Running the race you want to run, when you want to
Running the race you want to run, when you want to. That’s the challenge all of us runners face. It’s what keeps us motivated to train and to sign-up for big races – all in the hope that things will come together perfectly on race day. The 2011 USA Club Cross Country National Championships (aka “Club Nationals”) was my big goal race. I first thought about the Pamakids attending this meet over three years ago. We started talking specifically about the 2011 Club Nationals last year. Trip planning to go to Seattle has been going on for the last nine months. To say I’ve been targeting this race would be an understatement.
Since turning forty last year I have had a great year of training and racing. However, in the fall my focus was on coaching more than my own training. As a result I had some up races and some just okay races. At the Pacific Association Cross Country Championships (PA Champs) on November 20, I went out too hard and lost a lot of places as I fought through the muddy conditions. Coming off that disappointing race I really wanted to run a better race in Seattle. My main goal was to be competitive for the entire 10K, ideally moving up as the race went on rather than being passed.
I bought cross country spikes problems in case the grass was wet and muddy so that I would not have traction problems as at the PA Champs. I studied the course map and on Flotrack video of the course. The course was more or less a 2K loop that would be run five times. I decided I would use the kilometer marks to monitor my pace rather than the usual mile markers. Based on my recent previous times, I figured I could run sub-37 minutes on this 10K course. My goal was to run 3:40 per kilometer and 7:20 per 2K loop in order to run under 37 minutes. With those splits, I calculated I would place around 130th, but my more ambitious goal was to try to break into the top 100, which would likely require a low 36 minute time.
The energy at the starting line was intense. Over 350 of the fastest masters runners were toeing the line and there was an electricity in the air. I was excited to be with my Pamakid teammates at this meet, but I also had my game face on. I noticed Margaret Gallagher taking my picture as I did my drills and stride outs. Five minutes before the race began the officials fired a gun to indicate sweats off and no more run outs. Our Pamakid masters men’s team stripped down, took a team photo, and did our “Go Green!” cheer. As we stood at the starting line anticipating the gun it grew eerily quiet. I looked down the row of runners, all crouched in the set position, toes behind the white line. Then bang, the gun fired and we were off.
For the first 400 meters the challenge was to get a good start but not get sucked out at too fast a pace. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a field this large and competitive. Over 350 runners from all over the country were jockeying for position along the grass straightaway. I had to use my elbows to protect my space and avoid falling. There were many times that I was surrounded by other runners and had no choice but to go with the crowd. It was so crowded that speeding up and passing was not an option, nor was slowing down unless you wanted to be trampled. When I hit the 1K mark, I clicked my watch and carefully took my eyes off the course to check my watch. It read 3:36. Beautiful! Only four seconds faster than goal pace. I settled into a rhythm and ran with the crowd of runners around me. I had no idea what place I was in but I saw Dan Mancini of the River City Rebels next to me so I figured there was a good chance I was in the right group.
I hit the 2K mark at 7:15 and smiled to myself. I was right on pace and the danger of going out too fast was pretty much over. Now I could concentrate on maintaining the pace and passing people. I was in a real groove and that’s exactly what I did. I passed twelve runners on the second 2K loop, running 7:11 and pulling away from Dan Mancini. I hit 5K in 18:02 so I knew I was not only well on my way to a sub-37, I was flirting with a low 36 minute 10K. The third loop was another 7:11. I was in the zone.
Sometime mid-race I noticed that Nick and Francesca Cannata-Bowman, two kids that I used to coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral (SHC) who now live in Seattle, were cheering for me. Their sister, Sophia, is a current SHC runner. I’ve been to a lot of meets coaching members of the Cannata-Bowman family and it made me feel great to know that this time they had come to see me race.
Slightly after 6K, I noticed an Asics Aggie uniform ahead of me. I surged and passed the runner. Seconds later I heard someone cheer for this person. “Go Hongo,” they said. “Hongo? Jeff Hongo? I just passed Jeff Hongo!? I must be having a great day,” I thought to myself. Now I had to work to make sure Hongo didn’t re-pass me, so I tried to speed up just a bit. I next lapped my Pamakid teammate Mark Huffman. Mark encouraged me saying, “Go Andy, you’re having a great race!” I was getting pretty tired and started wishing the race was 8K instead of 10K. I knew I had enough gas in the tank for the fourth loop. It was the fifth loop I wasn’t so sure about.
By this point in the race, although I felt like I was surging, all I was doing was working harder in order to keep from slowing down. The good thing was that I was still passing runners fairly frequently. I tried to never settle into my position but instead constantly target the next person I wanted to pass. It was working, though, as my fourth 2K was 7:18. One lap to go. Pamakid teammates were all over the course cheering. There was no chance to let up or someone would see you and give you an earful. Malinda had told me that my form was tight the last couple races so I made a conscious effort to relax. As I rounded the final turn I knew I had about 400 meters to go. It was a long straightaway but I had plenty of company around me and I knew I needed to kick better than I had at the PA Champs if I wanted to be proud of my race. I got up on my toes and pumped my arms hard. As I approached the finish line I could see the clock, 35:55, 35:56, I was still 50 meters from the finish line so breaking 36 minutes wasn’t going to happen. But it was going to be a great time (and later I would learn that I was 92nd, achieving my top 100 goal!).
I looked up and saw the National Championship banner that indicated the finish line. At the team meeting the night before the race, I had reminded all my Pamakid teammates to take a mental snapshot of the scene as they raced towards the finish at the USA National Championships. I took my own personal snapshot so that I will always remember coming down the final straightaway at my first Club Nationals….having run the race I wanted to, on the day I wanted to.