Tuesday, October 18, 2011

All Crossed Up

The cool crisp air, the brightening trees, the amber fields and, the dew-soaked grass. To most people, these are sure signs of Fall. But to runners, these autumnal images can only mean one thing - cross country season is finally here! From the long, thin starting line, to the clusters of color-coded runners. From the leaf covered paths to the scattering of orange marking flags strewn along the course. Nothing gets your competitive juices flowing like a good, old-fashioned cross country meet!

The thrill of the chase
Cross-country running is perhaps the oldest sport known to man, reaching back to our ancestral hunters and gatherers, messengers in ancient Rome, and the pursuits of excellence in the early Olympic Games. Unique in its team concept, cross-country racing affords the camaraderie of teammates while testing one’s own limits in running over hill & dale, through forested trails, across farmers’ fields and over rocks, mud & hay bales.

Oftentimes, we reach a plateau in our road running - where merely putting one foot in front of the other on the same road, day after day, mile after mile, no longer gives us the “runner’s high” we once felt. A special feeling comes to harriers who have pushed themselves to the limits, on a hilly course, in extreme weather, with their team depending on their effort & result. For many, cross-country running can present a whole new challenge. So this year, I decided to take that challenge and mix some XC races into my usual autumn running routine.

Here's mud in your, umm,  eye
To begin my search for the true cross country "experience" I took a look at the New England XC Grand Prix. USATF-NE has put together a slate of local XC races for 2011 including the Wayland XC Festival, the Beaver Brook XC Challenge in Hollis and the New England XC Club Championships at Franklin Park in Boston. In addition to each of these three races, I planned on doing the Great Gobbler 5k - which is also serving as the 2011 Nashua High School Alumni XC Race.

The first race on the docket was the Wayland XC Festival. My club was having a difficult time scraping together bodies for this one so I convinced my son Casey to join me and enable us to have a scoring team of five. Once we arrived, Casey and I headed out onto the course for our warm up. The day was unusually warm for this time of October and for me that usually spells doom. Of course, the steep, woodsy scrambles in the middle third of the 5k didn’t bode well either!

Whether it was a symptom of recent over-training, or of just not “feeling it”, my race started slowly and only got worse from there. My first mile around the perimeter of the baseball and soccer fields was a fairly hard-earned, but slow 6:31. Mile two through the sand pit, into the woods, over the hills and along the rolling ATV track was an ego-bruising 7:24. The last mile back around the ball field was an equally painful, but slightly quicker 6:46. And, the .1 on the track was a 40 second test of will for an ugly finishing time of 21:23.

Even though his inexperience almost came back to bite him, Casey fared much better than I did. He started out with a blistering 5:40 through the first mile but struggled to maintain pace after that. Despite my dead-dog slow splits, I was making up ground on him with every step. However, in the end, he managed to stay ahead of me and ran the 3.1 mile loop in 20:49 – marking the first time he’s ever beaten me in a race. Well, I guess it had to happen eventually!

Next was the Beaver Brook XC Challenge at Maple Hill Farms in Hollis, NH. During the week leading up to the race I lessened my training volume a bit in the hopes of having fresher legs than I did the week before. Of course, the cooler & more seasonable race-day temperatures didn’t hurt either! As I warmed up on the course, I could feel a bounce in my step which, I hoped, foretold a good day of racing.

Mile 1 from the Farm House was a screaming downhill affair along the double track trail that is Cow Lane. And, the only thing slowing us down was the fairly rooty & rocky terrain. Well, that and the 8 foot wide water crossing at a swollen Beaver Brook. Never the less I came through the first mile marker in a speedy 5:56 and hit the turn around near Route 130 in 17th place and feeling pretty good.

The Start at Beaver Brook
The next mile was a bit tougher and we crossed back over Beaver Brook and up a steep hill to the Brown Lane Barn. The course then went around the barn, through the first of two field sections and up another small hill before descending back into the woods. Just as I hit the 2 mile mark (in 6:50) I drew even with another runner who ran for Greater Boston and tried to work on keeping him behind me.

Over the last mile we battled back & forth as the course pitched and rolled along the Teepee Trail, across Cow Lane and up the grueling Maple Hill Ridge Trail. At the top of the ridge, we popped back out into daylight and the final section of field which would bring us (through a series of terraced switchbacks) down to the farm - and the finish. My plan was to stay close until the top of the last hill and then use my weight advantage to hammer past my foe on the final run-in to the line.

The field of bad dreams
Unfortunately, my plan (and imagined moment of glory) never materialized. Because, just as we came around the corner at the last rise in the field, I felt my right hamstring knot up which brought me to a complete and utter stand still. I tried in vain to stretch it out and get back into the “race” but nothing worked. So, without any other recourse (and my team counting on me to finish), I slowly limped my way through the last quarter mile. I’m not sure how much time I lost due to the injury, but my 23:23 clocking certainly wasn’t indicative of how I felt for 90% of the race. Oh, well!

So, needless to say, with my hamstring acting up again, the rest of my fall cross country plans are on hold for the moment and I’m back on the bike. I hope after a few more days of light stretching and massage I’ll be able to get out there and begin running again. I do enjoy riding the bike and I know that there are precious few warm days left in the cycling season. But, now that I feel I’m on the verge of reasonable running fitness, I’m eager to keep that momentum going. If only my stupid hamstring would cooperate.

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