Meet of Champions Circa 2006

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Hello!!!

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.

Enjoy!

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!

 

© Allison Donaghy 2017 All Rights Reserved

 

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Revisiting Nike Team Nationals 2006

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?

“Get set.”

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?

“Go!”

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

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