I want to keep competing after college, I tell him.
It’s 9:00 PM and a stalled train is the only thing between me and the 20 mile stretch leading to my apartment in Tiffin, Ohio. It’s was as good a time as ever to catch up with my first college coach. I’m in the twilight of my collegiate career; after 6 years as an NCAA athlete I’m only left with a couple weeks of eligibility. Despite competing competitively for over 10 years at that point I’m not ready to be done with running. As I stare at a train that seems to be going backwards, I go on about where I feel I am at that moment in time. I’m in the best shape of my life and I feel that in the right race I could come close to knocking at the door of a national qualifier or at the very least a provisional mark for the meet. With only so many chances left and Steeplechase being such an unpredictable event, I have no intention of running anything else. I’m all in with the steeplechase. There will be no 10K track debut this year or any chances to go after a personal best in the 5K. The end of this season would mark 4 years since I had last ran a personal best in the 5K and that bothered me.
I’m going to be honest with you, very few runners PR after college, He tells me.
Once running ceases to be the main priority in one’s life, the chances of achieving optimal performance drastically decline. Whether it’s the challenges that come with a career, social life, or simply losing motivation, maintaining that level of fitness becomes increasingly tougher the further one moves from graduation. Mike knew me pretty well; my life had not revolved around running for a couple years now. I broke from a toxic mentality toward the sport years ago and no longer it as my source of happiness and self-validation. I still took it extremely serious but there was a balance. My education and career aspirations took priority for the first time in my life.
The plan was to take a break from training following my final race. This would allow my body to rest from the long season and serve as a mental break while I focused on adjusting to wherever my next home would be. From there I would build back to quality mileage before joining a local team. I figured it wouldn’t be too long to get back to running consistently and get into race shape. I would be breaking PRs in no time.
Mike’s words foreshadowed these last two years of running for me. I was back on track for the first couple of months but after an injury that winter, training went completely off the rails. Running quickly became less important to me. I was focused on other priorities, mainly my career and giving Columbus one last shot to be home. I was running a couple of times of week but other than some random spurts of good training, nothing was consistent. I had lost that sense of urgency that came with running in college. No longer did I have a team that kept me accountable or a goal to chase, I was running without purpose and it was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.
I continued to delay my return to competitive running but as time went on, the desire to run fast again began to gnaw at me. I still had a little spark somewhere in there and my competitiveness seemed to be the jumpstart I need to get back to it. I was tired of running slow and I could see others getting faster. I started feeling like a bit of an outsider with my local groups and felt like I had been all talk for the last two years. Sure, I could muscle out a 2:41 marathon but no one had seen what I could do when I actually trained consistently. More importantly, I still felt like I had some unfinished business.
Just before my marathon I was introduced to the Columbus Track Club. An upstart club established earlier in the year, I had met one of the guys randomly helping a buddy move out of his place. They were training for USATF Club Cross Country Nationals in Spokane and were trying to field a full team for the meet. I was running well at that point and applied for a spot on the team. I was sure 3 weeks was ample time to recover from the marathon and jump into an 8K to show my stuff.
Oh how naive I was.
I ended up hurting myself as a result of inconsistent training and spent all season trying to get healthy. I ran absolutely terrible in my first race for them, with one of my miles actually being slower than my average for my marathon a couple weeks prior. I felt like the guys thought I was just some scrub that wasn’t serious or decent enough to be on the team. I barely knew these guys but I felt like I let them down. So I worked to try and get healthy. My mileage was almost non-existent following that race but I put myself on a rehab regimen to completely shake the injury. I was seeing some improvements but with the post-season quickly approaching, I wondered if it was possible to make it to the finish line in one piece. The goal became to just make it to nationals healthy.
Running Log (September 10th – December 9th)
September 10: Off
September 17: 6 miles (1 day)
September 24: 17.6 miles (4 days, All-Ohio) (27:50 for 4.87 miles, 5:43 pace)
October 1: 6.7 miles (2 days)
October 8: 24 miles (3 days, Bourbon Chase)
October 15: 17.8 (5 days)
October 22: 24.5 (5 days)
October 29: 16.4 (4 days)
November 5: 28.0 (6 days) (USATF Ohio 5k) (17:05 for 3.20 miles, 5:20 pace)
November 12: 30 (5 days)
November 19: 29 (4 days) (Turkey Trot) (21:12 for 4 miles, 5:18 pace)
November 26: 36.4 (4 days) (Alumni Mile)
December 3: 45.8 (6 days) USATF Club Cross
Despite low mileage I was seeing steady improvement. The lingering injury was gone and running faster paces began to feel comfortable again. I was getting back into form but with a month to go, being fit enough to race a 10K seemed to be out of the cards. I would hope to maintain whatever mileage I was currently on and see if I could pull something decent for race day. In the meantime I would step away from all run clubs to avoid all distractions and regain my focus. It was time to find my drive again. With two weeks to go I had a small breakthrough; maybe I could do something with this season after all. The next two weeks I developed a mantra I would repeat to myself. When I felt like cutting a day short I would repeat to myself, “I’m sick of running slow”. It was working, I tapped back in. Mentally I was there; I just needed to see if my body could be too.
USATF Club Nationals
A morning shakeout, some breakfast, and we were off to the course.
Club Nationals is very different from any other cross country experience. This is very much the grassroots of our sport. No glitz or glamour here. The majority of us flew out to Washington on our own dime to do this. There’s almost a sense of purity to it all; a collection of runners from across the country still chasing those dreams of faster times, the rush of race day. I found solace watching the masters runners race; showcasing the reality that this didn’t have to end after college. The atmosphere was a jovial seriousness if that makes sense. It was as though we were all happy to be there, thankful for the opportunity to still compete. We all took time out of our schedules to run a 10K in the middle of Spokane. We were here and it was race time.
And boy what it race it was.
I had a set race plan going into this. The only other time I ran a 10K didn’t go very well so I was coming into this with a 33:45 PR. A personal best was entirely possible as long as I stayed conservative for those early miles. The last thing I wanted was for the doors to come off because I went out in 5:00 again. 5:25’s or so would get the job done and I’d sneak out of there with a new personal best.
The race went out hard. Over 400 runners sprinted from the line trying to find and settle into position. I held myself back, trying to avoid the excitement of the start. I felt like I was carrying the rear of the race but I stayed calm, we had a race plan. At a mile 1 we’d reevaluate and move from there but at the moment staying calm was key. A race isn’t won in the first 400 meters but it sure can be lost there.
5:06, 5:07, 5:08…
My watch sounded, 5:09 first mile. Well then, so much for 5:25s.
My position had been secured and I went through that first mile with relatively little effort. There was nothing left for me to do than to just adapt to this new pace. I had already committed to my spot, this would be my new race plan whether I liked it or now. Since I went through so quickly, I sensed that I would find people falling back in the next couple miles. The race pulled me out much faster than I wanted to; I fully expected that this was the same case for others. Those that were a little too trigger happy would move backward and that’s where I would strike.
Sure enough that is exactly what happened. From 2 miles on I started passing people, their hard breathing and straining form noticeable. People were redlining early, the effects of a pace way too hot off the gun. I remained controlled. This was exciting but we still had a long way till the chute. The real racing would come after 8K, that was the make or break. I stopped paying too much attention to my watch and focused on the next person ahead of me. Catch, hard surge, settle in, repeat. I was having fun with this, well as much fun as you can have in the middle of a hard race. As I approached mile 4, reality settled in, if I maintained I would come away here with a pretty significant personal best. I began to repeat to myself “FIGHT”. I was over half way done now. I made the decision to run this pace, to keep pushing forward. I had committed to this race, now it was time to close it out.
At mile 5 I pulled out my fastest mile of the race, 5:07. As some of the guys on the team would say, this was full send. Now it was time to hold on. Just over a mile to go and we’ll be done with this. If I held on this would be my first personal best in over 2 years. Though I wavered a bit at mile 6 (5:17), I held on as best I could and came through the 10K at 32:25 and finished the long course in 33:50. I finished with a huge PR at 10K and almost breaking my PR with an extra half mile in distance.
I finished 246 out of 425 runners in that field. This was by far the most competitive race I’ve ever been in. I was nowhere near the top of the field but that didn’t matter to me, and I feel like if you were to ask others in that race they would respond the same. This was racing at its purest form. I found my why during this race. The chase, the rush of race day, the fight to the finish, the camaraderie, this is what I missed. I fought out there and I crossed the line with a personal best. I didn’t just survive, and I proved to myself that there’s still a lot left on the table here. I want to see what I can actually do with some consistency.
Mike was right, it’s hard to keep running competitively after college, but it’s not impossible. I have a long road to go where I want to be, but why not chase it while I still can.