My third year at BASIS Flagstaff, I was bait-and-switched into coaching high school cross country. We were starting a full athletic program, joining the state association that would let us compete in the regional and state competitions against other schools, and the cross country coach was looking for volunteers to help run with the kids. I wanted to get back to running two to three times a week, so that would be perfect, right?
Right. When students actually signed up, we discovered that there were 63 middle school students signed up for what would become the Munchkin Powerhouse. Anna, came up to me and said this, which essentially meant: “You are the high school cross country coach and the other two of us will be wrangling minis.”
The benefits of coaching cross country for high school students, particularly when you run with them, is that it whips you into shape. Like, really good shape. Like, run a PR 13 years after the fact shape.
Anna, being an intrepid, awesome runner as well as coach kept running with us when she could, and she and I would take the teams wherever we needed to have more than one van. As the state meet for the littles approached, so too did Anna with a plan:
- Take high school sectionals
- Qualify the high school for state
- Take the Munchkin Powerhouse to state the next day
- Take 2nd in the state
- Run a night race
- Dye our hair purple for the High Schoolers, who achieved the incredibly difficult: go to state in the running powerhouse region our first year.
Flagstaff is occasionally referred to as “running mecca”.
What better place in the world than a huge plateau at 2000 meters with hundreds of miles of trails, mountains, canyons, and world class athletic facilities to train for the Olympics? Running is therefore somewhat of a lifestyle of a lot of people in flagstaff. We have hundreds of people come out for the running series. We have a running series. People run fast. The only people in front of the 40-49 age group are not even half-dozen twenties professionals. Running in Flagstaff races therefore takes a hugely competitive, world-class, sponsored status, or being humble or quickly humbled.
As it turns out, other places are not Flagstaff.
The night race we three coaches signed up for was an 11k race in the Phoenix area. We spent the afternoon thinking about the race and eating or not eating what we could in preparation for the race. The mood was the relaxed and happy contentment of our 5th/6th grade students getting 2nd place in the state (because Flagstaff is running mecca).
We got to the race venue at sunset and looked at the course map. Two loops, with one big hill in middle. Ok. Strategy: go out, find a pace that would feel good. Be humble (at least that was my strategy).
The best laid plans.
The race started, and I went out at a pace that felt slow as we were not rushing to establish position for the remaining time. The trail was illuminated by the bobbing lights strapped to our heads, and it rolled ahead through the nighttime desert. A guy went way out fast. My group rolled around, and then we hit a hill.
I was feeling quite good, and I knew I had altitude on my side, so I pushed for the hill and left the group behind, including one stubborn hold out.
The top of the hill arrived and I was on the edge of what I could do. Down hill was welcome, but the energy/physiological debt I had put myself into would stay the rest of the race. Now was all about maintaining, a challenge in and of itself.
I came around the corner, and there was the water tent. I got some water and asked where in the course I was (running for the first time in the dark was a little disorienting).
“You just finished the first loop.”
The “hill” started at the beginning of the second loop.
Not the one I had just done.
I was less than half way.
I stopped tried to catch my breath and thought I really need to revise my race strategy for this.
While I was questioning my decision making paradigm, the stubborn fellow passed me and started up the hill. I started off at a jog. It would have to do for the hill. Then, if I were feeling at any way good, I could see about returning to a pace.
With Pentatonix new song “Water” in my head guiding the beat of my feet and humility ready in my heart, I wandered up the hill.
Now, in Flagstaff, when you fall off the pace, you are promptly passed by a long line of people who went out more responsibly than you did and are feeling good, often exclaiming encouragement as they pass you by. Changing pace can mean changing 50 to 100 places. Humbling.
I was ready for this since I have had all manner of race experiences in Flag from exclaiming encouragement, to plodding along, to going from strong to struggle to stagger.
Here come all the people.
Surely, the pack will catch me.
Top half would be nice.
Where are they?
What is going on?
Night racing is weird when you cant see people?
I don’t see the bobbing lights though?
Do I look back?
A switch back, now I can see all the people coming.
Where are they?
The pack never arrived. I jogged up the hill, and only had one light appear on the horizon. Furthermore, I could still see stubborn dude’s light ahead of me.
The nice thing about “Water” by Pentatonix is that there are two main themes: one slow, and one fast. Slow was the them of the uphill where I was questioning my life decisions. I switched into the faster one for some down hill time and cruised. I pulled in stubborn guy about half-mile before the end, we had a brief race, and off I went into 2nd place. I never saw the 1st place guy from his bold start (finishing more than 15 minutes ahead of me anyway), and it is exemplary of Flagstaff’s running status that a race could go any such was for me in Phoenix.