Cross Country: are you tough enough?

Contributed by Justin Mikecz (Pamakid member since 2008)

Cross Country: are you tough enough?

The best, and hardest, sport ever. It is also a precursor to hell.

Cross country involves dying everyday, and then going back for more the next day.

by Ain’t Jamama February 26, 2009 (Urban Dictionary)

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With the Pacific Association (PA) cross country season just around the corner, I asked some veteran Pamakids for insight as to what attracted them to running cross country with the club. While most agreed with me that cross country was their favorite running season of the year, the reasons cited were quite varied.

Getting in touch with nature was one common reason given. Anya D. said cross country was her “favorite season because I like running through nature on trails instead of running on the roads.”

I love how XC gathers many of the competitive runners in the PA circuit together and sets up stages for great performances.  While it is serious competition, it is also fun venturing out with your teammates to various parks in beautiful locations throughout the Bay Area and beyond. – Monica Z

Let’s face it, in Northern California the weather during cross country can’t be beat. – Felix T

And some Pamakids take “getting in touch with nature” literally…

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Mike A. took it a step further and waxes poetic about getting in touch with our primal nature.

My first memory of high school cross country as a JV runner was watching the varsity race disappear in a pack into the woods. Then a few minutes later a single runner emerged, 50 yards ahead of the pack. That solo runner, a senior from our team who went on to All-State honors, looked to me like a warrior or chief, leaving the lesser mortals behind. Here was something magical, epic, primeval, a test of our animal abilities without the interference of judges, rule-makers, voting. Thirty years after my high school and college days, cross country still gives me that thrill. I love road racing and track, but only cross country really puts you in touch with your animal nature.

Confronting a range of different topographies, we’re less concerned with our time than our place among others. As we disappear into the woods, the cheering gives way to breathing and we’re brought closer to who we are in this world, our animal nature. We dig deep up that hill to stay close to a rival or solve the riddle of the course that has continued to stump us. Then, in a moment of truth, we emerge from the woods and run towards the line with the last of our strength to find out if we have it that day and how we stack up against the other animals. – Mike A.

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The Team. Another common reason why club members love cross country over the traditional road race is the emphasis on the team over the individual.

I love the team aspect, and scrambling to get enough runners. – Felix T.

Denis compared road races and the emphasis on individual performances to cross country where the team is front and center.

Most of the year a lot of us race on the roads- 5K to Marathon — some of these are goal races — but it’s usually a time to beat — a personal record to best…

For most of us, road races boil down to an individual time trial with little regard to those around us. But cross country racing is not a time trial. It’s a team sport, where each place and every position matter. The top 5 score and the next 2 can displace other teams’ runners — our team has won on multiple occasions by the sixth place runner displacing the next guy. Even splits and pace obsession are useless. The courses will bust your rhythm. I like to think of it as a race between you and the guys next to you — it doesn’t matter if you are in the lead group or the back of the pack — beating the guys around you matters. Over the course of the season you get to know these guys running in your pack on the other teams — they become respected rivals. I know these guys’ names — and they know me. Some of us keep a mental scorecard against our rivals and some of us keep the record on the fridge. This is what I love about the cross country season. It’s a chance to race in the purest sense — forget the watch and the pace — just race the runner next to you. – Denis G.

Cross country also gives you an unique opportunity to be both a participant and spectator in the same event. In a typical PA cross country race, there is one women’s race (open and master’s)  and two men’s races — one for open men (39 and under) and one for masters men (40+). I love getting to watch the other two races and cheer on my teammates from various vantage points on the trails before or after I race myself. The enthusiastic support is always returned when it comes time for my race.

Yeah, it’s great when teammates cheer for you along the course — up a particularly steep hill or over a bale of hay. It’s even nicer when said teammate (aka future husband) actually calls you by the right name. No, not all Asian women look alike! – Yvonne O

The Rivalries. Professional sports have their famous rivalries: the Yankees vs. Red Sox, the Cubs vs. Cards, F.C. Barcelona vs. Real Madrid C.F. While they are at a much different scale, the recreational but competitive PA cross country series breeds rivalries because it has the same ingredients as professional sports: intense and tight competition, unpredictable results, and repeat match-ups throughout the season. The rivalries can be between two competitive teams or individuals — often there is a rivalry at both levels — and while they often go unspoken, rarely is either side unaware of the rivalry:

The interesting thing about these PA races is, you see many familiar faces at the race and you surround yourself with these running friends and “rivals”. Of course some of the Impala woman are always good anchor for me to measure how well I run a particular race, and I would also set sights on Tamalpa women.  – Monica Z.

A favorite part of cross country for me is developing rivalries with clubs like the River City Rebels and Asics Aggies. Over the years, I think we have really earned their respect, not because we are so good, but because we show up and compete. Shaking hands with them or exchanging a high five and some pre-race good luck wishes are part of my cross country experience that I look forward to every fall. After the race, it’s great to either “talk a little trash” with them or commiserate about the latest injury or lack of training. On a personal note, there is always a little more skip in my step for my cool-down if I have beaten my rival! – Andy C

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It’s not my rivalry, but I love watching Zack vs. Kenley – Felix T

Another club member agreed. “Zack vs. Kenley. It has the potential for a complete bloodbath. It’s like Good versus Evil, only both are Good so it’s like Obi-Wan Kenobi versus Luke Skywalker. Except, in my eyes, the only good one on race day is the one wearing green.” – Anonymous

Not all rivalries are limited to the PA series. One trip to Club Nationals in 2011 was all it took to cultivate a rivalry for the Open Men.

“The best cross country team rivalry is of course: Pamakids Open Men vs. Rolling Thunder…Even their uniforms are eerily similar to ours.  Let’s hope for a rematch at Club Nationals 2015.” – Raymond “Tower” Y

The Post-Race was another common theme. We may not be the fastest club, but no one rocks the post-race picnic quite like us. In cross country, it is socially acceptable to drink a beer at 10:00 am and in our club a potluck picnic often accompanies the beer.

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There are many other reasons why your fellow runners think cross country is the best season of the year.

Danielle B. loves the change of the season and “how the first few races are in the blazing heat (Santa Rosa, Hayward), but then the weather shifts to cooler mornings, frost on the grass, and leaves changing colors (Sacramento, China Camp). I love driving in the morning when it’s still dark and getting to the race and the sun starts to come out. I love carpooling with teammates and getting to know them outside of running. I love warming up or cooling down while cheering for the guys. I love the first beer (while cheering for the guys) at XC champs. I love cooling down and the high energy and excitement, recapping our race. – Danielle B

I’m not looking forward to being not in shape and running just so we have a scoring team…ironically I’m also looking forward to this. – Felix T

I love and hate that XC races are very short! They are a great way to come out for a few hours and see people in Pamakids and other clubs that I have gotten to know over the years. I love that team members who are not running come out and cheer along the course with their kids and dogs. I love that you are finished running in roughly 30ish minutes. Given that I tend to warm up after about 10 miles this does not bode well for my results, but I still like it. – Kelly H.

Post Championships catered brunch!!!! – Felix T

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Each course is fun and challenging in its own way, and you get to survey so much interesting Bay Area outdoor natural terrain – from redwoods and bridle trails, to exciting grass field finishes, and even a log or hay bale to jump over! – Tomas P

Another aspect we love about cross country is the variety of courses. There are killer hills (Garin Park); logs to jump over, tree branches to dodge, and sand traps (Golden Gate Park), beautiful trails among redwoods (Santa Cruz); swimming holes (Santa Rosa); flat, fast courses (Martinez and Willow Hills); brutally tough courses (Presidio); and races with free mugs and beer (China Camp). We all have our favorites.

Races I recommend for a first timer: Santa Cruz opener, John Lawson Tamalpa race in Marin and the Golden Gate Park races are really fun and special – Tomas P

Felix’s least favorite is “the traditional XC Championship course because the open men need to go around it 3 times.” [Author’s Note: Felix will be spared this year. The PA Championship race will be on the National course in Golden Gate Park this year so no 3-loop course in Lindley Meadow]

I like Santa Rosa…good location, picturesque and fairly local and usually hot coffee and good snacks at the end. But I love China Camp..even nicer, closer location, less hilly and there’s beer, free beer mugs and coffee at the end…can’t beat that!! – Fiona M

The Competition. The competition can be fierce. Often at any given cross country race, you’ll find many of the best local runners.

I’d rather be clipping my toe-nails, waxing the car, or dealing with the IRS than running XC – George D

The All-inclusiveness. Despite the impression that the high caliber of runners in XC can give, everyone is welcome (especially on the Pamakids). The more middle- and back-of-the-pack runners that come to these races, the more inviting it will be for fellow runners of all teams with the same ability. It is important to note, you can never hurt the team by showing up and running, you can only help us. In most age groups, the top five on each team scores and the next two displace (i.e. can worsen other teams’ scores). Thus, if you finish in the top seven on the team in your age group, you helped the team. If you didn’t, you didn’t hurt the score and undoubtedly contributed to the team experience in other ways.

Advice. If you are new to cross country, here is some advice from your teammates.

Choose two or three races, sign up in advance and put them in your calendar. Look at the course map, and query fellow Pamakids for tips and what to look out for (like that hidden hill at mile 2!) Think about your transportation needs: could you drive someone? Need a ride-share or carpooling option? Post it on the Google doc and start asking Pamakids who are also signed up.  And most importantly, think about (then post) what potluck picnic item you could bring to make the post-race celebration that much cooler! – Tomas P

Don’t go out too fast…but you will, we all do. – Felix T

It can be a little overwhelming for newbies to cross country to look at the race calendar and see 12 or 13 races on it. Don’t worry, generally no one goes to all of them (although I think Louise did one year). A lot of us just pick a handful to go to. In cross country, half the battle is showing up. You don’t get a score if you don’t have a team. It does help to try to get as many team scores as possible so if you are willing to travel to Sacramento (or even Redding), you can help us put a score up that we might not otherwise get. As extra incentive, these are the races that often are a little less competitive and thus easier to place higher as an individual and a team.

The great thing about having a whole season of races is you can see and feel yourself get stronger and faster as the season goes on. While the first race often feels like the slowest and hardest, it is exciting to notice your times gradually getting faster and the races easier as the season goes on. How can you notice improvement when each course is different and times are irrelevant? Here are some thoughts on that:

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How do I know I’m running well: I feel “on” the whole race and am able to kick at the perfect time to pass people and have nothing left after the finish line. – Danielle B

If every part of your being is telling you to slow down but you haven’t, you know you are running well. – Felix T

So we hope you consider giving cross country a try. Even George D comes out to a few races. If you have never run cross country before or just have never run cross country with the Pamakids before, you are definitely encouraged to come to the Pamakid XC Kickoff Meeting (and BBQ) in the Presidio this Saturday, August 1st (see your email for more information). Just come to learn more; no commitment required. If you have run with us before, you are also encouraged to come for the food and camaraderie, fill out a generic XC form, and to meet the newcomers. Go Green!

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