We are now over two weeks out from the NCAA Championships, my last collegiate cross country race, ever. I am filled with mix emotions — happy for what I was able to accomplish, a little sad because I know I will never be apart of a team like that again, and so on. One thing I am not feeling, however, is regret. I have none. I have devoted myself to this sport for years, running my first cross country race in 1993 as a Simi Valley Running Rebel. I had to make some sacrifices along the way, missing out on some things and unfortunately putting strain on relationships at times. But if I had to do it again, would I do anything differently? Hell no. I did everything I could to be the best cross country runner I could be.?? I will never regret anything. The fictional running hero Quenton Cassidy said it best, or rather wrote it, in a letter to his ex-girlfriend Andrea regarding his final races:
I discovered early on that the truly great advantage of going all-out every time is that later you don’t have to waste a single instant second-guessing yourself. (Again to Carthage by John L. Parker, Jr.)
I have made it no secret that this season I wanted to be an All-American, to finish within the top 40 in the nation. Based on what I have accomplished in the last few years it was a very lofty goal. However, when I came to NAU as a recruit in 2005, Coach Hayes, the cross country and distance coach at the time, said something that stuck with me. He said, “I don’t want you to come here if you don’t want to be an All-American.” I knew at that moment that NAU was where I wanted to spend my next few years. Before my final cross country race, these words rung in my head. Could I do it? Maybe not. But I was going to give myself a chance.
I think I will always remember the few minutes just before that gun went off. Obviously I did the normal strides and we clapped it up as a team one last time. But what is really going to stick with me is the exchange I had with my dad about 100m out from the line. He was out taking pictures of us, which is where this one to the right came from. He gave me a hug and told me to have fun, one last time and that he was proud of me. It was quite emotional for me and I fought back tears. He knows this, but I love you Dad.
I got off the line well and quickly tried to find a body to get behind as there was a strong headwind, probably close to 20 mph. Like I had for most of the season, I got out well and was able to comfortably tuck in. These races are tough to judge where exactly you are, but I was probably around 50s or 60s in that first kilometer — exactly where I wanted to be to give myself a chance to potentially move up to that top 40 position.
Because this race is over two weeks ago now, I don’t remember most of my splits, but I think they were fairly similar to Pre Nationals. I tried to focus on staying inside a pack so I wouldn’t have to fight that strong wind. I know for sure that I came through 5k in 15:12 and saw a very large pack just ahead. I knew that was where All-American was. Unfortunately, it was too much and I was not able to make up much ground in the second half of the race.
Still, I was having a good race. As far as I knew, our team was running well too. More important than my individual goal was that I was expected to be our 4th man. But then, suddenly at around 6k, my positive outlook for the team’s finish took a turn for the worse. I came by David McNeill, our top runner and one of the contenders for the National Championship. I instantly knew what the problem was: a side stitch. I had seen it before; last year at Pre Nationals. Dave was a fighter that time and I knew he would be a fighter again today. He is a humble, graceful champion and knew we were counting on him to do everything he could for the team. That is exactly what he did and we love him for it.
The last few kilometers was a dog fight. Battling the wind, constantly surging to bridge the next gap ahead. It was a rough day for a lot of people. The final uphill finish was simply ridiculous. One by one a runner would try to kick away from our pack, but would get swallowed back up because it was just too much to handle. I got to a point where I thought I could last to the finish. Nope. My fate was the same as theirs.?? I ended up in 87th place, just breaking 31 minutes. Slower than last year, but 8 spots better. “I couldn’t do what I thought I could,” but no worries. As I said in the opening paragraph, no regrets. Ever.
As a team we finished 9th. Had Dave not held on like he did, we would have been well outside the top 10. After last year’s 4th place finish, this was a bit disappointing. A year ago, however, I could not have imagined how much would change. Considering all the adversity we faced, collectively as a team as well as individually, I am proud to say I was a part of another top 10 team for the Lumberjacks.
(By the way, that is 4 top 10’s in a row and 8 in the last 10 years. Not bad for “a little school in the pines.”)