Just over a week ago, Northern Arizona was back in action at the Pre-Nationals meet in Terre Haute, In. Every year, most of the top ranked teams in the nation flock to the location of the national championships for a chance to see the course and see where they stack up among the nation’s best.
The field is split up into more-or-less equal fields in the “White” and “Blue” race. This year, NAU competed in the Blue race with defending national champions Oregon and third ranked Alabama.
Our race was scheduled for 11AM, so we made plans to meet as a team at 7 for a 10 minute shakeout run. This was 4 AM PST, but luckily we did our travel on Thursday so we had a day of adjusting under our belt.
Breakfast followed with the usual oatmeal, banana and bagel after the shakeout. After a little stretching and relaxing, we headed off to the course at 9:30… with most of the team. Unfortunately, Jordan Chipangama (winner of the Aztec Invitational and Cowboy Jamboree) and Ahmed Osman (our expected 5th man) thought we would be returning to the hotel after the course to shower, so they did not have their bags packed. Coach Heins made a quick decision to take the rest of us to the course to begin warming up, and Coach Watkins would bring Jordan and Ahmed to the course when they were ready (we later found out that it didn’t go as planned… Jordan and Ahmed hopped into a taxi, but got to the course just as we started to warm up).
Our instructions were to get out like we want to at nationals and to race from there. After winning the Cowboy Jamboree two weeks earlier, we didn’t need to have a great race to ensure our place at the national championships.
Temperature was around 45F with a little wind and the course was a little soggy from rain the previous few days. It felt cold standing on the line, but once the gun went off, I never thought about the temperature which is a good thing. I was focused on the task at hand, racing.
I got out well in the first 800m somewhere around 50th place and came through the 1 kilometer in 2:48. Seems really fast, but there is quite a bit of downhill in that first kilometer. I was so focused on seeing my split that I hardly realized that I was right on teammate Ben Ashkettle’s shoulder.
From there I could see 7 yellow Oregon jerseys packing it up front. Some of them should come back to me. I continued with the pack, passing 2k in 5:56. As the field winded through the course, I could see the front pack and saw Dave McNeill, Jordan Chipangama and Diego Estrada up there. I specifically remember thinking, “Dave looks like he is jogging.”
Moving to the 5k, I was passing a few runners that had clearly gone out way too hard, but was being passed at an equal rate. Shortly after crossing the 5k in 15:25, Coach Watkins told me I was in about 60th. I was 65th last year, and I know I am a lot better than that. I kept pushing and passed a few more runners. Things were looking good until about 7k.
Just ahead I saw Dave fading bad. Coach Heins was there to point out the unfortunate truth, “PD, you are our 5th man today!” It is never a good day when a team’s 6th man is passing its 1st. But who says it has to be a bad day? We won the Cowboy Jamboree without Dave running, surely we are still a great team without him.
As I passed Dave, he was clearly hurting bad. I did not know it at the time, but he said after the race that he came down with the worse side stitch of all time. (ALL TIME! Stupid Kanye…) With about 600m to go, Dave made one last effort to salvage some points and came flying by me. It wasn’t to be and he faded to 61st.
Knowing I was a scoring man gave me that little bit of extra drive and I was able to pass a few runners in the final stretch to finish 53rd in 24:43. As a team we finished 3rd, behind first place Oregon and one point behind Alabama. Jordan and Diego had great days once again, finishing 3rd and 4th, and Ben moved way up from Cowboy Jamboree finishing in 16th.
After the race, Coach Heins reminded us that a loss is not always such a bad thing. 5 weeks out from Nationals, there is still plenty of work to be done. With Dave’s off day and the less-than-ideal morning that Ahmed and Jordan had, we definitely have a lot of upside. Had Dave finished with our Ben, we would have beat Oregon.
My individual race was good, but not great. The course was definitely slower than last year, which accounts for running 5 seconds slower and placing 12 spots better. I am dissapointed that I finished one place behind Oregon’s 7th man. At Nationals, I want to make a difference for my team, and if I’m not a scorer, that means placing on every other team’s top-5. I know I can run with those guys and I just have to believe during the race. I have seven 100 mile weeks under my belt this season and a bump up to 10k at Nationals will play in my favor.