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.
The USATF National Club Cross Country Championships are taking place in Seattle, Washington on Saturday, December 10, 2011. For the first time in recent memory and possibly in club history, the Pamakid Runners have runners traveling to compete at this meet. The last time the club had representation at this national championship meet was in 2006, when the meet took place in San Francisco. At that meet in 2006, newly minted master, George Rehmet placed 120th in the 40-44 age division and Keith Johnson placed ninth in the 65-69 year old age division. Also racing in 2006 representing the Hoy’s Excelsior team was John Spriggs. John will be racing for Pamakids this weekend.
There are two cross country championships a year in the USA. In February what is commonly referred to as the ”Winter Cross Country Championships” takes place. This serves as the qualifying race for runners who want to run at the World Cross Country Championships. This meet tends to be more elite and individual runner oriented. The list of recent champions at this meet include Olympic medalists and American record holders like Dathan Ritzenhein, Meb Keflezighi, and Shalane Flanagan. In 2008, Jocelyn Rodriguez ran in the Junior race at this meet for Pamakids, placing 33rd out of 63 runners.
The second meet is the National Club Cross Country Championships and it takes place in December. This is the meet taking place this weekend and it is often referred to as “Club Nationals.” The meet is more team-oriented with an emphasis on clubs from all over the country coming together to compete against one another. The list of recent champions, while still impressive, includes more the second tier of elite athletes like Aaron Braun, Scott Bauhs, Renee Metvier Baillie, Rebecca Donaghue, and Delilah DiCrescenzo.
I am very excited that the Pamakids are going to Seattle. To say that going to Club Nationals has been on my bucket list is not quite accurate, because I’ve been wanting to go to Club Nationals for longer than saying something is on your bucket list has been in vogue.
The Pamakids will have 21 runners competing this weekend, with two supporters (one fiancé and one six month old baby). Most of us are staying at the Seattle Hostel so that we get a real road trip/team bonding experience.
The races will take place at Jefferson Park Golf Course, which was also the host for the 2010 Pac-10 Conference Cross Country Championships. The course is basically a 2K loop that is run multiple times depending on the race distance. There will be four races (Masters Women, Masters Men, Open Women, and Open Men), with all the women’s races 6K and all the men’s races 10K.
The first race of the day is the Master’s Women at 10:45 A.M. Representing the Pamakids will be Louise Stephens (2011 Pamakid Female Runner of the Year and sixth place in the Pacific Association Cross Country Grand Prix), Malinda Walker, Amy Sonstein, and Cammie Dingwall. Registration shows that we can expect 140 runners in this race with 16 masters teams. The Pamakids look like they have the potential to finish somewhere between 10th and 13th.
At 11:45 A.M., the Masters Men will take the course. Running in Pamakid green will be Anthony McGrath, Adam Lucas, Jerry Flanagan, John Spriggs, Paul Zager, Mark Huffman, and yours truly, Andy Chan. Over 340 runners are expected in this race with 23 masters teams. With a solid day, the Pamakids can shoot for top 20. If everyone has a great day, maybe top 15.
The Open Men will be the final race of the day at 1:45pm. Justin “Beast Mode” Mikecz, Steve Holcombe, Raymond Yu (fresh off a 3:06 marathon at CIM last weekend), John Gieng (the 2011 Pamakid of the Year), Steve Perez, and Thang Ta (2011 Pamakid Most Inspirational Runner) will represent the Pamakids and be amongst the 370 runners with 45 teams.
For many, this will be the largest and most competitive cross country race they’ve ever run. It will be an experience to toe the line with runners from all over the country, many of whom are the best of the best in their respective age divisions. The Pamakids may not be in contention for the win in any of the races but we’ll compete hard like we always do and we plan to paint the Emerald City, Pamakid Green!
As I’ve said in a previous article, the USA Cross Country Championships have a long history and it was a privilege and an honor to attend the 2008 meet in San Diego. 651 runners competed in the six USATF sanctioned races. If you count the 71 runners (me, Malinda, and 69 new friends) in the Community 4K race, there were over 700 runners.
You could really feel a buzz in the air when we arrived at the meet. There was eager anticipation by the participants to race and by the spectators to watch some elite running. There were knowledgeable announcers who kept you excited with up to date information as the races unfolded. You could hear the PA system everywhere you went on the course. And after races they used a wireless microphone to interview athletes in the finish line area. The announced attendance was 5000.
The Community 4K Race was a unique opportunity to participate in the event as well as spectate. You don’t get to play 18 holes on the golf course before the Master’s or take batting practice at Fenway Park before the first pitch. But here, we got to run on the same course, the same day the elite runners did. That’s special. And that’s something that makes cross country special.
I think the officials used the 4K race as a dress rehearsal for the six “real” races that were to come. We had a timing chip on our shoe and the timing mats were out at the appropriate spots. They had us do a group strider. Then it was two steps behind the line. Final instructions. When they said runners to your mark, we stepped up to the line. At the gun we were off. Malinda is convinced that for this dress rehearsal race they even had people walk the course on purpose so the course monitors and officials could practice dealing with lapped runners.
The course was mostly grass (cut short for good footing). It was a 2K loop, which we did two times. The first 1K was pretty flat and fast. But the second 1K included some small hills and quite a few turns. It was the kind of course I’ve seen on television when I watch high level cross country races. And it felt great to be able to race on such a course.
The course was also extremely spectator friendly. You could, with almost no effort, walk back and forth 20 yards and see the runners four to six times per loop depending on how tall you are. For someone like me, who puts a lot of effort into seeing the race, I got to see Jocelyn every 60-90 seconds during the race. The course was roped off with flags but since it was a such a knowledgeable group, the course monitors let the spectators duck under the ropes and cross the course. They knew that the spectators were smart enough to know when it’s okay to cross and when not to. I really liked that.
Another unique aspect of this meet was the accessibility of the athletes. In many sports the athletes emerge from out-of-site locker rooms, play, and then go back into their locker rooms. Here, the athletes were right there in front of us for their warm-ups, during the race, when they finished, and for awards or to change into sweats. It was all right there in front of you. There was no VIP seating, either. The person standing next to you could be someone’s coach, or girlfriend, or father. There was a real human element to watching the runners talking to friends and hugging teammates after the race. It was really no different than being at Golden Gate Park for a cross country meet.
There were 6 other things that stood out to me as being special while at the USA Cross Country Championships.
- How well Jocelyn Rodriguez raced. She started off in the back (as I had instructed her to) and then slowly moved up. It was impressive to watch and I could tell being patient early was paying off as she was constantly catching and passing people. It wasn’t until I got home and saw her splits online that I truly appreciated what a great race it was. Her 2K splits were: 7:44. 7:56, and 7:51. She was running as fast as Division I college freshmen in the last lap. She did not get passed by anyone but she moved up from 44th after 2K to 33rd at the end. And the three runners just ahead of her, were at one point 20-40 seconds ahead of her, but Jocelyn chased them down and was just 2-3 seconds behind them at the end. What a race!
- German Fernandez, a high school runner from Riverbank in central California, was great. We (the SHC team) saw him dominate at an invitational in Half Moon Bay in October (2:05 first 800 on his way to 11:04 for a 2.4 mile course (4:37 pace) that includes a huge hill). Then at the State Meet, we got to see him break (not break…shatter by 14 seconds) the 21-year old 5K course record at Woodward Park (14:24). So I knew who German was and was not surprised to see him battling for the win. But he did it in such dramatic fashion. Malinda and I were positioned about 200 meters from the finish line. At this point, the runners had to make two sharp 90 degree turns before the 200 meter straight shot sprint to the finish line. German came into the turns just a step behind the leader, Ryan Sheridan of Iona College. Malinda got some great pictures of these two runners eyeing each other and battling for position. Finally on the final turn, German burst by Sheridan on the inside to win 24:18 to 24:19.
- Shalane Flanagan, in addition to having some of the strongest looking abs I have ever seen, ran a dominating race. She pulled ahead after the first 2K lap and just kept pulling further and further away (5 second lead at 2K, 16 seconds at 3K, 28 seconds at 4K). Consider this, Flanagan’s 1:10 winning margin over Renee Metiver means Metiver was actually closer to 13th place Colleen DeReuck (1:05 between 2nd place and 13th place) then she was to 1st place. 2007 World Championship 10,000 meter bronze medalitst Kara Goucher didn’t race here and she is also very good. Flanagan and Goucher are two US women to get excited about following on the international scene.
- There is a lot to get excited about on the US men’s distance scene, too. The depth of the men’s race was great to see and I’m beyond the “Wow, they’re fast” stage. What amazes me is how tightly packed these guys are. The lead back came through 2K in 5:49 (4:40 mile pace) and there were no less than 55 guys within 10 seconds of that lead pack. I wonder what it must feel like to be running at that speed with that many people all around you. As they run by you can almost feel this wave of energy from all those people running fast in the pack. Another measure of the current strength of US men’s distance running is the fact that Ryan Hall came in 5th. He came into this race in the middle of his training for the London Marathon and admittedly was not in his best race shape. But after seeing him dominate Ritz and the rest of the field at the Men’s Olympic Trials in New York last fall, I think we all still expected that Ryan Hall, even at less than his best cross country race shape, was still going to win. Well, guess again. US men’s distance running has improved so now if Mr. Hall is off his game just a little, people like Ritz, Jorge Torres, Josh Rohatinsky, and Ed Moran (who I admit to not know too much about) will beat him. That’s a good thing for US men’s distance running.
- Ritz is freakin’ awesome at cross country. He’s a good (OK, very good) track runner (collegiate record holder (27:38) and 2004 Olympian at 10,000 meters). He’s a very good marathoner, too (2:11:07, 2nd at the Men’s Olympic Trials). But he’s GREAT at the hill and dale of cross country. Give him a brutal course with tough hills, poor footing, and bad weather and this guy thrives. In 2001, he won a bronze at the Junior World Cross Country Championships. In 2005 he had an amazing cross country race on a muddy 9.8K course in Belfast, holding off a chase pack of Kenyans to win the race. In San Diego, while supposedly nursing an IT Band injury, he splitted 17:29 for the first 6K and 17:34 for the second 6K. While everyone else was slowing down, he was maintaining, so his lead grew from 1 second to 26 seconds in the second half of the race.
- 21-year old Scott Bauhs is the “next Brian Sell” – the no name from a small school that mixes it up with the big boys. I had never heard of this guy until he was top American at last October’s Rock ‘n Roll San Jose Half Marathon in 1:03:04. If this hadn’t been a race Michelle Gallagher ran at, I may not have even figured out who was then. He ran high school at San Ramon Valley High School. His freshman PR’s were 5:01 (1600) and 11:00 (3200). He graduated with PR’s of 4:16 and 9:09 (was 2nd at the State Meet in the 3200). He’s now a junior at Chico State, where he was 2007 NCAA Division II national champion at 10,000 meters. He’s red-shirting this year at Chico State, so instead of racing a the NCAA Championships last fall, he was part of the infamous Chico State cheering squad (they run around the course with huge flags, no shirts, and body paint all in support of their team). I immediately liked this guy when, in talking about this, wrote on his blog:
Tomorrow there will be 14 athletes and 3 coaches flying from Chico out to Joplin MO to tear it up. Later that evening there will be a couple dozen crazy fans making the ritual trek across this vast country to make sure that everyone in Joplin knows who Chico is.
After his 10th place finish in San Diego, he’s on his way as the youngest member of Team USA to the World Championships. He writes a blog for flotrack and I get this feeling he’s just a guy who loves to run, has some talent (but maybe not Hall or Ritz talent), and is willing to put in the hard work to become not just good but great. I caught a great moment right before the awards ceremony. Ritz was going down the line shaking people’s hand, saying good job and that they’re going to do awesome in Scotland. It appeared he basically knew all the guys. But he hesitated at Bauhs and asked the “kid” his name. Bauhs replied, “Scott”. So Ritz said “Great to meet you Scott, you’re going to do great” and shook his hand. I’m sure Bauhs has spent a lot of time on the internet reading about Ritz and that must have been an unforgettable moment for him to be talking to Ritz like that.
In closing, this was a great event to attend. I will never forget how close you could get to the athletes and the action. Catching that exchange between Ritz and Scott Bauhs was priceless. Right before we left I took out a sharpie and got Ritz and Hall to autograph my meet program.
2 great runners. 1 great meet. Priceless memories.
Cross Country in February?! That doesn’t make much sense. To us Americans, February means track & field (indoor track & field if you are from the east or midwest, outdoor track & field if you are from sunny California). But internationally, cross country is a winter sport. Most countries hold their national championships in February and the IAAF World Cross Country Championships are held in March. These World Championships are considered one of the greatest distance running events of the year as it pits different runners (cross country, track, and road runners) with different race distance specialties (5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon) all in one race, with team scoring and national pride at stake.
For 2008, the USA Cross Country Championships were on February 16 in San Diego. This served as the qualifying race for the 36th IAAF World Cross Country Championships, to be held March 30 in Edinburgh, Scotland. If you haven’t been following the World Championships the last 35 years, here what you missed: KENYAN DOMINATION. Kenya’s string of 18 consecutive men’s team titles (1986-2003) is considered the “longest winning streak in international sporting history.”
Among recent highlights for Team USA at the World Cross Country Championships are a bronze medal team performance in 2005 (team of: Lauren Fleshman, Blake Russell, Shalane Flanagan, Shayne Culpepper, Amy Mortimer, and Melissa Buttry), back-to-back silver medals by Deena Kastor in 2002 and 2003, and a bronze medal in the 2001 Junior Men’s race by Dathan Ritzenheim (first medal for an American junior at this meet since 1981).
The actual race distances have changed throughout history. For awhile (1998-2006), there was both a short course and long course cross country competition. The short was 4K and the long was 8K for women and 12K for men. Trivia #1: Shannon Rowbury placed 11th in the short course race in 2006 in New York (13:02 for 4K). Currently, there is just a single race for women (8K) and men (12K).
Also, for a period of time, the USA Championships were held in November or December. This catered to the American “fall cross country season” and allowed athletes to follow the traditional American cross country calendar (with races in the fall and a championship in November or December). However, this meant selecting a team from the USA Championships to go to the World Championships, three months early. A lot can happen in three months and often this December selection meet left the US with a less than stellar team performance at the “winter cross country World Championships.” So in 1999, USATF (the US track & field governing body) decided to create two separate cross country championships – 1) The “Fall” National Club Cross Country Championships (more for club teams like Pamakids), and 2) “Winter” USA Cross Country Championships (the more elite competition, with selection for the World Championship team based on the winter championship race).
Trivia #2: At the most recent Fall Club National Cross Country Championships, the winner of the women’s race was Delilah DiCrescenzo. Ms Delilah has received some notoriety of late not just for being a fast runner. It turns out she is the Delilah of the Grammy nominated song Hey There Delilah by the Plain White T’s. The lead singer of the group Tom Higgenson met Delilah in 2003 and the Olympic hopeful runner inspired a song. Last weekend, Delilah went to the Grammy’s with the guys from the Plain White T’s. This weekend, Delilah ran at the Winter USA Cross Country Championships and came in 16th.
Back to cross country… Trivia #3: San Francisco and Golden Gate Park have been a part of the history of the USA Cross Country Championships. In 2006, San Francisco was host to the Fall National Club Cross Country Championships. Our own John Spriggs. George Rehmet, and Keith Johnson were among the participants. The last time SF played host to the Championships before that was November 25, 1989. That Thanksgiving weekend, in a downpour, Pat Porter won a record breaking 8th consecutive individual title, while Lynn Jennings won her 3rd straight title (she would go on to win 7 straight as well as three World Cross Country Championships, 1990-92).
In addition to the competition for senior (senior meaning older than junior, not senior like 50 years+) runners, the Winter USA Cross Country Championships also currently has races for Juniors (20 and under) and Masters (40 and over). The Juniors are competing for the opportunity to run at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, too.
Below is some history on the USA Cross Country Championships from the USATF website:
This year’s national championships were the 110th edition of the men’s event and the 44th race for the women. The men’s race dates back to 1890, when the first championship took place under the guidance of the Amateur Athletic Union (USATF replaced the AAU as America’s track and field governing body in 1979). No events took place in 1893-96, 1899-1900 and 1904. The USA Championships were not conducted in 1998 due to the change from hosting the event in early December to conducting the event in February, beginning in 1999. The first women’s championship took place in 1964. The men’s and women’s Championships were held together for the first time in 1979.
Past champions of the men’s event include all-time greats such as seven-time champ Don Lash (1934-’40), four-time winner and 1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter (1970-’73), three-time New York Marathon winner Alberto Salazar, eight-time U.S. cross country champ Pat Porter (1982-’89), two-time Olympian Bob Kennedy and 1996 Olympic Marathon Trials winner Bob Kempainen. At the 2000 Championships in Greensboro, N.C., Adam Goucher became the first and only man in history to win both the long and short course races at the same Championships. The 4 km competitions for senior men and women were added in 1998.
The women’s competition has also seen many great champions including five-time U.S. champ (1966, 1968-71), and five-time World Cross Country champion (1967-‘71) Doris Brown-Heritage two-time champ Francie Larrieu Smith (1972-’73), nine-time U.S. champion (1985, 1987-’93, 1996) and three-time World Cross Country champion (1990-’92) Lynn Jennings, two-time short course champ Amy Rudolph (1998-’99) and six-time defending 8 km champion Deena Kastor. In 2000 Kastor also won the short course race, making her the only woman ever to win both titles in the same year.
Looking ahead, the next Fall National Club Cross Country Championships are December 13, 2008 in Spokane, Washington. It’s unconfirmed, but I’ve read online that the 2009 USA Cross Country Championships will be in February in the Baltimore, Maryland/Washington DC area.