Remember when you were a kid and you’d be in this park and then hear a bell or some music playing from afar. It was the ice cream man and you needed to be first in line. So you run as hard as you can across the grassy knoll. Sometimes little Bobby “accidentally” cuts in front of you. Maybe you “inadvertently” give him a little bump with your shoulder. Your feet are slipping a little against the grass, wet with dew, but you can see it, the finish line. Popsicles, candy cigarettes, bubble gum, jawbreakers… Finally you all arrive, queue up, get your delicious snacks and go back to being friends again. Now imagine doing that as a 30-something. Welcome to XC season.
When I was in high school, I guess cross country was a thing. I ran track, so it really was a different world. Those kids that counted their runs in miles and not meters were nuts. They really loved running. And I only mildly disliked it most of the time with fleeting moments of loving it when I was running my fastest. I couldn’t imagine running a step over 400m. Fast forward 15 years and I’m turning 34 in two days and contemplating racing, or at least training for cross country races as part of my speed work. Am I nuts? I’m certainly not a kid anymore. I probably won’t take pleasure in jockeying for position among fellow racers. I probably won’t enjoy red-lining for 3-6 miles. But I think the litmus test for what constitutes appropriate training for me ultimately ends with the question: but will it make me better?
I signed up for the LA Marathon today. I have “ran” two marathons before, both other the time of 4 hours for different reasons, and none of them being that I was trying in any capacity to “race” anything. As a matter of fact, I ran SFM completely injured after mile 11 last year and probably should have dropped instead of walking in the last 6 miles. I was on crutches for a week after that race. And it was all my fault. I did virtually no speed training, and none of my long runs were on pavement. My body simply wasn’t used to the pace or the surface and I tricked myself into thinking that would be totally ok come race day. It wasn’t and I won’t make that mistake again.
Running a road marathon is not my cup of tea but I do believe in pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. Challenging yourself beyond the familiar is the only way to really get stronger and become a more disciplined athlete, in my opinion. So occasionally, this trail runner likes to humble themselves with something really scary. For me, that is running a fast road marathon. My goal would be to qualify for Boston, as I haven’t run that iconic race yet and it’s on the “bucket list” so to speak. Considering I’m not much of a road runner, I don’t have many opportunities to race these things hard. So I’m trying to really take this seriously and do it right and hopefully come out with a better result, or at least not come out on crutches.
I was talking to a customer, friend and racing team teammate today at SFRC and she mentioned that she did track, tempos and XC races as her primary workouts when training for a marathon. It certainly got me thinking. There has been SO MUCH HYPE around the cross country scene here. It felt foreign to me. I didn’t understand the concept or the appeal. The closest thing that came to running XC for me were the few offseason workouts we had where we would take out borrowed spikes on the dirt to simulate speed for early season crap conditions. We weren’t allowed on the soccer field so we would run around the back of the school between the fence and the neighborhoods and tear up the grass until it was nothing but a bunch of dirt patches and holes. Oops. It wasn’t exactly a race and it wasn’t exactly 3 miles of hard running. I couldn’t imagine doing it as a teenager and it is almost laughable that I’m considering that sort of hard effort now as a middle-aged adult. But it turns out a lot of adults do it. The cross country circuit here is the scene is really big and super competitive. I’m sure I’ll be fighting for last or second to last place at most races, and I’m not even that slow. A lot of the people who race XC ONLY race XC and they know their way around a grass course. They feel at home running fast and racing aggressively. I’m not sure I’ll fit in. But I do know that the kind of training that goes into cross country season makes you fast. And anything that can fill in the gap for me between short term speed, long distance endurance and strength is worth looking into. Maybe I’ll race, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll love it, maybe I won’t. But any excuse to make myself faster and use some really fast-looking shoes seems like a worthwhile expenditure of my time this fall. So….elbows out?