Man, just the title of this report makes it sounds kind of bad ass, doesn’t it? THE NEW ENGLAND CHAMPIONSHIP! Feels like the sort of thing you should qualify for, right? Well, thankfully, all you have to do is be a USATF member and pay the entry fee. The harder part of getting into this race was actually making myself sign up to race. I’d been meaning for a couple years to run a cross country race as part of my quest to challenge myself with new athletic experiences. Now, XC, as we like to say, has always been near and dear to my heart, but I haven’t run a cross race since 1999, which puts it outside of my “adult runner life.”
There were two factors keeping me from just leaping in feet first into this race at historic Franklin Park, which happens to be my new neighborhood. First, the race was 10K, quite the jump up from my memories of 5K races in high school. Second, there was a very real possibility that I’d come in last place. In 2015, last place was somewhere around 44:05, slower than my new PR, but not out of the realm of possibility given that it isn’t a road race. I wasn’t so much concerned about finishing in last as I was about the course shutting down, etc., which fears were likely unfounded, but there you go. I turned to my fellow Heartbreakers for advice, with every last one of them strongly encouraging me to just do it and have fun. Without singling any out, there were a few that were particularly encouraging and motivating, so I say thank you to them.
Part of the appeal of the race was that there would be a cheering section of non-running Heartbreakers at the race. Coach Dan arranged for a bus to take us from SEAC to Franklin Park, which I decided to take, rather than simply drive the 2 miles there, to fully maximize the high school nostalgia. It did not disappoint.
After a bumpy trip down memory lane, we arrived at Franklin Park, which was decked out in its finest autumnal livery, and endeavored to find all the fast, young people who were smarter than us and came in actual cars.
Things started to feel real when I saw this sign.
Two of the Heartbreaker women who were in a similar boat as I was, at least in the sense that they were running the race but did not expect to be scoring, and I broke off to find the rest of the racers, who had encamped at a corner of the park.
We met up with Captain Louis, who had our bibs, and tried to keep each other from being too nervous about the upcoming endeavor. I’ll admit, it felt pretty cool pinning this bib on.
After getting situated, I met up with the cheer squad to watch the start of the women’s race, which was crazy deep and featured some really top-notch runners for the 6K course.
After cheering a few loops of the course, I figured I should do a little warm-up thingy. So, as is customary, I jogged for roughly 3 minutes before joining the boys for some drills, which mostly meant me doing carioca, skipping and high knees in some haphazard fashion. I lied, “haphazard” is way too generous a description of the level of planning I put into that warm-up. With a couple minutes to go before the race was set to go off, Captain Lou called the team together for a last second pep talk, the details of which shall remain in the circle, but suffice to say it was motivating.
And so, pepped up, I took my spot on the line. Unlike a traditional road race, which would have a relatively narrow starting area, with everyone lined up rows deep, a cross country race like this has boxes for each team spread across a long line, which leads to a mad dash start, particularly in a race like this where the the course narrows fairly early on. I knew the field was going to be very fast, so I set myself at the back of our corral and did my best to start the race at my own pace, not trying to maintain contact, even early on.
Here you can see just how spread the field is.
I knew from Coach Lou that the first mile of the race would be quick, so I tried to stay within myself, get a feel for the terrain, and find a pace I could settle into. The opening mile was fairly flat, with a few small bumps, and a mix of grass and dirt trail. I had some visual contact with the field, which wouldn’t last long, but didn’t make any effort to latch on to to the guys at the back of the pack. I was surprised to see a 6:26 pace for the first split, and knew I wouldn’t be hanging on to that.
The race basically consisted of a set of loops in different orders.
After mile 1, the race ventured into the zoo, and the infamous Bear Cage Hill. Bear Cage Hill, at least according to the Strava Segment, is 0.3 miles, with 52 ft. of elevation.
It certainly wouldn’t be a particularly onerous hill in a road race, but it sure felt difficult in this one. It’s made harder by the fact that it is looser terrain than most of the rest of the course, with some uneven, rutted out, footing.
So, there was the “basic loop” done for the first mile, the Bear Cage loop, and then The Wilderness loop. As the name implies, The Wilderness was the most “trail-ish” portion of the race, but also probably the fastest. At this point, I basically had the course to myself, at least in the sense that I couldn’t see any racers, so I did my best to just maintain my pace solo. Thankfully, running on your own means you have a chance to get shots like this.
Really the only negative aspect of this race came after I exited The Wilderness the first time. As I ran up the path, there was a fork in the trail, with no one from the race telling me where to go. I saw a group of women cooling down from their race as I came up to it and asked “which way do I go ?!” to which they thankfully all said “LEFT!” I really didn’t have to break stride and got myself going in the right direction. At this point, the lead bike came rolling past me, so I moved myself to the left side of the path, letting the rest of the field fly by and cheering on the Heartbreakers with what little breath I had left.
The second half of the race included another trip up Bear Cage Hill, which I felt like I was walking up the second time around, and more Wilderness time. Each mile split got slower and slower from mile 1, 7:02, 7:06, 7:09, 7:10, until I hit mile 5 going into the final Wilderness loop. At this point I knew the terrain well, knew there were no hills left, and it was time to give whatever else it was I had to give until the finish.
I rounded the final corner and encountered a fairly non-stop cheering section of Heartbreaker teammates cheering me on towards the finish line, giving me the boost I needed to dig deep and produce whatever semblance of a kick I had left.
With cowbells clanging, and Heartbreakers cheering, I crossed the line, utterly exhausted, in 43:10, my second fastest 10K ever. Immediately after the race, our team photographer for the day, Josh Campbell, did a quick portrait session, as he did with everyone else, to capture the spirit of cross country racing.
I think this shot perfectly captures the pride I felt in my performance at this race, and the pride I felt in simply deciding to toe the line in the first place. There were so many positives to take from this race, so many amazing experiences. I have to share the note Coach Dan included in the weekly Heartbreakers email to really convey just why I feel the pride I do wearing the ❤ on my chest and repping this club and HHRC in general:
“First, let’s review the USATF-NE XC Championships. There were many noteworthy things about it but many of those were by design and expected. We’ll get to those too. But, first, the unexpected – our whole cheer squad happened to have gathered near the finish when Michael Robertson made the final turn into the home stretch. Michael was in 110th place of 112 runners and our squad cheered their guts out. I could see that Michael was touched and the squad was so proud. It’s not easy to put yourself out there. I, for one, had no idea the race would be that fast at the back (Michael is not slow). Running is always relative: to ourselves, to the field, to our expectations, to our youth. You can ask Matt S and Emily about that. Both are BQ runners in the well over 20 min category and both found themselves in the back 1/3 of this one. It was a shock. That is championship cross country though. It’s fast. It’s rugged. There are few fans. There are no medals. There are teams. There are personal victories. There is great pride.”
To make a long story short, couldn’t have said it any better myself.