but as soon as I discovered I couldn’t eat, I knew I was in trouble. I started sipping my Tailwind mixture as much as I could – liquid calories are better than no calories. I laid down in the back of the van while my teammates kept forging ahead, and before I knew it, my turn was coming up again. So I filled my water bottle with my tailwind, got all my reflective gear together and tried to mentally prep for my second leg.
7:36 PM – LEG #2 (6.8ish miles)
When I stood outside the van waiting for my next leg, I didn’t feel as bad as when I was just laying in the stuffy van. The fresh air was really nice and there was a little bit of a chill in the air, so I put my arm warmers on because I was shivering a lot. I tried not to psych myself out about my stomach as I waited for Justin to come into transition and I tried to stay positive.
As I started out, I didn’t feel too bad. Again, I was dealing with an annoyingly-small shoulder and rumble strips, but because the road wasn’t as busy I could run a little bit into the road without fearing for my life. I told my team to meet me about 2ish miles up the road in case I was feeling incredibly horrible and around 2 miles I could see our van parked on the side of the road at a pull-off. I ripped my arm sleeves off as I came to them and asked Dave again to stop a mile or so up the road because I wasn’t feeling great.
The course was rolling – very manageable after my first leg. It wasn’t long before I saw the van up ahead again and Dave and Erin crossed the street to make sure I was okay. When Dave said, “see you at the finish” I had a panic moment. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like I was going to be able to make it to the transition, even though I only had about 3.5 miles to go. Because it was “nighttime hours” and we are allowed to have pacers in the night, I asked Dave to jump in and run with me to the transition. I kept running as he bolted back to the van to get ready and I thought the van was just going to leapfrog me and drop Dave off in front of me. I had NO IDEA he actually just grabbed reflective gear and started chasing after me – not until I heard him yell behind me. I stopped and waited and we continued on together.
Talking with Dave through the next few miles was helpful for my mind. I was feeling stressed because of how competitive my teammates were with the other ultra teams, and I felt like I was going to ruin everything by not feeling well. Running with Dave reminded me this was supposed to be fun, and I felt a little better by the time I finished. I tried making myself a peanut butter gluten free sandwich after my second leg, but I only managed to eat half of it before feeling sick again. So I continued downing my tail wind and tried to lay down anytime the van was moving, and get up at each transition for fresh air and to stretch my legs.
10:59 PM – LEG #3 (6.1 miles)
Because I was still having problems eating, I was very concerned with this leg in the middle of the night. I hadn’t slept, and I was nervous about the 6 miles all by myself. There weren’t many other runners around, and Dave decided to run with me for the first 3 miles. I’m happy he was there because we were in the middle of no where and I didn’t see one other runner on the road. At this point, my stomach felt like one gigantic knot and I know it’s because of how empty it was with the lack of food and plenty of miles. Other than the stomach pain, my legs felt fine though, so I kept plodding along at my target pace.
Around 3 miles, Dave peeled off and hopped back in our van and I continued on alone. The last 3 miles weren’t bad at all, they were actually very beautiful. I could finally see some other runners ahead of me and we were running through farmland, and a big beautiful sky of stars stretched out above us. This was one of my favorite parts of Ragnar.
When I finished, I felt relieved because I only had a 2.5 mile leg next and I was halfway done. I hung out with Erin until she was off on her leg and then I tried to sleep. Joke’s on me because I couldn’t fall asleep once, but laying down and closing my eyes was nice at least. I managed to eat a Huma Gu during this time as well and a few more cliff blocks.
3:00 AM – LEG #4 (3.8 Miles)
Ha, yes – I know I said above my next leg was only going to be 2.5 miles. THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT, but I was wrong. Turns out, we looked at the legs wrong, and my 2.5 mile leg wasn’t until Leg 6, and I had 3.8 miles as my Leg #4, and then close to 7 miles for my Leg #5. Internally, I was having a breakdown, but I decided to pull myself together because 4 miles would feel like nothing after my longer legs. I pushed the 7 mile leg out of my mind.
As I got ready for Leg #4, I actually didn’t feel so bad. I knew I had been hydrating well despite not being able to eat much, and Erin and I joked around before my start, making me feel immensely better. I managed to eat a few handfuls of potato chips as well while we waited for Justin to come through, and this made me feel a little more confident. I brought my water bottle full of Tailwind with me even for the 4 miles because of my lack of eating, and I figured if I could keep sipping the stuff throughout the event I would be okay.
The 3.8 miles went by really fast. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful leg or anything, and there were a few good hills in there, but I felt good other than the stomach tightness. I actually passed a few runners on this leg and this made me feel even more confident. The transition area popped up on me in no time, and I was incredibly happy I made it through this leg on my own and without breaking down.
I stretched for a little bit, tried to sleep again, and watched the sun start to rise over the beautiful farmland. Even without sleep I felt calm during this time.
6:39 AM – Leg #5 (6.8 miles)
Now that I had to actually think about running almost 7 miles, I had a little freak-out. I was so worried how I was going to get through the leg because I wasn’t stomaching any real food. When I got out of the van at my exchange and started to get ready, Dave could tell I was upset. Because it was still before 7:15 AM (when nighttime hours are officially over) he promised to run a little bit with me because I was feeling so sick.
I had on my new lyme don’t kill my vibe tank top, but I couldn’t help thinking my lyme was destroying me during this race. I wanted so badly to be strong, but I felt like my body had crumpled under the stress of the race. I wasn’t able to take any of my medicine in the van, and the times I thought I might be able to, I decided against it incase they upset my stomach again. I was in some sort of state.
I started this leg nice and slow and tried not to think about how far I had to go. The sun was rising and it was finally getting light out again, and as I turned a corner onto a country road, an entire field of purple clover was illuminated with new light. It was so beautiful and serene, it made me forget about my stomach for a few minutes and feel lucky to be running. Running has allowed me to see some of the most beautiful scenery.
Dave met me about 2 miles down the road and talked with me as we walk/ran some of the bigger hills. About 3/4 of the way through the leg, my entire body began to ache. My neck and shoulders tightened up so much I could barely move, and the pain caused me to walk several more times. I wasn’t sure if I was herxing from the stress on my body or my muscles were just tense from the mileage, but I got a little worried here.
I was so happy to see the exchange at the end of this leg. When I passed off the bracelet, my neck was so stiff and painful it made me completely forget about my stomach. I laid down in the van for a little bit until the pain subsided and after an hour or so, it was pretty much back to normal.
11:13 AM – Leg #6 (2.3 miles)
Finally! My 2 mile leg! Once I was done with Leg #5, I knew I would get through my last exchange, no matter how my stomach was feeling. My mood substantially lifted after finishing #5, and I was even able to eat another GU, take in a few cliff shots, and some potato chips. I kept drinking my Tailwind because I knew it was my main source of energy and I am so grateful for the stuff and actually thinking to bring it!
It was a lot warmer out for this final leg and there was absolutely no shade. I was feeling a little competitive with the other ultra team as I waited for Justin to come in, and I decided I would not let them pass me in the two miles – no matter what.
I went out much faster than I did for any of my other legs, except maybe leg 1. There was a decent hill about .5 miles in and as much as I wanted to walk up it, I thought about the other team catching me and I leaned in and powered through. The downhill was fantastic, but at the bottom was a major road where a police officer was supposed to help me cross to the other side so I could run against traffic. Mr. Police Officer was NO HELP at all, and I stood around on the corner of the street for a few minutes trying to make the pass myself. As I looked from left to right, from right to left, for an opportunity to cross, I kept thinking about the other ultra team coming over the hill to catch me.
When I finally got across the road I looked back at the hill for our competition but luckily no one was in sight. It was a straight shot to my finish from here and I pushed it to the exchange trying to keep a good distance on them.
It felt so amazing to pass the bracelet off for the last time in my exchange. Part of me was in disbelief I actually made it through the 36 miles, especially because I felt so horrible after only leg #1. But I was so happy to be done and to cross my final leg off, and even though my stomach was still hurting and I couldn’t eat yet, I was in a much better mood.
Erin was our final leg. It was a much-too-long 8 mile leg to the finish line, and I felt so antsy waiting for her in front of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Before the final exchange, the other men’s ultra team was telling Erin how they were only 3 minutes behind us, and we’re pretty sure they were trying to psych Erin out. But the joke’s on them because Erin could have cared less what they said to her, and they ended up being about 30 minutes behind us, not 3.
Seeing Erin turn the final corner to the finish was so exciting. We all ran across the finish line with her and finished as the first ultra team of the race, and 7th team overall. Our time is listed as 23:30:41.1 on Ragnar’s website, but I’m pretty sure you have to add an hour to all the finishing times listed on the site because of a time zone we ran through, or something like that.
As sick as I felt for the most part, I would absolutely do another ultra ragnar relay. I had so much fun with my team and it was incredibly motivating to work together and to stay strong for one another. My stomach is STILL a little messed up from this weekend but I’m working on feeling better, and my legs aren’t feeling too bad either.
Next time, I know I need to get much better sleep before the event and really fine-tune a nutrition plan. I think I didn’t get enough calories in before the race, and I CERTAINLY did not get enough in during the race. I know now how difficult it actually is, and I think resting up a lot more before the race will help me feel more primed.
But I’m so happy we did it (and did well), and it’s still all I can think about. Some of my teammates and I are already planning to do another next year :).
And that’s about it. I probably won’t do a training update for this week because it’s just a recovery week and honestly I’m not doing much. I want my legs to recover as much as possible for next week’s long run, so I’ve only ran yesterday and will probably only run a few more times this weekend. I plan to go for a nice long walk today to shake out my legs some more, and that’s about it. If my legs are still feeling fatigued by the end of this week, I might go ahead and get a massage early next week so I’m all ready for my 20-22 miler.
I’ll be brutally honest here: I SUCKED in my race today. There’s no way around it or better way to say it – I tanked a 5k I should have never signed up for in the first place.
I could give you a million excuses as to what went wrong: my shin felt like it was going to explode, I’ve been extra fatigued/sick lately, I haven’t raced since April, I went out too fast…but I’m not one for putting weight in my excuses. I was exactly on pace for my first two miles (6:07 and 6:15 downhill) but once I hit the flatlands I let the dull ache in my shin rattle my mind. The “what-ifs” flooded in, the “I can’ts” screamed louder than I expected. I’ve ran multiple 5ks in my past few weeks of training at 19:30 pace and done half mile repeats at 6 min/mile pace, so I know my pace wasn’t the problem. My head just wasn’t in it. It’s just fucking three miles, I tried telling myself but it didn’t matter. As soon as the pain came creeping in I used it as my scapegoat.
I know how to run through pain. If there’s one thing I’m good at it’s staying mentally strong when the rest of my body is whining and crying for reprieve. I’ve been doing it for 16 years and I’ll continue to do it until I cannot any longer. There’s not a day my right knee doesn’t ache and remind me of the early arthritis there, the thin white scar from surgery always smirking up at me challengingly and knowingly.
What happened today had nothing to do with being out of shape – my heart was never in it.
It was a beautiful morning for racing. Despite the humidity it was in the 60s and the gray sky stayed overcast – a perfect autumn morning. I warmed up and felt good despite the shin pain. I kept to myself as I always do and pushed away any doubts. It was my first time racing in my uniform and it stressed me out. The need to prove myself filled me entirely. I took all the fun out of racing because of the uniform I had on my body, and I knew it in the moment. I knew right then, ten minutes before the gun, my heart wasn’t in the race and I didn’t want to be there.
Over the years I’ve learned I’m not a short race kind of person, but I guess I haven’t learned my lesson yet. I have no speed and I lack those fast-twitch muscles essential for kicking. I do strides, tempo workouts, intervals, but ALAS – nothing. I build strength over distance and I’m most successful when the race is AT LEAST a 10k (and even that’s still too short). I trust myself with long distance running. When I was training for my first marathon it didn’t matter I was only running four times a week and less than 30 miles a week. I did hard bike workouts and always hit my long run. I wasn’t surprised when I qualified for Boston Marathon off my first marathon attempt, and it’s because it didn’t matter I was low mileage – it’s because I believed with my heart I could do it, so I did. It was that simple. I never doubted myself finishing for one moment.
But today the first mile felt like an eternity. I thought about dropping out. As my feet slapped the pavement I wondered what in the hell I was doing in a 5k with a bunch of fast racers who actually trained for this? I felt embarrassed and ashamed of myself in that last mile, but as I stopped to walk 2.5 miles in (absolutely loathing myself) I also learned what I really want these days.
My competitive edge is gone. It’s been gone for awhile now, but I certainly realized it out on the course today. I don’t care when someone passes me – it doesn’t motivate me, it doesn’t propel me to go faster. What I care most about these days is having fun and enjoying my running, especially when I don’t know how many years I have left (I know I will have a knee replacement in my future – just hopefully not any time soon). I care about getting healthy again. I care about trying to enjoy every little moment in life. Racing in uniform, I put too much pressure on myself to succeed because I was afraid of letting others down. But after this morning it’s clear to me I need to stop caring about what I think everyone else is thinking, because all I do is forget myself in the process.
Lately, the woods have been calling. I fantasize about running beautiful trails in the mountains, losing myself on dirt paths through the forest and climbing to new heights both literally and physically. In high school and college I didn’t just love cross country because I loved competitive running (although I did then), but I also loved letting go and becoming one with nature, losing myself in the surrounding trees. With each foot fall I’d pound out a little bit of my anger and fear, and I was never afraid to chase my dreams through the hills, fields and foliage. Nature makes me feel strong. Nature fills the emptiness inside of me even running can’t fill. When I combine the two I feel invincible.
I won’t say I completely regret today’s race (90% regret) because without failure, I can’t learn more about myself. This morning I put on a bracelet my father gave me when I broke 20:00 minutes in a 5k for the first time back when I was in middle school. I hoped it could bring some sort of luck, spirit and competitive edge back to me. I watched it jingle on my wrist during the race but it didn’t inspire me to go faster. Back then, breaking 20 was exactly what I wanted. And as much as I wanted it this morning I didn’t have the heart to actually go after it.
Big changes are coming my way. Maybe I’ll find out what’s going on with my health (I’m in the middle of being tested more extensively for Lyme disease and other tick borne diseases after I found some abnormal flags on blood work from last year) and maybe I won’t but I’m going to make changes now. I’m following my heart and going to be looking into trail racing. I plan on competing in an ultra Ragnar Relay next year and perhaps even a 50 miler on my own. I’m going to start eating a more plant-based diet to try and bring the inflammation down in my body and see if it can help not only my dismal health but my running as well.
I’m always afraid to talk about my dreams and aspirations because I’m afraid of failure. Because I don’t believe in myself. But I’m going to believe I can do this because it’s what my heart is screaming for me to do, and has been for awhile. I’m going to believe I can do this because if I let my fear of failing and what others think of me shape my life, than I’ll never really live.
And all it took was a shitty 5k this morning for me to realize it.
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.
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.
My last post was a little heavy, so I’ll lighten it up this time around with an excerpt from a piece I’m working on. Everyone remembers their first race. And I’d like to share mine with you.
I fumble with my shoe laces and struggle to bring them together in a secure, double knot. My father tells me to stretch so I listen. Without his instruction I become lost in the swirling anxieties know as the pre-race jitters. Gingerly, I lean up against a young oak tree and pull my heel toward my butt to stretch my quad. I can feel the muscle extend and contract, and I continue to pull upward on my foot until the tightness subsides. It is my first 5k. I want to vomit.
The early morning breeze gently brushes across my face, cooling the perspiration gathering at my brow. It is October and the trees are itching to shed their leaves, and a few have already started to transform into red and yellow hues. An electrifying jolt of excitement pulses through the air as runners warm up and prepare for the race but all I can think about is how afraid I am of this apparent “starting gun” and its sound shattering the peaceful morning. Twisting and turning, my stomach wrenches my gut upwards and I wonder if the 5k is even worth all the discomfort.
I am only ten years old. My knotted, brown hair is pulled back tight in a ponytail and my light blue windbreaker engulfs my scrawny figure. Suddenly, a megaphone rips through the chattering runners and spectators, beckoning us forward to the road where the race will begin.
When I step up to the starting line the other runners tower over me like monstrous skyscrapers lining a city sidewalk. Immediately, I am lost in their shadows. Even though I have my father and Erin at my side I cannot help but feel alone in the sea of racers. I gulp in a deep breath of air, trying not to feel overwhelmed in the waves of vibrant racing jerseys and running flats. With shaking hands I finally peel off my jacket and toss it next to the road on the grass still shimmering in the waking sun’s rays, chilled with the morning dew. I am wearing a sleek running suit my father bought, one for me and one for Erin, while he was away on business. Still, I stand knock-kneed like a lost toddler searching desperately for their mother in the crowd.
Finally a man with a long, white beard walks out onto the road to face the antsy mob of runners. He has a bike at his side and his helmet sits askew on his head, the nylon straps hanging loosely beneath his chin. An enormous red and white megaphone is held inches from his lips as he announces the instructions for the start. Everyone is moving: jumping up and down, doing their final stretches and shaking out their eager legs. The start seems inevitably and torturously drawn out and we mirror a tumultuous ocean, rolling and vibrating with anxious movements.
And then a hushed silence falls upon the runners as we realize the starting commands are only seconds away. I grow tense like the rest, straining for the ready, set, go and then the siren is wailing and everyone lurches forwards like a released rubber band. The churning in my stomach dissipates as I run; my feet pounding the pavement at stride with my sister. I am encompassed by the encouraging cheers of spectators yelling as they see us off for our three mile voyage. Adrenaline seizes my body and it pumps wildly through my veins with each greedy gasp of air. My father is lost in the frenzy of runners, no doubt somewhere up ahead, and my sister is already surging ahead of me, pushing what seems an inseparable gap. It is just me and the black asphalt, and I accept the challenge offered by the ticking clock at the finish line.
There is a certain innocence in one’s first race, and as I turn the corner onto another road I look at the pavement stretched before me, speckled with runners moving relentlessly forward. None of these people know who I am and they had no expectations of what sort of time I should run. The only pressure could come from myself and I had no care about each mile split or whether I was going to break a certain time at the finish line. My only goal is to finish.
I am nameless to these runners and even though I don’t realize it at the time, I should have been extremely gratified by being anonymous in the crowd. I could breeze though the race without being judged. But from the moment I crossed the finish line I would create a baseline – a time I always had to strive to lower and improve. There is no turning back after the first race. There is always something to prove.
A tall orange cone marks the turn-around point and it finally appears ahead, glimmering like a beacon. The others now begin flying down the opposite side of the road, leading with the efficiency of an easy stride and focused composure. Soon Erin is navigating the hair-pin turn around the cone and we exchange looks as we pass, with the mutual understanding neither wants to waste our breath with words of encouragement. When I finally turn I face the homestretch jeering at me with the challenge to hold myself together and finish with some sort of vigor and strength. But my senses become numb with every step and I no longer notice the activity of others around me.
Exhaustion settles into my bones and my arms begin to swing in haphazard fashion while my legs become blocks of cement. As my eyes glaze over with the repetition of my stride, I stubbornly push through the mental wall, focusing on a wiry tree in the distance growing closer and closer. At the end of the road my internal fuel tank teeters dangerously at empty but I slowly pick up the pace anyways until I am sprinting, my body screaming for the finish line ahead. The small crowd cheering propels me forward and then nothing else matters. I am across the finish line as one of the top female finishers.
I walk aimlessly, my ragged breath rattles my frame. I look up and watch the wispy clouds swirl in endless circles against the turquoise sky.