I was honored to attended the Nike Cross Nationals Midwest Regional meet at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terra Haute, IN as an adult chaperone with the my son's cross country team and make my debut racing an XC course, something I have never done before. Since this experience was more than just a race, this really will be more like an experience-of-a-lifetime report with some race stuff included. It is very long so I am warning you now. I am including subheadings in case you want to skip through and only read the parts that are of interest. I've also included pictures to help break it up.
Why team takes the trip
The trip is not part of the school program but rather a trip coordinated by the coach to reward the kids on the team who worked hard during the year. He said he wants them to experience what it is like to run on a championship XC course. It is not part of our regular season and it's not a sanctioned event by Ohio's governing athletic body so you can think of it more like a field trip with a whole lot of coolness thrown in. It's a legit race, though, runners do have to have qualifying times, and the winner of the championship race (or perhaps the top 3 or so, I'm not sure) moves on to the national championship. The trip is not funded by the school but rather by a very small fee paid by the parents and through a few team fundraisers we have. A travel coach/bus is chartered and everyone stays in a hotel. The trip for 2016 included forty-seven cross country runners, the coach and two of his kids, and five parent chaperones. My son sprained his ankle and did quite the number on himself in October at practice so he wasn't able to run the race but because he worked so hard this season and earned a spot before he got hurt, the coach let him attend anyway. The course is pretty unique and because this RR is going to be long enough, I would check out THIS LINK to learn more about it. It's worth the read if you are not familiar because it gives you the background and history of the course itself and kind of sets the stage as to not only what I was facing for this race, but also why this was such a cool experience for someone who is new to running like me.
Why I ran: my virgin XC course experience
Before the open and championship races, Nike offers a race called the Community Race 5K where anyone can sign up to run the same course. When Rick's coach told me and my DH, Paul, that we could attend as chaperones, he mentioned there was a race I could sign up for. At first I was like "no way, there's no way I'd be able to run an XC course." I've seen some of the courses our team has had to run and this race just had broken appendage all over it with me being the clutz that I am. When I told Paul about it, he told me I should try it and that this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Someone on the SL (Chris perhaps?) suggested to watch some You Tube videos of the race to see what is it was like and when I did, my interest was peaked. I found out the coach and his two kids (ages 11 and 10) were going to run the race as well as another one of the parent chaperones so I asked my son if he would be embarrassed if I signed up for the race and when he said he didn't care and that he thought it would be kind of cool, I took the plunge and signed up. What made this extra special is the coach had singlets made for the team and he surprised me and the other parent running the race by giving us a team shirt too, telling us since we were running too, he wanted us to feel like we were part of the team. What's interesting is part of the "head game" with racing for me is what I wear when I race and I put a lot of thought into it because for whatever reason, I feel inspired by what I have on. Weird to some but that's the way it goes with me. From the moment I signed up, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to wear and nothing was clicking. When the coach surprised me with the singlet, all the sudden it was like "ding ding ding, we have a winner." Power outfit complete.
Leading up to the race, I was pretty nervous because I had never run on an XC course before and since I didn't know what to expect, I decided I was not going to run this race with any time goal in mind and that I was just going to run it for fun. Also not knowing how many people would be signing up for it, I knew an AG placing wouldn't be happening but I thought it would be nice to at least make the top 10. Another thing that played into my nerves was the mere fact it was an XC course and I as worried about twisting an ankle. The coach was telling us how nice and well groomed the course was and told me it was easier running that course than it was a road race and that while it had some hills, they weren't any worse than what I experienced during my HM in October so that helped put my mind at ease. What's funny is during out bus ride, the coach asked me and the other parents what our time goals were. We joked that we were going to PR because no matter what our times were, they would PRs because we had never done this before. He asked me why my current PR was and when I told him it was 24:27 he said "so your goal is sub 25, right?" I laughed inside because I was pretty sure there was no way that was going to happen. I honest to goodness had no idea what time to expect so mentally I just stuck with whatever time the finish clock said, as long as I wasn't crawling across the finish, I'd be happy.
Pizza for how many???
We left Saturday morning at 6 am and due charter bus policy, we had to stop every two hours so the driver could have a rest break. As I've mentioned before, my hip gives me fits if I sit for too long and I was apprehensive prior to the trip knowing I would be on the bus for around seven hours so I welcomed these stops so I could get up and move around. About 40 minutes outside of Terra Haute, we decided to stop for lunch at a small pizza place that has become a "regular" for this trip called Chicago Pizza. You can image the look of horror on the face of the waitress when we all walked in and said we wanted to eat as the restaurant was pretty full as it was. She and the other waitress took care of us like bosses and we were all fed and back on the bus within an hour.
To preview the course or not preview the course…that is the question
We arrived at the course shortly after 2. It is literally out in the middle of no where surrounded by fields and farm land. The course itself, however is not flat, not by a long shot. Granted, the hills aren't crazy steep and for those of you who run hills regularly, you probably wouldn't think anything of them but for me, oh boy! I know for certain the hills during my HM were nothing compared to this so I don't know what the coach was talking about. Yickes! The first 900 meters was deceiving because it appeared to be flat but in reality it was slow, gradual incline. 400 of those meters would also be the stretch to the finish. Yep, throw in all the hills in between and I was convinced if I ran it in 30:00, I'd be happy.
I found out that another one of the fathers who was chaperoning was going to run the race, too, so now there would be three chaperones, the coach, and his two kids running in the community race. Runners were given a chance to run the course and at first I was going to run it, too, so I would have an idea what I had gotten myself in to but the other two parents weren't going to run it so I decided to just walk the 900 meter start to get a feeling of what the ground would be like. Once I realized how even the course was, I felt a little bit better about running it but I still didn't think I was going to be very fast.
What's funny is after the team was done previewing the course, we were standing along the fence and the coach asked me what I was thought so far. I told him I wished I would have run the course too because I was getting super excited but he told me it was probably better that I didn't. I was a little confused why he would say that, after all, the team ran the course and so did he, but I just chalked it up that he thought it would be best if I saved my energy because a lot of people don't run the day before the race and maybe he thought I was one of those people. The reason would become crystal clear why he said that on Sunday which I will explain later.
Call me Jefferson, a boy from Illinois
After we previewed the course, we had to check into the hotel which was 20 minutes away, go BACK to LaVern to get our race packets, and then head back towards the hotel to a local mall for shopping and dinner. Those of us running the community race received unisex tshirts and the kids all received stocking caps (which was a "prized possession" apparently because Rick couldn't wait to get his). The race was chipped timed with shoe tags so we all got those as well. Since the shirts they gave us were just regular cotton Ts, rather than give my shirt to Rick like I usually do, since I had bought Rick and I overpriced Nike NXN shirts earlier in the day, I decided to give my race shirt to Paul. Nice wife, I know. LOL When we were on our way back to the hotel, I realized I had two chips but the coach and the other parents all just had one. Didn't think much of it, just thought they made a mistake and gave me two. When we got back to the hotel, the coach handed out the team's race packets and it was then I realized all the kids had two chips which prompted me to look at my bib and low and behold, the race volunteers had given me the wrong bib. I would be now racing as a 13 or under young boy from Illinois name Jefferson. I couldn't do anything about it at the time so when we got to the race on Sunday, I went to late registration and got it straightened out. What had happened is the volunteer Saturday night gave me the bib with the number 2606 when it should have been 2706. I was now Joy, the 46 year old from Ohio once again.
Race morning…rise and shine
We didn't get to sleep until after 11 and I was so anxious about the race when woke up at 3:30 am, I wasn't able to go back to sleep. I laid in bed until 6:30 and decided it was time to get up because I could smell the coffee wafting down the hall from the lobby. The hotel was also full to capacity mostly of people in town for the race and I knew it would be a madhouse in the small lobby where they were serving free breakfast so I wanted to get down there before the rush. Since I don't like to eat before a race, I had my usual few cups of coffee and opted for a banana with peanut butter because the race wasn't until 10:30 and I knew I'd start getting hungry. As the sun started to come up, the other parents started coming down followed by members of the team. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day; sun, blue skies, just like the day before but it was downright freezing! We could see the frost on the cars in the parking lot. I didn't bring anything to wear under my race tank because I thought it was supposed to be warm and I couldn't find arm warmers before we left for the trip and I HATE when my arms are cold at the start of a race so I was hoping it would warm up by show time. We loaded up the bus and headed to the race around 9:15.
Time for the warm up…literally
The race began at 10:30 so around 10, I told the other two parents I was going to do a short warm up run. Neither of them do warm ups for the same reasons I didn't do them either when I first started racing (I thought it would rob me of my energy needed for the race) but when I explained why I started doing them (that the first mile of any run usually sucks and doing a brief warm up makes it suck less, at least for me anyway), they decided to give it a try, too. We decided to run from the starting line down the first 900 meters and back to give us a feel of what the ground was going to be like. I started to gain confidence that running on grass wouldn't be as bad as I thought it was going to be and even though it was still cold out, the chill I had been feeling all morning had quickly disappeared. Don’t get me wrong, it was still cold but at least it was more tolerable now. FWIW my Garmin recorded the temperature at 30 during the race and although I don't think it was that cold, it probably wasn't that far off considering the low that night was 24. Brrr…
|Warming up with the other chaperone parents|
Silence is not golden
Another concern I had running this race which was probably tied for first on my list, was not being able to run with music. I won't go into all the reasons why I have to listen to music when I run, I will just say this was going to be my biggest challenge of all. There were no rules saying the community racers couldn't run with earbuds, but I told myself if I was going to embrace the true XC experience, I was going to run without music, like it or lump it. I won't lie, I did have my earbuds and iPod Nano in my pocket just in case but when I saw no one else had earbuds, I left them in my jacket at our tent in Tent City when I left for my warm up. They were blasting music from the loud speakers so I had a little glimmer of hope this wouldn't be a music-free race but that glimmer faded when the music changed to the announcer giving a play-by-play of the race after the gun went off. Of course, after the race started, I saw a woman come up from behind me with headphones on and somewhere before mile 1, I passed a guy with music playing out loud from his arm band but oh well. On a side note, even though I survived running naked without my music and I'm glad I tried it, I am by no means joining the no-music camp. I prefer to have my music and if anything, running naked reinforced that preference. Thankfully there were no heavy breathers around me so it wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. But yeah, no music is not my thing.
And we're off!
At 10:20, we decided to head over to the starting line. The other two parents and I joked around how most of the runners didn't look very "community-ish" and looked more like legit XC runners. We decided we would all start together and since the two parents know I race a lot and am a little bit faster, they said they were going to try to keep up with me but we were all going to run our "own" races and just see each other at the finish line.
It was pretty neat starting a race the way real XC runners do it; toeing up, listening to the commands, and starting off with a "wall" of people on either side. There were only 90 runners but the field was so wide it felt like there were more. Keep in mind I'm used to road races where the starting line is only so wide and we are all packed in like sardines. The gun went off and so did we and I swear people took off so fast I honestly thought we were the last three runners of the group. The coach and his two kids, on the other hand, were so fast I couldn’t even see them. His 11 year old daughter is quickly becoming one of our local run stars and even though this was his 10 year old's first race, apparently he got the good running genes because he and the coach were nowhere in sight.
I looked down at my watch and saw our pace was in the 5's and I thought it was wrong but one of the other parents had his Fitbit on and it was giving the same reading. Holy crap this was not going to be good and I told them I was going to slow down…Not to mention the breeze they talk about in one of the links I posted about the course? Yep, between my speed, the breeze, and the cold air on my lungs this was not making for a very pretty start. I thought for sure there would be walking at some point during the race because of it. I haven't done any cold weather running yet this year so my lungs haven't been acclimated to the cold air which I was instantly regretting in those moments.
As we continued, the one parent and I would announce our pace readings every so often and they were pretty dead on and still way too fast; we were now in the 7's. By the time we approached the only true downhill part of the course, my pace was in the 8's and shortly there after, the two other parents dropped behind and I quit looking at my watch. It was time to get my head into the game.
After the hill down, the rest of the course was pretty much up hill, at least if felt like it, and when I got to the first incline, I honestly thought I was going to have to walk at some point. That fast start wore me out and my heavy breathing was starting to get to me, too. Luckily, I was pretty much running alone so the only breathing driving me crazy was my own so I tried distracting myself as much as I could…I started singing or what vaguely resembles singing and I started "admiring" the ground. It truly was as "smooth" as what the coach said it would be and to be honest, after that I kind of forgot I was even running on the grass. There was one spot later on where you could see how they patched the course with sod and I took a little care running over that but other than that, it was almost like running on a golf course from a rut-free standpoint just like the coach said.
Surprisingly, I was able to run that hill without stopping to walk and I started to feel like I was in a total groove at this point. I had also passed a couple of people which gave me a little more confidence in my abilities. Remember I mentioned a woman wearing headphones? Well I decided to use my "target" strategy, select her as my target and that's helped me keep focused. Hmm, maybe I was running vicariously through her because she had tunes and I did not. LOL
The course is designed to offer many different races distances so there were different mile markers and kilometer signs all along it so it was a bit confusing to know what mile marker you were at and normally I have my Garmin set to vibrate at every mile but for some reason it wasn't vibrating. Both the confusing signs and non-vibrating watch were blessings in disguises because this was probably THE hardest race I have ever done and I was having a hard enough time just running, much less knowing where I was distance wise and I think it was better not knowing and just running.
Even though we were each running our own races, it really did feel like me and the other two parents were running the race as a team. The course snaked around a lot and there were several times I could hear the one parent behind me saying things to encourage me as I was running. There was one time we "crossed" each other and "high fived" each other from afar. The third parent had fallen a bit behind the one behind me and the only time I was able see him, I noticed he was visibly struggling and even though I could hardly breath at is was, I yelled out to him as loud as I could to hang in there and keep moving because we're all crazy and going to finish this. There were many things that were cool about this race but the comradiery we had was pretty high on the cool factor.
There were a couple of places on the course some of the XC kids were standing and cheering us on. Call it fate because even though they arbitrarily picked where they stood, they ended up being in spots I need encouragement the most. I was tired, I was trying to keep myself from having a panic attack because I could hear how heavy I was breathing, I was spent. The first group was some of our girls. I could hear them screaming my name as I approached them and it almost brought me to tears. I really can't describe the feeling but I think it's because they don't know me very well yet they were cheering me on like one of their teammates. As I ran past them, I said something to the effect of I don't know how they are able to do this all the time and how much I give them credit. The second group was some of our boys (one of being my son, Rick) further down the course and I kind of said the same thing as I ran past them. I honestly felt that way, too. This was NOT easy, not by any means, and this is what they do every Saturday for three months?! Incredible! Granted, they all have youth on their sides but still! Cross country is not for the faint of heart and I definitely had first had experience finding that out. Anyway, as I was approaching yet another incline and wondering if I'd be able to make it up, Rick yelled just as I was getting out of earshot the word "invincible". I almost started crying again. There is a song by the band Skillet called "Feel Invincible" and it's one of those songs we jam to on the radio, it's the song that always seem to come on on the way to taking him to the XC meets, and it's one of my power songs when I race so I kind of pumped my arms in the air and starting singing the lyrics in my head. I was tired, I was ready to be done, but I was suddenly feeling invincible as I made it up the approaching hill and beyond.
I knew once I saw the banner that was over the starting line that I wouldn't have much longer to go and because of way the course was set up (especially with how hilly it was), it was nowhere in sight and I was really starting to stress because I really didn't know how much longer I could keep this up. It seemed like it was an eternity and we started down a slight decline past the "shoe tree" which I will explain in a bit and I could see tent city so I knew the end was near. As soon as we reached the bottom, we made a sharp right and it was the home stretch, FINALLY! The finish line looked like it was so far away and I decided it was go time. I think the rush of knowing I was just about to complete my first XC race, something I never dreamed I would ever do, not only on one mother truck of a course that was both mentally and physically challenging/demanding, but the same course where many champions have ran, overtook the sheer exhaustion I was feeling. But you know what the best part was? When I could finally see the time clock it was still in the 25s!!!! What the ??!!! Holy moly I couldn't believe it!!!! While I was never able to catch the woman with the headphones who was my target because she was too far up ahead, I put everything I had into passing a guy who had been ahead of me the whole race and crossed the finish line in 25:43! Of course, as soon as I crossed the finish, I felt like I was about to fall over but within a minute or two my breathing was back to normal and I cheered on the other two parents as they crossed the finish line. The coach and his kids had already finished (his 11 year old daughter finished in 19:22 and he ran with his 10 year old son because it was his first race and they finished with a time of 20:21) so they met up with us at the finish line. The coach asked me what I thought of the course. I told him I was glad I didn't preview it the day before because I would have totally chickened out and not run the race. Do you remember when I said earlier that the coach told me it was better that I didn't preview the course? Well that's why. He knew how apprehensive I was about this and he said he knew if I ran it Saturday, I would have been too intimidated to try to race it. Wise man. LOL Now those of you who have coached and/or are experienced XC runners may or may not agree with this but the coach told me and the other parents that if we subtracted about 40 seconds or so from our times, that would be the equivalent road race time. If that's the case, I absolutely NAILED this race because that would put me mere few seconds above 25:00!!! You have NO idea what a freaking rush that is to know I ran that mother trucker of a course faster than some of my easier road races, and heck, even if the equivalent isn't the same, I STILL nailed it. Icing on the cake is not only did I run a killer time, I also was 3rd in my AG which exceeded my goal of making the top 10. Granted, there were only 6 of us but still. Weird thing is there was no awards ceremony so I'm not sure if I'll get anything mailed to me or not but it's cool to know I made the top 3! On a side note, according to my Garmin, the race distance was 3.2 miles. I know watches aren't always accurate but the parent who was wearing his Fitbit said his distance was 3.2 miles as well. Interesting.
Our girls ran at 11:30, our boys ran at 12:30, and our top male runner ran in the championship race at 2. There was no need for a cool down run because being a spectator at that race is quite the workout in itself because of the terrain. I tracked our mileage on my Garmin and we put in over 3 miles with all the running to different points to watching our team in their three races. Let me tell you, the course might be pristine but the areas between the course where you went to watch the various parts of the race are anything but. We kept joking we survived running the course but were going to end up on crutches being spectators because you were literally running through fields of long grass and ruts galore!
The shoe treeThere is a tree by the course known as the "shoe tree" and it is a tradition of those who run the course to throw their shoes up into to the tree. Before the last race, a bunch of the kids headed up to the tree to partake in the tradition. Can you imagine your child throwing their $50+ spikes or $100+ running shoes up in the tree? Yeah, me neither. It sure was hilarious to watch though! Rick was bummed because he had no shoes to throw. A pair had gotten knocked down so he grabbed them and was able to join in. Funny story. Two years ago, one of the boys on our team threw his shoes up in the tree, only to realize his $120 foot pod was on them. The follow year he climbed the tree, got the foot pod, and wouldn’t you know it still works.
After the last race was over, we quickly got on the bus to make the 6+ hour home. I should mention there were fire works before every race (except for mine) and I thought that was pretty cool, even if it was daytime.
Final thoughtsIf I had to sum up this experience in one word it would be wow. Wow because I can't believe I did it, wow because it was probably THE hardest race I have ever run, wow because my time far exceeded my expectations, and wow, what an amazing experience all around. The kids were great, the coach and other parent chaperones were great, and it truly was an experience of a life time. I am so glad I pushed myself completely out of my comfort zone and tried this. So you ask would I run the course again?? Oh heck yes, in an absolute heartbeat and I hope I am able to go on the trip next year because I can't wait to do it again. After my debut XC race, I have a totally new respect and adoration for XC runners and the parents who ran the race agreed. Our kids make it look so easy but now I know all to well it is anything but.
If you made it to the end, thank you for taking the time to read this. There is so much more I can say about this experience so it was hard to keep even this short.
Official statsChip time: 25:43 a course and XC PR
Splits: 8:00 8:10 8:00
|Me and my son, Rick.|