Most of all, there is the start; in a trail race, starts are usually pretty constrained, and the field inevitably has to seed itself. There is an inherent concession in doing so: "I'm not competition for you, please go ahead." The start then tends to be somewhat lackadaisical, as the people who want position the most already have it. In invitational-style cross country meets, everyone takes the line. The crack of the starter's pistol unleashes a furious pell-mell rush for place, as the whole field bolts for some distant marker where the course funnels down and passing becomes difficult. The atmosphere before the start is charged: 150 people all poised and ready, gazes focused in the same direction.
I've done my share of trail races as an adult, but my last cross country race was in the fall of 1998. Doing another was actually a rather sentimental experience.
When the gun went off, I sprang into motion with everyone else, hurtling toward the course's first little hill. Soon I was immersed in a scrum of runners, a humbling reminder of what's it like to run against a field full of competitive club runners. I was hoping to keep pace with the HFC runner who beat me in the HO HO HO last year, but no sign of him yet. The effect of racing more-or-less mid-pack, breath whistling reedily in my throat, trying to avoid tripping over the flashing ankles of the guys in front of me, was powerfully evocative of many long-gone high school races.
By the time I made it down the other side of the first hill, Conforto passed me and rapidly disappeared. (Trying to match his pace had seemed reasonable based on results from 9 months ago--I mean he beat me, but I could still see him; not so much today!) We ran around the perimeter of a grassy field, struck out onto dirt road, and then hit the 1st mile marker. 5:24.
Then up the second hill, steep and then briefly very steep, and lighting along the flat of the aqueduct path. The fast first mile and the ascent told, and I slowed. A few guys slipped by me. A blitzed down-hill, then a sandy up-hill, then rollers--real cross country. Breath clawed at my throat as I focused on keeping cadence and as much speed as possible.
I missed my 2nd mile split, but soon was back out on the field, reversing the original approach. The last hill (which was also the first hill) loomed large. I don't remember any place changes at this point. Over the top of the last hill, the lead woman caught me (we would change places again in the final stretch). Then down onto the track, and 300 meters to go. I did my best to gather my speed, trying to remember how last Thursday's sprint ladders had felt. In the last 50m, I saw the clock, 17:52, 17:53... I finally found my higher gear and bolted home in 17:59.
Final results: 30th of 104 in 17:59.
Commentary: Tough course! Not as much vertical as the old Wickham course, where we ran our state meet back in high school, but more hair-pins, loose sand and bumpy rollers. (Random aside: yesterday was the Wickham Invitational; check out results). I wasn't too disappointed with my time, but I think I could have given more over the back half of the race. Four HFC guys within 18 seconds of my finish--would have been nice to break up their top five.
Wonderful to be back racing! I neglected to mention it, but I won my race last weekend. Fall is definitely the best time to be a runner round these parts.