by Josh Merlis
His eyes blinked with increasing frequency as the rain pelted his head from all angles. A few seconds later, mud was dripping from his face, a gratuitous reminder that men were ahead of him, running with spikes caked in liquified dirt. It was a stampede of mega proportions; an assemblage of true competitors, all of whom have once tasted glory in small spheres, but today had come together on a kamikaze mission.
There is nothing more intense and physically grueling than a foot race. I suppose those in disagreement would dispose of my declarative as a presumptuous opinion, but among the three primary endurance sports on foot, wheel, and water, let’s accept a few inarguable truths: when you run, any moment without effort yields zero forward progress, yet on a bike, releasing the pedals doesn’t bring you to a halt – and far from it on a downhill. On a run, each step thrusts three times your body weight against the ground in a jarring movement repeated 180 times per minute, while gliding in water has far from the same impact on the body. Looked at from a different perspective, how often does a cyclist or swimmer get injured and had running be the prescribed cross-training activity while they heal?
Stay within yourself. Monitor your breathing. There is plenty of time. I’m not one to look back in a race; such a glance tells a blunt story: I am weak. It beckons to the person chasing you that you are no longer in the hunt to move forward and pass, but rather you are now petrified of what is coming from behind. Your race is over, and if a hungry competitor is in your shadow, that person will pounce at your pending immolation. And yet, some 80 strides into the race, curiosity overwhelmed me, and I glanced back. There was no one there.
Cross country races are as thrilling as they are raw tests of will and strength. With spikes protruding sometimes in excess of half an inch, and hundreds of runners on top of one another, it’s quite common to receive an elbow from one runner while your skin gets pierced by the shoes of another. A quick narrowing of the course can send a dozen runners crashing into a section that is barely 10 feet wide, and often there’s a healthy amount of brush and possibly thorns adorning the edge of the course. Throw in some rain, and you now have footing as reliable as sand on the beach with the precarious threat of an icy sidewalk. Each muscle you didn’t know you had is shrieking with every step to stabilize your entire body as you lose control on a section of course that is downhill, on a lateral angle, all while curving too. You don’t get this in a road race.
For those who ran cross country growing up, the advice was simple: get out hard. Don’t get stuck behind a pack. Put yourself in position. As though sprinting the first 150 meters of a 5K is going to lead to your best performance. And yet it’s how most XC runners start races. The damage done by going virtually all out at the beginning almost always ends up hurting one’s race; consider that the person who ultimately wins is probably not running as proportionally hard at the start as everyone else trying to be up front. Slow down to speed up? Or as my wife’s coach says, “Don’t fade to a PR.”
Just cause you’re in last doesn’t mean you shouldn’t slow down. To be fair, it was more like I was running next to 75 other people chasing the 550 in front of us as we funneled on the 100+ meter wide field, but I began to do some basic geometric calculations in my head. Where is the course going? How soon until it narrows? Where should I position myself to avoid getting stuck – behind others, and in mud? And as it dropped from 180 people wide to barely 10, I swung to the far right side of the course, figuring even running extra distance at times would still allow for a smoother run.
I grew up racing. I chose that word consciously as I didn’t train much for my first 5K when I was 6 years old, rather my dad took me to a race and we ran it. And we proceeded to do that basically every weekend for the following 8 years, although we did start to add some mid-week runs to the routine. He was a ‘weekend warrior’ in every sense of the word, and still, at 79 years old, is often seen running in races, but rarely seen running without a bib number. At least he’s always fresh on the weekends?
Cross country in schools is a team sport, and there is both a lot of strategy and pride in running with your teammates. Working together to drop runners from another team. Alternating who surges, and knowing the quick tips to wake up a teammate, be it to focus on your shoulders or the arm swing, the knee-lift or the push-off. And while yes, as a race there’s an inherent desire for your own team to do well, to “beat” the other teams – the truth is that the camaraderie shared by all on that start line is genuine and filled with respect for the other competitors. A great sprint finish between two racers is often rewarded with the shaking of hands once the dust has settled and the heart rate has dropped. Ultimately we all want to run faster, and the best way to achieve this is to have others at your side, pushing you.
Be patient but alert. I began to sift through the crowd. Bodies grasping with their lungs for oxygen, not yet 10% into the 10,000 meter race. While it may not always yield the fastest possible performance, often I like to look around me after the first few minutes of a race, and take stock of those around me. Am I falling behind? Am I passing others? Are those around me running relaxed? Does anyone strike me as someone to key off – to follow as they also begin to work their way through the masses? And early on, I don’t want to be moving up yet. No sudden movements. No unnecessary surges. Just like a car, keep the speed steady, remain consistent, which makes you most economical with all your energy systems. And as the course completed its initial sweeping near 180 degree turn, the fun really got started.
The day prior was a wet one, and the course had plenty of muddy sections upon our arrival a few hours earlier for the 2019 USATF National Club XC Championships in Lehigh, Pennsylvania. Rain was forecast around the time of our race, the Men’s Open 10K race at 2PM, the final event of the day, and it lightly began before the start of it.
Our Albany Running Exchange (ARE) tent was on the right side of the course just past the first mile, and as I navigated the rollercoaster section of course that brought us there, I swung wide again to see our Masters Men, Open Women, and team support crew cheering wildly in the tent village.
You’re here to run your best possible race. Place is secondary. The goal today is to finish with the conviction that there is no way you could have performed better. In running, the notion of performance is just a big word for time – specifically the time on the clock when you finish. I hadn’t raced since a track mile in July, and hadn’t raced over 2 miles since the beginning of February. In fact, the last time I had run this few races in a year was thirty-one years ago, shortly after learning basic addition. So, in most exciting fashion, I was both thrilled to be in a race and also unaware as to what my current fitness was.
This National Championship was last held at this location in 2014, and the ARE had made the trip, running upon the same course. I apprehensively checked the results from then a few days prior to this year’s race, curious as to how I did – knowing that whatever it was, I was in much better shape then. While I still feel it’s possible to get to where I’ve been, it’s not getting any easier, and I suppose that explains why there were barely any men between 35 and 39 in the open race while the Masters (40+) division is chock-full.
Twenty-four hours before starting my warm-up, nearly 15 of us packed into one of our club vans and made the journey – together – first heading to packet pick-up and then to our rental home that would house all of us. As the drive began, I was in college again, reliving those trips that had coach up front driving, our assistant coach in the passenger seat, and the rest of us in the back, joking around and pretty much talking and discussing every last random thing that flew through our minds. Rarely was it about the race – rather running is the foundation of the relationship, not its terminus.
The atmosphere walking into the host hotel at sunset on Friday immediately brought us back to why we were here: to compete, and to do so as a team. The place was abuzz with lithe adults; sleek creatures that other than the increased contours and colorations of age might as well have all still been college athletes – bodies that have been nurtured to show what one is capable of long after the ‘glory days’, and masters runners and those even older, who are forcing the continued modification of age grading tables with their incredible performances that come from sustained dedication to our sport.
Our home for the weekend included 2 different bunk rooms, and 2 other rooms that could fit multiple people, along with a game room, large outdoor hot tub, and view of the mountains on the southwestern edge of the Poconos. For my two years of running for UAlbany, each XC season kicked off with a 5 day trip to Lake Placid, where our men’s and women’s squads took over the Cascade XC Ski Center. With similar cramped but cozy living accommodations, we bonded as brothers and sisters, running the trails of Mt. Van Hoevenberg by day and reading Running with the Buffaloes at night. Nothing else existed. It was the dawn of this century, I didn’t even own a cell phone, and life was far less digitally connected if not plainly simpler. We ran. We played harmless pranks on one another. And we ran some more.
As my wife, Michelle, who had run CIM the week earlier, made dinner for us all, I stole away with a teammate to the basement to play ping pong and foosball. Why let a little race get in the way of a good time?
5:45. I hit mile 2 in the exact same time as mile 1, and was continuing to navigate through the steady succession of those who had gone out beyond their means. How do you feel? What adjustments should you make? I asked myself these questions, absent the distractions that otherwise abound in my mind. Looking back on it now, I revel in that reality: only when truly racing does everything else disappear. A clear mind. Why is that when I lay down for shivasna in yoga, I can’t stop thinking about everything, yet when running, my attention is unwaveringly committed to the sole activity at hand? And so nothing else existed as I looked away from my watch and continued to use my arms as propellants and stabilizers.
I can’t recall the exact moment that I noticed the rain had substantially picked up, but I laughed to myself at how horrific the conditions were becoming. Simply put, it was weather absolutely no one would want to be outside, standing around in. Before the start, I made the decision to wear my lightweight ARE running hat, figuring I could always shed it if need be. Reaching the mid-part of the race, I pulled the bill closer to my nose. My sight line became more restricted to just those in front of me, but at least I didn’t have to deal with wet eyes.
I love racing in horrible conditions for the simple reason that it becomes an added obstacle that favors those who accept it and revel in it than those who don’t. It also makes it a heck of a lot more fun. Who wants to finish a race looking like you did before the start? It also reminds me of some great training runs over the years, including running during Hurricane Floyd while in high school (school was let out early, so the XC team waved good bye to everyone else, and then headed into the trails for the craziest run of our lives), Valentine’s Day 2007, running during a blizzard wearing ski goggles to cover the final remaining exposed portion of my body, and a mid-winter run with Michelle in Minneapolis, bundled up in the negative 22 degree ambient temperature.
Halfway done. The end of the first lap was a circuitous tour of the starting field, where we were greeted by a man repetitively yelling, “There’s less mud on the outside.” I heeded his call, with my continued intention of trying to maintain some efficiency in my stride. Everyone was covered from the waist down in earthen slime; I didn’t mind the lather on my body, rather it was the lateral dance my surgically repaired left ankle was engaged in that subconsciously screamed at me to find stable footing. And so I took it wide, pumping my damp arms faster to compensate for a stride length visibly reducing on the ascent towards mile four.
In the fall of 2000, some nineteen years earlier, I first ran across these fields. I was a freshman at UAlbany, and it was a sunny day, with good footing and fast times. And like many memories, some parts of it felt like yesterday, while other aspects made it seem like a different lifetime. None of us had phones with us on that first trip; more concretely, we certainly weren’t looking things up on the Internet using devices in our pockets. Our attention was focused more on one another as a group – and the thrill existed in sharing the moment with those who were present, not taking away time from those around you to showcase your current moment to the rest of the world. But would we have done so if the option existed?
As my watch declared the passage of each mile, it beeped to get my attention and gave me 10 seconds to shoot my glance in its direction to acknowledge how long those 1,609 meters had taken. Miles 3 and 4 were not as fast as the identical ones preceding them, but then again, neither was the ground beneath my feet. Running past the tent village for the second time, I swung wide again to give my teammates a clear view of me, with a bit of selfish hope that my wife could catch a decent picture of me too. Even if my form was nothing another should replicate, perhaps at least it would serve as a good before picture to prove I bathed after the event. (It’s the little things, you know?)
Beyond the reach of my teammates’ gaze, I allowed myself to settle back into the exhaustion that was overwhelming me, working harder to maintain the same pace. As my wife would later comment, “I saw you pass the tent at 6K and you looked great but then I went over to 7K and you looked dead, what happened in that 1K?” It was amusing to inform her that I simply hid it at 6K as I ran past; the descent into exasperation was long started before those fleeting moments of feigned strength.
I passed the 8K mark in 29:15. Fairly clueless as to how the race would play out in my apprehensive pre-race visualization, I was happy with where I was, but also aware that I still had a mile and a quarter to get through. For the previous 2 miles, I had been going back and forth with a runner from Boston, and figured if I could stay close to him for the next kilometer, I’d be able to take command of the final kilometer, which is generously mostly flat or downhill.
My mind remained clear over the next few minutes, a delightful emptiness of just running. With the nascent memories of lap one, I focused on finding the firmer patches of grass to run upon, and excitedly ran past the 9K mark. One kilometer to go.
From an external competitive perspective, my performance in this event was of no consequence. I had no idea what place I was in, and our team was far removed from having any impact on the race. While I suppose finishing last as a team wasn’t our “goal”, even if we did, who cares? In April of 2000, I was on the last place 4x400 team at the Penn Relays, out of hundreds of teams.. Dead last, in the last heat. If there’s one thing that perhaps more people should experience, it is finishing last. It’s really not that bad. And you have to admit, you can’t place worse than that if you try again. To be fair, though, finishing first is fun too. But like statistics would dictate, generally, the vast majority of us finish exactly where the bell curve says we should.
Coming into the final, quite long straightaway, I eyed the Beantowner I’d been trading places with and ran more upright, with increased attention on giving it my all to bring it home. I find the whole notion of a ‘finishing kick’ to be absolutely fascinating. What is the psychology behind it? More specifically, if I started kicking 3 seconds earlier, could I still hold it? Will I fade? What is mental toughness? What about our lives – completely disparate from running, itself, makes one person tough as nails at the end, while another a feeble closer? Does it transcend the physical?
With less than 200 meters to go, I saw my wife and team coach, Dick Vincent. Dick also was the officiant at our wedding less than one year earlier, and is the bedrock of a lot of the running of our team/community over the past many years and decades. They yelled to me to go after the guy in front of me. Nothing personal. Sure, one less point is nice, but it’s more that the individual ahead represents time, and catching that placeholder will yield a faster result. And so I gazed ahead, and played the mental math game – assessing space and time and pace. What would it take to catch him? How fast is he moving? What must I do? If he picks it up, can I go any faster?
And as I sprinted towards him, upon the same shaky ground that he was also racing upon to reach five figures of meters completed, I was free. No distractions. No work waiting for me. Not the realities of life outside of that moment, nothing. And it was pure. And the plainest truth is that it doesn’t matter if I did catch him, or, therefore implicitly, if I did not. All that matters is I ran as hard as I could, through that line, across that same otherwise non-descript, arbitrary patch of grass that I first touched more than half my life ago. And it felt amazing to be sprinting for the pure joy of the simplicity of this beloved sport called cross country.
Josh (at back with green sunglasses) and Friends