USATF XC Club Nationals

This is the uncut version of my article from the latest issue of Level Renner.

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Part I, The Races

With rain in the forecast, the runners had a pretty good idea of what conditions would be awaiting them when they descended upon Lexington, KY for the cross country club nationals back on December 8th. It wasn’t a pretty site but that didn’t seem to dampen the spirits. Cat Beck of the Central Park Track Club summed it up perfectly just before her race: “It’s gonna be sloppy, it’s gonna be hilly, it’s gonna be classic cross country.”

Leading up to the men’s race, much speculation seemed to be on just what Tim Ritchie was capable of. After all, he did place 13th in last year’s race, followed up by top five finishes in the 2012 US Half Marathon and 10 Mile Championships. The talk afterwards, however, was centered on Eric Ashe, who was the top New England male finisher with his 22nd place showing.

“I knew going into the race I was well prepared for 10k of racing, but maybe not a sloppy 10k,” said Ashe. Sure he says that, but he looked like he was ready for the slick mud. For whatever reason it appeared that he wasn’t straining as much as the rest of the field. He was feeling it though: “Like seemingly everyone, I was in the hurtbox by four miles but I tried to just focus on moving forward rather than backwards.” And move forward he did, at what appeared to be a pretty steady pace right through the end.

Ashe’s BAA teammates weren’t too far behind; Ritchie, Sam Alexander and Brian Harvey all finished within 26 seconds of Ashe. That bunch got the BAA up to 7th place, but it wasn’t enough to match the New York Athletic Club. Just after Jacob Riley broke the tape, the NYAC, led by Craig Forys (2nd) and Matthew Forys (4th) ultimately placed 3 in the top 14 en route to their 4th place finish.

A couple of other New England squads that placed high were Western Mass Distance Project and New Balance Boston, which came in 9th and placed 12th, respectively. The WMDP boys didn’t place as high as the top BAA guys, but they weren’t far back and had a nice pack of their own. In a mere 27 seconds (starting with Sean Duncan’s 32:08 down to David Johnson’s 32:35), they put their top five runners across the line.

What makes that even more impressive is that this relatively new group just might be the only top-ten team that doesn’t have a sponsor. It was a good nationals debut for them, but in talking to some afterwards you could hear that they were hungry to get back at it and improve on the result. Chief among them was Jason Ayr (32:16, 81st place) who offered these thoughts: “The team ran a good race, but if everyone on our team had run as hard as I did I think we could have been 8th. Hey, no one said it was easy putting a team on your back, but someone has to step up to the challenge.”

Not to be outdone, the New England women had thoroughbreds of their own competing. Katie DiCamillo placed 9th last year but would she be recovered enough from her 3rd place 2:38 at the Philadelphia Marathon back on November 18th? Couple DiCamillo with Mary Kate Champagne who placed 8th at the US 5k Championships in Providence back in September and then 14th at the US 10k  Championships (Tufts) and New Balance Boston appeared to be poised to improve on their 5th place finish from last year.

They not only met but quite possibly exceeded expectations. Considering DiCamillo wasn’t exactly peaking for this race and Champagne didn’t have her best race, it’s even more impressive.  Said Mary Kate of her 14th place finish: “I wasn’t absolutely thrilled with my individual performance (would have liked to be top ten), but I wasn’t devastated either; the fact that we placed third as a team and had fun the whole weekend mitigated my disappointment.”

Not too far behind Champagne, a battle was brewing. DiCamillo was part of a pack of three charging down the final stretch. With 18 runners already across, only two of them would be able to claim a top 20 finish. Katie didn’t fool around and threw in a surge to seal her 19th place finish. Brielle Chabot, one of only two BAA women racing, made it a little more interesting. Brielle fought and fought and was able to sneak past her opponent just as they ran out of real estate, laying claim to top 20 status in the process.

Like the men’s race, the women’s open also featured a deep Northeast contingent behind the NBB ladies. The Central Park Track Club (led by Rolanda Bell’s 23rd place) finished an impressive 6th, followed by Greater Boston Track Club (12th) and Garden State Track Club (14th).

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The “kids” weren’t the only ones playing in the mud this day. The Northeast was well represented in the two masters races as well. The Greater Springfield Harriers placed second in 2011 and were looking to bring back a title home this year. They steamrolled the competition at the New England Championships and looked poised to make a run at the defending champs (Atlanta Track Club).

The course changed, the conditions changed, but unfortunately for the Harriers the end result didn’t change from last year. Still, second place makes for a pretty successful trip. Francis Burdett was their first finisher and top New Englander (10th place, 34:18) and 49 seconds later their 4th finisher crossed (Mike Nahom, 35:07). First four in the top 20, not too shabby!

Kent Lemme was the #2 guy for the Harriers, and at 46 was one of the older guys in the top score of runners. Of this, Lemme went on to say: “When you look at the masters men results the big surprise is that about 1/2 of the top 20 were 45 and over, typically as the new just-turned-40’s enter the scene the 45 and over’s start to take more of a back seat, but this current group seems to be hanging tough and defying the laws of nature.” 3 of those gentlemen in question were part of the GSH squad, to put in perspective how impressive their races were.

In the women’s masters race, the Greater Lowell Road Runners were the story of the day. They were the only New England club to send a squad to nationals, but they made it count. The Angry Chickens placed 5th in the 50+ division. The 3 ladies that made up this powerhouse placed fairly close together, with Liane Pancoast, Kathleen Burley, and Mary Casey-Gorman coming in 53, 60 and 65, respectively.

At the end of the day, the conditions were as expected. That’s the beauty of cross country; the elements are just another part of it to embrace, unlike say a marathon. Said Brielle Chabot (BAA), “It was muddy, it was tough…there’s nothing sexy about cross country!” But maybe that’s exactly what is sexy about it.

Part II, Living With Wolves

Being able to witness firsthand how the regional runners performed was quite impressive and the sheer number of people from the Northeast (specifically New England, NY, NJ) was staggering. In the open races alone, regional teams accounted for 8 out of 42 for the men and 4 out of 24 for the women.  Add in the people who came down to support and you couldn’t walk far without bumping into a familiar face.

Never was that more evident than on the streets and in the bars of downtown Lexington late night after the race. I started out with the Western Mass boys, but I tend to wander (I like to call it networking). In the chaos that ensued after the official after party was mysteriously shut down at 8:00, I found myself in the company of some Greater Lowell Road Runners. After catching back up with the Wolfpack, I then sort of wandered off again and over the course of the night ended up spending some time with runners from GBTC, NBB, CPTC, HFC and eventually the BAA.

It was in the midst of my conversation with some fine upstanding HFC guys when Jacob Riley came by. I bought him a beer and he stuck around for enough time to chat with us. He was very down to earth and approachable, exactly the type of guy you want to see win a major race.

Some time after that I met up with a few of the BAA’s finest. We left the bar and got some pizza, which seemed like a great idea at the time, but it didn’t go down easy. I left a half-eaten slice on the floor of Tim’s hotel room; apparently my manners were lost somewhere between Boston and Lexington.

It was really late by the time the taxi pulled up in front of my hotel and I was a little surprised to see the Wolves all tucked in for the night. This whole time I was afraid that, being the old man that I am, I wouldn’t be able to hang with the young wolves. I guess I’m not over the hill yet.

Speaking of the Wolves, this trip wouldn’t have happened if not for some help from them. They were kind enough to take me in for the weekend and they cleared some space for me at their hotel, a sketchy extended stay joint in Lexington. I begrudgingly awoke early Saturday morning on my “bed”, which was a pile of comforters on the floor (the cleanliness of which you’d be better off not even considering). I was damn grateful for it, too.

The hotel itself was a bit shady, but it just added character to the trip. On the day we checked in one of our neighbors got arrested. In the same room was a guest that we dubbed Galileo because of his claim to be an astronomer. The set up of the hotel included no indoor halls. The doors to all rooms led directly outside, and ours was on the second level. We’d come back to the hotel typically to find Galileo (also known as Copernicus) waiting on the balcony outside his door, narrating our every step to some mystery person on the other side of his phone conversation. He also had a propensity to repeatedly knock on our doors and windows in an attempt to engage us in some conversation (or some star gazing?).

Which, of course, sets up a classic prank. A couple of us went to Steak ‘n Shake for dinner and returned to find one lone wolf locked out on the balcony wearing nothing but a towel. He had been locked out of our room while the rest of us went to eat. While waiting he showered in the other room, then the other guys tricked him into thinking we had returned. Once out on the balcony, he found both doors were now locked. The wolf had been thrown to the astronomer. There was a look of panic in his eyes and he pleaded with us to hurry before Galileo heard him outside. I don’t know why, but that just seemed to slow our steps considerably.

As if providing lodging wasn’t helpful enough, before I could clear the sleep from eyes Saturday morning, Sean Duncan unexpectedly tossed me the keys to his rental car. It was during that brief moment that comes just after waking where my brain needs to relearn English. I think in return I blinked at him. Now that transportation had been a secured, a plan was needed.

One thing that I (or the Level in general) have not attempted before was to cover four different distance races in one morning. The ratio of races to gimpy rogue journalists wasn’t favorable, but in perhaps the upset of the day, the gimpy rogue journalist came through.

When all was said and done (and after a last second, off the cuff interview with Alan Webb of all people), I was in the car with Duncan heading back to the hotel. It simply was inspiring to hear him talk about how he felt he did, what he thought he could do and how he viewed himself amongst his peers. Sean had just run a 32:08 in rolling muck, but there was something in his voice that told me he’d run it again right then and there if he could. Sean’s statement lacked any hints of cockiness or regret. Instead he sounded like a man with a score to settle. Sean liked the course and thought it played to his strengths and knew he could do better on it if given the chance.

Hearing that made me very confident that things were heating up in New England and there’d be an even stronger showing from the region in general in 2013. I can’t wait.

Space was tight in the last issue of the magazine so a few hundred words ended up getting cut, mainly from Part II. This is the edited version with the cut parts added back in. The original can be seen in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Level Renner, accompanied by some fantastic photos from Rod Hemmingway. As was noted in the magazine, the Jason Ayr quote included above is a fake one. I can’t even take credit for that stroke of genius, it was all Nico.

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About ejnshow

Runner. Writer. Lover of the absurd. Hobbies include bringing all three of these elements together.

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