“Only a fifth of what you normally do”

A month ago today I had surgery to remove Plica in my left knee. I am happy to say that I am now swimming, biking and running with some consistency. I have been doing a lot of rehab, nearly everyday since the day after my surgery, and I have to thank our team trainer Cherise for all of her help. She has so many athletes to care for and she always finds time to help me with exercises, ultrasound, and reassuring me that I’ll be back out there soon while I watch my teammates run workouts on the track.

Earlier this week I told Tim Freriks (Nicknamed “Rube” because he is our lone ranger freshman. You should hear his jokes.) that I was hoping to run about 20 to 25 miles this week. He responded with a chuckle and, “That’s like what? Only a fifth of what you normally do?” While my mileage is much lower right now, I am simply happy to be out there again, improving everyday, and not worrying about if/when my knee will hurt again. As of now I am still very glad that I decided to get the surgery. I have an appointment to see the doctor on Thursday so I should have a better idea of how my recovery is coming along.

Bus Canyon, Simi Valley, California
One of the views from one of my favorite runs

Since my last post I have been home for Spring break, back to school for 4 days, then home again to see my great aunt and uncle from Denmark. It is always nice spending time at home, especially this time of year when the hills of Simi Valley are all green. The little running I was able to do was truly a pleasure. I am so glad that I already have the perspective to realize “how good we had it” running as a youth and in high school. I feel like I have written this countless times over the last year on this blog: those trails are rich with memories.

Going home has a new perk this semester: Tina. My girlfriend Tina graduated from NAU in December, graduating with a double major in just 3.5 years. What a stud. Unfortunately this means that she isn’t in Flagstaff anymore. Long distance relationships aren’t my idea of fun, but this is just a passing thing.

Speaking of graduation, I have just over a month left of my undergraduate career! What’s even more exciting is that last weekend I received an acceptance letter to NAU’s Master of Engineering program. I still have at least an entire year of eligibility left and doing grad school seemed like the best way to make the most of my time here in Flagstaff.

Now that I am running more I should have more material. In the coming days I am hoping to have a good idea of what my goals will be for the next 6 months or so. (It’s crazy to think that cross country nationals were 5 months ago.)

Happy Spring!

NCAA Cross Country Championships

What a season. I have so much to say about this season that I think I will break it up into several posts. Today, I want to recap the race while it is still fresh in my mind. This weekend I will have some more time to reflect on everything.

2009 Division 1 NCAA Cross Country Championships
2009 Division 1 NCAA Cross Country Championships

Pre-Race

Heading into this race, I tried to do everything the same way that I have done it all season. Pre-race rituals get you to the starting line feeling the same way every time. If the feeling is good, the routine is good. Likewise, if the feelings are bad, the routine needs some adjusting.

8AM my roommate Jordan Chipangama and I awoke from a great night’s sleep on the cozy beds of the Terre Haute Hilton Garden Inn. We met our teammates for a 10 minute shakeout and then ate breakfast. For me: oatmeal, banana and a blueberry bagel.

Unlike Pre-Nationals, we all made the ride to the course together. Before leaving the van, Coach Heins told each of us that he believed in us and that he believed we could achieve our personal goals. He recognized the importance of the race, and told us, “Pressure bursts pipes, but it also makes diamonds.”

With those words resonating in our heads, we went through our usual warm up routine: 2 mile warm up 60 minutes before, some stretching and a 3 minute LT 20 minutes before the race. It seems we were able to iron out any of the problems we had earlier in the season as everything was like clock work before the race.

Diego Estrada's name was written on our hands
Diego Estrada's name was written on our hands

Half the battle was already over. I was standing on the starting line with my teammates at the National Championships healthy and almost 1,800 miles of training behind me. Unfortunately, Diego Estrada was unable to race, but he was definitely there with us and we hoped to represent him well. We all wrote his name on our hands to remind us that, if Diego was racing, he would run the only way he knows how — guts and glory all the way.

Senior Simon Gilna gives a final speech
Senior Simon Gilna gives a final speech

In the team clap before the race, senior Simon Gilna reminded us, “Believe we can become diamonds, guys. This is the greatest day to be a Lumberjack!” And with that, we raced.

The Race

The moment before the gun was fired was an eternity. I stared at the gun intensely, thinking, “Here we go.” Then it was over and we were on our way.

Heading into the race, I had planned to get out well, perhaps as high as 60th. I went with a bit more comfortable start and was probably somewhere in the top 150. I came flying through the 1km in 2:48. The pace seemed fast, but it was fast for everyone. I continued on in about the same position and came through the mile in 4:37. I found Oregon’s AJ Acosta and Stanford’s Brendan Gregg (Oregon’s 6th and Stanford’s 5th man) and decided to run off them for a while. I hit 2k in 5:50 and 3k in 8:55.

Me and Ahmed Osman approaching 5k
Me and Ahmed Osman approaching 5k

Acosta began moving up through the field, so I followed behind him. As we approached 5k in 15:11, I was very happy to see Ahmed Osman come by me. I gave him some encouragement, something like, “Lets go buddy.” Ahmed would spend the second half of the race passing lots of people. Passing people wasn’t as easy for me.

I was hurting. But this is the National Championships and no one wins anything without a fight. I slowly went by one runner at a time until 6k when I noticed the next runner was German Fernandez. Either I am having the best race of my life or German was having the worst of his. Judging by the desperation in German’s coach’s voice as he cheered him on, I think it was a little of both. So I went by German without looking back.

Around 7k it hit me, it is almost all over; just over 9 minutes to go. I tried to push a little bit harder and came through the 8k in 24:38, 5 seconds faster than my 8k time at Pre-Nationals and equalling my course PR set last year. There was no question that I would be setting a big PR today, but how many runners could I pass?

I continually heard coaches yelling to their runners around me that they were around 100th. In the beginning of the season I set a goal to be in the top 100. It is a very exciting thing to realize you are on the verge of besting a longterm goal. I decided several months and many miles ago that I would work as hard as I had to to reach top 100. Now, with the absence of one of our best runners, that goal was so much more important to me. I was the 5th man, in the thick of the race, and my points mattered.

Kicking with everything I have left
Kicking with everything I have left

With 1k remaining, I tried to put the hammer down and continued passing runners one by one. As we made our last turn, Coach Seth Watkins reminded me, “You want it!” I did want it and I thought about Diego. Diego would finish strong like he always does, leaving everything out on the course. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a gap ahead of me and I spent most of the finish closing the gap. Once I finally bridged the gap, I was able to pass a couple runners.

I finished in 95th place in 30:52.3, 99 places and 51 seconds better than last year. My season was over and I reached my goal. I was content. I talked to my teammates and heard that David McNeill was 2nd and Jordan was 5th! NAU had by far the best 1-2 punch in the country. Ben Ashkettle finished 59th and Ahmed was 74th. Andrew Belus finished 149th and Simon was 196th.

2009 Northern Arizona Cross Country, Fourth Place
2009 Northern Arizona Cross Country, Fourth Place

As a team we finished 4th, on the podium. We were all very happy with the outcome. Upon looking at the results, Oklahoma State won with 127 points to our 190. In team scoring, I scored 75 points. If Diego had run, he would have had to be 12th in team scoring, which was 14th overall, for us to win the meet. Most of the season, Diego ran just behind Jordan, and assuming today he was within 15 seconds of him, he would have been 14th.

As I have talked to family and friends since Monday, and explain the situation with Diego, many of them think it is a bummer that we were so close. We were so close, but once we swallowed the pill and realized that Diego would not be competing, new goals had to be created. A guy like Diego Estrada simply cannot be replaced. Heading into the meet, I think each of us wanted to compete in a way that would have put us in the hunt had Diego been there — and that is exactly what we did.

I am very proud of my team for never backing down in the face of adversity. This race, this season, this team will forever hold a very special place in my heart.

Thank you David McNeill, Jordan Chipangama, Ben Ashkettle, Ahmed Osman, Andrew Belus, Simon Gilna, Diego Estrada, Kam Holbrook, Tim Freriks, Darius Terry, Joe Withers, Eric Lynch, Scott Blair and Dan Lanzilotti.

Results: Indvidual Team | Recap on NAUAthletics.com | Recap on Letsrun.com | Highlight Video on NAUAthletics.com | Photos (Album 1 & 2)

Mountain Regionals

Yesterday the Northern Arizona Cross Country teams competed at the Mountain Regionals in Albuquerque, New Mexico. If you are at all unfamiliar with collegiate cross country, Regionals is the qualifying meet for the NCAA Championships. The top-2 teams from each region (there are 9 regions total) as well as 13 at-large selections will qualify for Nationals. This system promises to have the very best teams at the championship competing against eachother. As Letsrun.com says, “XC Nats are like the All-Star game, the entire playoffs and the Super Bowl all in one cold, remote town (Terre Haute, Indiana and the LaVerne Gibson XC course). And it happens on a Monday afternoon and takes??all of??30 minutes.

Heading into the weekend, we knew we just had to be in the top-4 to get into Nationals. Since nationals is only 9 days after Regionals, and both races are 10km instead of the usual 8km, it makes sense to run as conservatively as possible. This leaves me with an interesting feeling towards the race. These type of races, where you are 99% sure the team will qualify to the next meet, can be tough to get really excited for. In 8 days, no one will care, or likely remember for that matter, who finished where at Regionals… assuming you qualified for Nationals of course. Yesterday’s Regionals was nothing more than a business trip.

We started off the morning with the usual 10 minute shakeout at 6:45 am. Sky was cloudy, but the roads had dried from Friday’s rain. Unfortunately, we had a casualty in roommate Kam Holbrook. Kam had to take a couple days off this week due to pain in his left mid foot (mid foot sprain?) and decided he couldn’t race on it. Freshman Tim Freriks was then bumped up and took Kam’s spot in the race.

Shortly after arriving at the course it began drizzling.?? I really don’t mind racing in the rain, especially when it is so light, but it can make warming up before the race a pain. By the time we began our warm up, the rain ceased and wouldn’t pick back up till after the race.

Start of the Mens Mountain Regionals
Start of the Mens Mountain Regionals

After about a 200m straight, the course turns onto some dirt with uneven footing and then makes its way back onto a fairway. This made for a physical start and I was glad I got out well… probably in the 25-30 range. I settled in and continued to run just off the leaders in about 30th place coming through the 1k mark in 2:59 and the mile in somewhere around 4:50.

The course is made up of three loops that wind up and down three fairways, so spectators were everywhere. The crowd was quite loud, which brought me back to my high school cross country days in California where some meets would have thousands of spectators lining most of the course.

I came through 2 miles around 9:50 in about 35th. I remember feeling a side stitch coming on around 3.5k. I took a few deep breaths and it either went away or I just forgot about it because I don’t remember thinking about it the rest of the race. My 5k time was about 15:30 and I still felt pretty good.

At 8k (25:0x), Coach Heins told me I was fine right where I was and to just relax and hold my position. From there I found Nick Atwood, who has turned into a bit of a conference rival for me, and decided to race him the rest of the way. With about a kilometer to go, he opened up a gap. With 400m left, I was able to move by him and another one of his teammates and hold them off till the finish. I finished in 33rd with a time of 31:26.9.

I ran this same course in 2006 and finished 71st in 33:29. Last year I was 50th in Fort Collins, Colorado. It is good to see a steady improvement over the years with a 2+ minute course PR.

David McNeill took home the individual title for the second year in a row and finished with a time of 29:51. Ben Ashkettle has been steadily moving up all season, finishing 8th yesterday. We will need another big effort from him, and the rest of the team for that matter, on Novemeber 23rd. The team finished 4th behind BYU, Colorado and New Mexico. As we thought, it was good enough for an at-large selection.

Looking ahead toward Nationals in 8 days, we have a fairly light week of training. It will be my lowest mileage week since taking time off after my triathlon at the end of June. Leading up to the race I will be posting more frequent updates here on RunPD.com with how the taper is going and more thoughts on the race.

Results | Race Recap on NAUAthletics.com | Photos (coming soon)

Cowboy Jamboree

Yesterday Northern Arizona’s cross country teams competed in the 73rd Cowboy Jamboree hosted by Oklahoma State in Stillwater. This meet would be the first challenging race of the season for as the mens field was very competitive with nationally ranked #2 Oklahoma State, #13 William and Marry and #1 in Division II Adams State.

Heading to Oklahoma, I wanted to improve on my 25:14 with hopes of being around graduate Mark Fruin’s mark of 24:49 from last year’s race. An hour or so before the race, Coach Heins told me Ahmed Osman, Jordan Chipangama and Diego Estrada would be taking it out hard from the gun. Ben Ashkettle would be going out a little more conservative as it was his first race back. I had envisioned getting out like I normally do and moving up through the race with Ben once he passed me.

As we got together as a team just before the start, Coach Heins told us he wanted all of us to get out hard and really get after it. So I threw out my plans of a conservative start and we did exactly what Coach Heins asked. I came through the 800m mark in 2:22 and I crossed the mile in about 4:42 a couple of seconds behind teammates Diego and Ben who were leading the race. Jordan and Ahmed were somewhere in the pack between me and the leaders.

After about 2.5km, the course goes into a woodsy area with a number of steep inclines and descents on a wood chip path. It is a pretty cool course, weaving through trees and spectators running through the woods. I crossed the 2 mile in 9:35 and around that point about 5 orange Oklahoma State jerseys passed me. Knowing I would be a scoring member of the team, I followed along and tried to stay on OSU’s 5th man.

I came through the 5km in 15:12, only 2 seconds slower than last years leaders and just 22 seconds off my track PR. I knew I would be setting a PR today, hopefully under 25 minutes. I continued following the bright orange jersey and suddenly, one of those orange jerseys came back to me! I would later find out that was David Chirchir (15th at NCAA’s two years ago). Coach Seth Watkins found me in the woods and reminded me that I was the 5th man, and if we wanted to win this meet, I could make it happen.

A few more runners came back to me in the final 800m, and with about 400m to go, I finally passed that OSU runner that I had been following for the last few miles (Jonathon Stublaski). With about 200m to go, the course kicks up one more time before a flat sprint to the finish. As I crested the final incline, I saw one more orange jersey and I knew this one was Girma Mecheso (18th place last year at NCAA’s). I was able to kick by him, but unfortunately Stublaski had a better kick and finished a second ahead of me.

Just before crossing the line, I saw the clock read 24:32. Knowing that I was the 5th NAU runner, I was fairly certain we had won the meet and felt the urge for a little celebration across the line. I am glad I restrained myself as I had no idea what place I had finished and would later find out the score was much closer than I thought.

Jordan won the race, apparently with a big move with 1km to go, in 23:44. Diego finished 5th in 23:55, Ben and Ahmed were 13th and 14th in 24:22, I was 19th, Tim Freriks was 40th in 25:07 and Simon Gilna was 65th in 25:30.

Hours after the race was over, we finally got a phone call (we were already on our way to the airport in Oklahoma City) that we had won. William and Mary finished just 7 points behind us and Adams State finished 3rd ahead of 4th place Oklahoma State. I was really surprised that 1) William and Mary was so close (I mostly focused on the orange jerseys in the race and nearly forgot about W&M. Scanning through the results I was happy to see that I beat their 5th man, even if it was by just a half a second.) and 2) Oklahoma State finished 4th at their own invitational (even if they sat out German Fernandez and Ryan Vail).

I was 42 seconds off my time from last year. 24:32 would have made me our second best runner. I can think of many great performances in my 16 cross country season, and a few stick out as breakthroughs; this one definitely ranks high on that list. Looking forward this season, I know I still have room to improve as I ran 90+ miles last week. Once we throw World Championships competitor David McNeill into the mix, the team looks even better. It will be tough for me to be a scorer on the team, but I am super motivated to putting myself ahead of every other team’s 5th man. If I can make every team in the country’s top-5, except NAU’s, we are gonna be tough to beat at Nationals.

Results | Recap on NAUAthletics.com | Video on Flotrack

Aztec Invitational

Leading the 2009 Aztec Invitational
Leading the 2009 Aztec Invitational

I have been looking forward to posting my race report of the Aztec Invitational all week. School was quite busy last week, with three tests on top of the usual load, and I couldn’t justify spending time updating this blog when there was other work to be done.

Last weekend’s Aztec Invitational was the first time I led a cross country race alone since the Woodbridge Invitational in 2002, my freshman year of high school. I ended up winning and it still stands as the last cross country race I have won.

The race started out exactly as Coach Heins wanted it to, fairly conservative with NAU packing it up in the 10-20 spots. University of San Francisco had seven or eight runners leading the charge through one mile, with Junior Eric Lynch, freshman Tim Freriks and myself following close behind. The course is rather hilly, and shortly after the mile marker, an extremely steep hill kicks up towards the heavens. Lynch swore “that hill is definitely over 45??.” As I predicted the day before as we jogged the course, several runners found it necessary to make a move up the hill. Maybe us Lumberjacks are a little conservative when it comes to hills because we are used to reaching a point of no return level of oxygen debt when making moves up hills in Flagstaff at 7,000 feet… Nevertheless, the USF runners quickly paid for their efforts.

At the top of the hill, we meandered our way through a dog park, of all things, and a few more inclines before reaching the 2 mile mark. Around this point, NAU took over in a dominating fashion with Tim, sophomore Diego Estrada, and juniors Ahmed Osman and Jordan Chipangama taking over the lead pack. After a fast downhill half mile, the course kicked up again with a short, steep uphill with Jordan moving to the lead. I followed his move and closed the gap. Jordan seemed content to let someone else lead, and just like that, there I was in the lead.

Pretty quickly I realized that this was the first time in a long time that I had led a cross country race. Might as well roll with it, right? So I continued on, passing a large group of spectators (where I specifically heard my Mom with a very excited voice), back through the dog park and down that very steep hill. Shortly after reaching the bottom, Jordan came by with some words of encouragement, but I was unable to keep up. Ahmed and Diego came by me within the next mile, and I ended up finishing the 8km course in 25:41 in fourth.

I was really amazed that I was actually slower than a year ago on this course — 9 seconds slower. There was no doubt better competition last year. Add that to a very conservative first two miles and I guess that leaves me with a slower time than last year.

Nonetheless, I still finished really excited about the race, especially since we scored an almost-perfect-16. Leading the race, even for just a short kilometer or so, re-lit a little flame inside of me. Why not stick my nose in it and go for it?

Shout outs need to go out to the middle distance guys (“MD Crew”) for really stepping it up. Sophomore Darius Terry finished 6th overall and 5th on the team. Just a few seconds behind him were sophomore Joe Withers and junior (and roommate) Kam Holbrook. They suffer through the beatdowns in long runs and workouts all fall from the longer distance guys. I know they were happy to be putting the hurt on the other guys for a change.

In a week NAU will be competing at the Cowboy Jamboree at Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Ok. Last year we finished 2nd to a very strong Oklahoma State team. This year they are even stronger, with rankings of 1st and 2nd from Letsrun.com and the national poll. This will be our team’s first test of the season, even though team leader David McNeill may opt to miss the meet for a couple more weeks of solid training.

Results | Recap on NAUAthletics.com | Photos