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It’s just so fun to run as fast as I can, every part of me working together

By on December 24, 2018 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments

Marlene Farrell, far right, makes a turn on the USATF Club Cross Country Nationals course in Spokane.

By Marlene Farrell

Some people would rather sleep in on a dark November Sunday than drive for a couple hours just to run six kilometers in a public park.

For my friend, Eric Wulfman, and me, it was just one of the things we’d come to accept for the love of our sport of competitive cross country.

We both woke up around 4:30 a.m., with time for race day rituals before rendezvousing to carpool to the Pacific Northwest Open and Masters Cross Country races in Seattle.

Bikers worry about gears, tires and brakes. Since my only “gear” is socks and spikes, I obsess a bit over these details, packing three pair of socks for one pair of feet.

Cross country is as old as humanity, given we were running long before there were established roads on which to run. It’s also been a popular competitive event for more than a century.

The required combination of endurance, speed and nimbleness to cover hilly, muddy, uneven terrain make it seem a sport for young athletes alone.

However, there are contingents of master (anyone older than 40) cross country runners across the country and around the world. “Master” doesn’t imply that we are particularly masterful at racing. It’s just a nice term for old people.

Cross country can’t be compared to the omnipresent half marathon scene, known for flat courses, good post race food, t-shirts and medals for all.

In contrast, we master cross country runners head to parks where we run multiple laps designed to utilize hills, sharp turns, lumpy fields and rutted trails. We receive no swag.

We train specifically. You can’t get by in a cross country race just by logging miles. There must be speed work. And at the race, we run as hard as our legs and lungs allow.

The first step to competing, as we enter our 40s (me) and 50s (Eric), is getting to the start line healthy.

For the two-and-a-half hour car ride to Woodland Park in Seattle, we made sure to remember important items — tennis balls. I used one to prod and release my hamstrings and gluts, rolling it between me and my seat for almost the entire ride.

Eric is far tougher than most of us. He lives with rheumatoid arthritis, which affects athletic performance, as do the medications used to treat it.

“Races are goals that keep me running, even when I’m not feeling 100 percent,” he said. “A life-long condition doesn’t have to keep you from doing the things you love. At this point, I consider every time I race, it’s a win.”

Why we like to race is related to coaching kids. We enjoy being around runners, young and old.

Eric spends a lot of time in coach mode, being the distance coach for Cascade High School’s track program and the head cross country coach at Icicle River Middle School. I was Eric’s assistant coach this fall. We both agreed there was a connection. “Racing makes us better coaches,” Eric said. “We’re not just drawing on memories of racing decades ago.”

That Sunday we headed to Woodland Park in Seattle to race for our team, Seattle Running Club (SRC). Six other teams from the region were also there.

It’s a tough course. The start is evil. The hill is plenty wide but it also slopes down. When your stride is several inches shorter and your shock absorbers aren’t as lubricated as they used to be, you notice how quickly the ground falls away, and you land hard on every little lump and hole.

“There’s some real twisted ankle potential,” Eric warned.

For 6k, we ran three identical laps. The course, on mostly grass and dirt, crossed pavement three times each lap. Most of us wear spikes anyway, which clatter against the asphalt and feel like hard points beneath our feet. In other places there were side camber, twisty tree roots, cedar branches hanging low, sun streaking into my eyes.

There’s a hill I love. It teases us as we approach the finish, before we plunge and loop around a notorious tight turn on fallen leaves.

Few other running events are so team-oriented; we race for the sake of something bigger than ourselves. Each person I pass in a race helps lower my team’s overall score (the goal is to have the lowest score, based on runners’ placings).

The other SRC racers cheered for us while they warmed up for their open (under 39) races. They stood at key spots to encourage me up the hill, convincing me that I looked strong.

Cross country is contained in the fall season. It’s more than a stand-alone race; each race builds on the previous ones. I hope to make progress, in pacing, fitness, power and confidence.

To race hard for a couple laps around a track is one thing. To run for what feels like forever in a marathon is at the other end of the spectrum. Cross country sits somewhere in the middle, requiring tenacity.

I try to hold myself at full throttle for more than 20 minutes, a long enough time to feel my mental scaffolding crack. But it doesn’t crumble. I will my legs to keep churning, as they have for decades of racing.

This is a more inspiring year than most to run master’s cross country. National level events don’t happen frequently in the Pacific Northwest, but this year our culminating event is USATF Club Cross Country Nationals in Spokane in December.

My first four races this season have been in picturesque fall weather. I’ve run comfortably in a tank top and shorts. But luck could turn for Nationals. If so, I’m psyched. Part of the culture of cross country is racing, rain or shine.

Nationals might even have snow. It snowed 10 years ago when Spokane last hosted it. Eric and I, Nordic skiers in the winter, won’t mind at all, though the visiting teams from San Diego or Atlanta might.

It’s hard to have a perfect race. But we know what it takes to have a deeply satisfying one.

“As I race, I check in with myself and how my race is going.” Eric said. He’s a “glass is half full” kind of guy. “Being positive helps me dig deeper in the middle of the race.”

For me? It’s just so fun to run as fast as I can, every part of me working together. Post race, I feel happily hollowed out, like I left some of my essence out there on the course. I think my teammates understand.

It keeps me coming back, every fall.

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