I suppose it wouldn’t really be a cross-country meet without a little chaos surrounding it. The USATF Club Cross Country Championships in San Francisco this past Saturday were already shaping up to be an interesting affair in the days leading up as the percentage chance of precipitation shot up to 100 and the wind speed readings rose along with it. What couldn’t be forecasted was the effect those conditions would have on the event itself but I think it’s safe to say fallen trees, delayed starts, and a wildly altered course likely weren’t on anyone’s bingo card.
In the weeks before the race, shoe choice was a popular topic of conversation. I lost count of how many people reached out to me about whether they should pack flats or spikes for the trip out. Under ordinary circumstances, the race course, which features a nice mix of grass, dirt, and hard-packed gravel, has really good footing throughout. If it’s wet, spikes might give you slightly more bite in the grass and around some of the tighter turns, but 9/10 times flats are going to be the better choice. The circumstances this past Saturday, however, were anything but ordinary.
When I got to the park about an hour and a half before my race it was pissing down rain. The wind was so strong driving in that it shook my car multiple times. When I jogged over to the bus our team was using as a staging area, I noticed the stretch of trail we were going to run alongside JFK Boulevard was a mud slide. I was stoked. This was no doubt going to be a spikes day. I was so excited to put my 3/8-inch daggers to good use.
About an hour before the start of our race I set out to warm up with my West Valley Track Club Masters teammates. We believed that our 40-49 squad had a good shot at winning the national title. This was our home course and we knew exactly how to play it. As we jogged down the sidewalk, Peter Gilmore and I were chatting with giddy excitement about the conditions. It was still dumping rain. We tried to run down a section of the course and a few of us almost ate it so we flipped immediately. As we finished up a lap on the outer edges of the Polo Fields, the Men’s 60+ race was passing by us to the inside. Those guys were covered head to toe in dirt. Many of them looked like they’d been rolling around in the mud. The conditions were perfect.
Back at the bus I changed out of my soaking wet warmups and into my dry race kit. I then threw on a hooded jacket to keep my top half covered until it was time to take the line. As I jogged over to the start at Hellman Hollow I saw a firetruck parked in the middle of the road, its sirens blaring. A massive tree had snapped at its trunk not far from the start and near where some teams had set up their tents. There was a lot of activity in the area but I didn’t think much of it because there was a race to run in 10 minutes. I found our team’s tent, switched into my spikes, and commenced striding out on the grass in the pouring rain. About 5 minutes before we were supposed to start, however, we were told that the race was going to be delayed for an indeterminate amount of time. Back to the bus we all went.
As soon as we retook shelter there were rumors floating around about cancellations, postponements, or perhaps a potential course change. Someone said they heard that another tree had gone down somewhere else in the park. It was all quite comical and I couldn’t help but laugh at the circumstance. Outside it was still raining sheets, wind whipping against the side of the bus. Finally, after about 20 or 25 minutes, we were told to report to the Polo Fields. The race was on, but it was going to be relegated to a 3/4 mile oval that’s half dirt and half hard-packed gravel. I quickly switched from spikes into flats and flipped my mindset at the same time: This was no longer going to be a 10K grind across varied terrain. It was going to be a flat 6-mile horse race with absolutely no opportunity to let off the gas. It was a bit of a bummer to literally and figuratively have to switch gears like this at the last minute but I honestly didn’t care. I was just grateful we were getting the opportunity to race. They could have told us we were going to run 25 out-n-backs to the stop sign at the top of the hill and it wouldn’t have mattered to me one bit.
The original course passed through the Polo Fields multiple times, and the final 1000m or so finished around the track in the clockwise direction. The new route was incredibly straightforward: 7 and 3/4 laps of the oval, all clockwise to make use of the finish line that was already in place. All 330-something of us Masters competitors were running around in the rain like idiots just trying to stay warm while the race officials sorted things out. There was some initial confusion about exactly where and when things would get underway but eventually we were told “the race will start over there in 10 minutes.” It was kind of a chaotic scene.
We finally took off about an hour after we were supposed to start. Instead of lining up in assigned boxes with our teams it was a self-seeding type of situation. I put myself near the front of the line alongside a couple of my WVTC teammates and planned to get out quick for the first 100 meters in order to avoid getting trampled. Luckily the Polo Fields are rather wide so it wasn’t too tough to find good running room early on. It got more difficult as the race went on. I knew the inside lane was rather muddy and slick so I elected to run a few feet off of it where the ground was firmer and footing more trustworthy, even if it meant running a little extra distance. We passed the finish line area for the first time about a kilometer in and it was quite crowded, everyone trying to figure out what line they wanted to take for the remaining seven laps. It was pouring buckets and the wind was particularly bad on the home straightaway. I settled in behind my teammates Andrew Touchstone and Neville Davey, two guys I’d finished just in front of or right behind most of the season. Peter Gilmore went by us a lap or so in and kept charging ahead. My body was cold and my legs weren’t very responsive but we were still moving rather well despite it all.
When I race cross country I usually do so without a watch, relying instead on my knowledge of the course as well as my own instincts to decide when to surge, slow down, or stay steady. After all, you’re racing for place, not pace. Not that the situation was any different on Saturday—lowest team score would still win—but when we learned that the race was going to be moved to the Polo Fields I put my watch back on so I could use it as a point of reference. The dynamic of this race was going to be quite different from the one I had planned to run so knowing where I was at any given time would be helpful. That said, I only recall looking at my watch twice during the race: once as I hit the 1-mile mark, which I passed in a quick 5:04, and the second time at 5K, which I hit in 16:04. When I saw the latter split I had a brief “oh sh*t” moment because I wasn’t sure if I could hold on for almost three more miles. I was our fourth or fifth man at the time with a whole swarm of Indiana Elite and Team Run Flagstaff guys around me and let me tell you it was a rather tense situation.
Passing through the finish line area with three laps to go my confidence grew because I was gaining some ground on a few of the fellas ahead of me. I saw my wife on the turn and tossed her my hat, partly because it felt like a ten-pound weight on my head, but also as a way of telling myself, “OK, it’s on now.” If I had to guess I was probably somewhere between 25th to 28th overall at the time. I gradually moved into third position on our team. Our top runner, Malcolm Richards, was in contention for the individual win at the front. I could see Gilmore hammering ahead in the distance and I knew Neville and Andrew weren’t far behind me. Our unit was racing well but would it be enough? I wasn’t sure but I knew that I couldn’t afford to let up—even for a second. With two laps to go I started to turn the screws a bit and picked up another spot or two. As we came into the home straightaway for the penultimate time I knew there was at most a mile to go. “Empty the tank,” I told myself as I shifted into fifth gear for the final circuit.
As I launched myself onto the back straightaway for the last time I was bobbing and weaving through some of the slower runners that were being lapped. I was trying as best I could to hold my line, knowing that if I went too far to the inside there’d be a high probability of wipeout, but that if I swung too wide, especially heading into the turn, that I was opening up the door to be passed on the inside. I was charging hard, however, and knew that no one was going by me if I could maintain this effort the rest of the way. Heading into the final straight, we drifted to the left toward the finish line. And that’s when the figurative rope flew right out of my hands. All of a sudden it felt like I was moving through quicksand as my stride shrunk in size. I watched a yellow singlet go by me in the final meters and then, just like that, it was done. I immediately put my hands to my knees as the officials tried to move a bunch of exhausted old men through the chute. Right behind me I saw a Run Flagstaff guy (not what I wanted to see, but better than if he had been right in front of me) and then Neville and Andrew both crossing within 10 seconds of my finish. My wife came over and told me I came in 22nd place. Neville and Andrew were in 27th and 30th, respectively. It was a solid 3-4-5 spread for our squad, and we had five guys in the top 30, but unfortunately for us Indiana Elite was better on the day. They put their top-five in front of me and beat us in the team race, 54-81. Team Run Flagstaff was a close third with 86 points. It was a six-mile showdown that was nerve-racking but also exciting as all hell. Cross country, or something that resembled it anyway, at its finest.
This past Saturday’s event was one of the craziest, most chaotic experiences I’ve ever been a part of in the 25 years I’ve been involved in this sport. It was also one of the most memorable, and a day that anyone involved will be talking about for a long time to come. And while I think it’s safe to say everyone would have much rather raced the original courses, the energy around the Polo Fields was unique and special. There was nowhere to hide. In a weird way I kind of enjoyed it. Kudos to the race officials for making the best of a tough situation when the City of San Francisco restricted access to the park after the tree(s) fell. Cross-country is all about adaptability and this year’s national club championships took that to an entirely new level.
And with that, my 2022 cross-country season is in the books. It was so, so much fun. A few days removed from the finale and I’m as excited as ever to see what’s possible as an athlete as I move through my 40s. The best decision I made this year was joining the West Valley Track Club Masters team back in January. Over the past 12 months these guys have become brothers to me. They’ve helped bring a new level of enjoyment to my running that I didn’t realize I was missing. It’s like being on a college team again but instead of running out of eligibility four years from now I can stick around for the next forty if I so choose. It’s really a beautiful thing and I’m so grateful to be a part of it.
MORE: You can watch my race in its entirety here if you’re so inclined. The official results are on this page. And since I wore my watch for this one, here’s the Strava data for all you number nerds out there.