Saturday, March 26, 2011

A championship experience

This week's column:

My coach and I embarked on quite a journey March 14 to get to Punta Umbria, Spain for this past Sunday’s Cross Country World Championships. Had I known it would take us more than 20 hours to get there, I might have hesitated. But now, having run a solid race, finishing 19th and walking away with a bronze medal as a member of the United States team, I’d say it was well worth the journey.

I had done a little research on Punta Umbria before the trip, but it wasn’t exactly what I expected. It is mostly a resort town, so since it was the off season things were pretty quiet. The USA team was one of the first to arrive. I was relieved to have a extra few days to acclimate and get the plane ride out of my legs. We did manage to work in a day of sightseeing.

One of the the nice things about these trips is that I get to run with people for a change. Usually, I don’t mind plodding along on my usual streets alone, but before I race it’s nice to just relax and have fun with my teammates. We ran as a team most days and talked about upcoming weddings, race strategies, and everything in between. Our team ranged in age from a newbie just out of college at 23 to a veteran at 37 (no, I was not the oldest). The running around there was amazing with beautiful bike paths along the ocean and miles and miles of dirt trails through the woods. It was too bad we weren’t running too much before the race.

When race day finally arrived I found that, even though I am a veteran, it’s hard not to be intimidated when you see the other teams warming up. The six Kenyan women were running in pairs and their strides were synchronized. They looked beautiful and effortless.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a close look at them during the race. I didn’t see anything but their backs.

It was the most challenging and prettiest course I have ever run. It had a grass loop through the woods with three sets of three 24-inch logs to jump over. It doesn’t sound like much, but that meant jumping over 36 logs and running some hills in between. Cross country races always have a frenzied start, and I did not get my best one.

Halfway through the 8-kilometer race, I realized I was in fourth place for the USA team and the top four places scored. We knew we needed to get four runners in the top 20 to guarantee a bronze medal, so I just squeaked in at 19th place.

I haven’t had a USA uniform on since the Beijing Olympics. It’s hard to describe how proud you feel wearing the team uniform with a big USA across your chest. Apparently, other countries covet them as well because as soon as you cross the line at these international events the other athletes start asking to trade singlets. Though I have a few sets of them in the garage, I never trade. I figure one day Quin might want to take some to show-and-tell or play dress up in them with his friends.

He’ll have no idea how hard I had to work to get one. By then I anticipate my competitive running career will be long gone — but with lots of happy memories like this past week in Spain.

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