Monday, January 30, 2012

Confidence is a Decision-XC Race Report

Last night my wife asked me if I would have ever dreamed that I would be once again a part of a (good) team running in high level competitions.  The answer was clearly "no."  When I graduated college I figured the only sports team I would ever be on would be in a church flag football league or a YMCA basketball team.

So the fact that I find myself in a running club who competes in a lot of really cool races is a huge blessing and opportunity for me.  The thing is, in order to race at the big boy competitions you've got to get yourself on the team.  For example, we're currently in a cross-country championship series which started with the 92 department, moved to Ile-de-France regionals, and the next step will be semi-nationals to see who qualifies for Nationals, a huge race.  If I was living in the States I would probably look at this and think that it's just a bunch of old guys getting out there for fun, and that certainly exists, but the cross-country national championships are the highlight of the French racing/Track and Field calendar for the year. With 15,000 in attendance and world class runners (yeah, for real), it is a huge honor to participate.  We're not quite there yet, still one race to go, and we would never be in that elite race, but the fact that we're even in the picture is extremely exciting for me.

Yesterday's race was the regional championship for the west of the Paris region (a population of about 5 million or so).  We had won the last race but quickly found out that the team who took second hadn't let all the race horses go in that one because they dominated us this week.  As we came into this week we knew that we would qualify for the next round but to have a solid outing was important.

For me personally this has been a mental challenge.  I'm in good shape and ready to race at a high level but it's taken me quite a while to "believe" again.  Only 4 guys count for the team (instead of the 5 I was used to for college cross-country) so they need me to step up.  When you line up next to guys who regularly run 31 minutes for 10k and know that you need to finish with them, and when you haven't run a lot of races to give you that kind of confidence lately, it's a decision.

So, yesterday, we warmed up as a team (I LOVE that part), talked about the race, sized up the competition, threw on our spikes, and we were off.  This race was 4150 meters of pure pain.  Right before the race, Benjamin, one of my teammates who finished first for us yesterday (and 9th overall) said "man, I'm kind of afraid of what's about to happen.  Not afraid of losing, afraid of the pain I'm going to inflict on my body.  It's like when you're waiting to get a shot at the doctor."  Yeah, pretty much.  Just a side note, the guys who are in the front-ish pack run around 3:45 for 1500 (or 4:01 for the mile).

Gun goes off and it's almost an all-out sprint for 200 meters before the hair pin turn that only fit about 3 guys around.  I think I was literally air born on that corner getting carried by bigger guys but I remember sort of holding up the guy next to me because I didn't want the whole group to go down.  And after that it's just get into a fast groove.  I mean, pretty fast.  The pace on the straight parts was at least sub 5 early and then just varied based on what was going on.  We did two little loops at the beginning with a hill of about 50-75 meters, nothing bad, but when you're rocking it knocks the wind out a bit.  Then down a little and into a woods part where no one could pass.  The brutal part of this race is that it's just a pure battle from the beginning.  And with all of the hair pin turns every time you're sprinting almost all-out after having nearly stopped around the turn.  A few times we hit major mud patches but then you just re-explode into a quick pace.

All of the pace changes are tough to manage but are great for racing because you can see exactly the moment when the guy in front starts suffering.  My basic strategy in a race like this is to say "ok, let's go get the next guy."  Usually when I pull up to him I can tell he's hurting worse so I sit right behind his shoulder and then throw in a hard surge that he's not going to come back from.  But...this all takes confidence.  Yesterday I saw a pack of 3 guys from one team just in front of me and used this strategy to take the whole group.  They didn't come back.  Then I hear their coach yelling "what the mother #%#$ he#% you bunch of #%$# pieces of #%#$, you don't let a guy take the whole team?"  The thing is, when a coach does that I just take off, it's super motivating to me, and I doubt it's very productive for them.

Finishing the race was fun but was a challenge.  I hit this big huge mud puddle at about 400 to go that was up to mid-shin for about 20 meters so you just power through that and then let it rip for the rest.  I took two guys on the final sprint (including a Kenyan who had been talking a bit of smack this week) and it was really a good day overall.

Two weeks ago before the department championship race I made a decision.  Take off my watch and just race hard.  Don't let up, believe in what you're doing, and know that your training is on par with anyone out there.  When someone comes to challenge, just race them.  When a hill starts hurting, just pound it.  I'm a runner who has been way too concerned with pace, with numbers, and with times.  It's time for me to start running and hurting a bit when I race (usually I hold back afraid I'll "burn out.")

Now we have two weeks to get ready for the semi-nationals and while the team might not make it, if I can run the same way I might be able to qualify for that race which would just be enormous for me and I could bring the whole family etc. etc.  And yes, I'm still going to run the Paris marathon, and yes I'll still run a bunch of 20 milers but to be honest, I'm having a LOT of fun right now.  And when we're not getting paid, isn't that the point?  Plus, I've got NY and Boston up next where I will be in the States, far from my friends here (*tear).

Take away for you (maybe).  No matter what level you're at, good racing is usually a decision if the training is in the bank.  You've got to decide to hurt worse than the next person, to push it to the limit, and to go after what God has put in your tank.  I'm not there yet, but it's getting better.

1 comment:

Greg Strosaker said...

Nice report Tim, very entertaining to read about this quite-different experience. While I'm just a prissy marathoner and never did much cross-country (only what I could fit around soccer games in high school), the appeal of the man vs. nature vs. man element, combined with the team spirit, is clear from your post. Good luck at the next step - make us Americans proud!