Monday, November 9, 2015

Sun Tzu and the Art of Cross-Country: NE Cross Country (8/22/15 - 11/8/15)

USATF-NE Championships
coming up over the knoll I twisted my ankle on in 2010
Photo by Emerson
“Can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can?”

Five years ago this past August, I ran the Bridge of Flowers 10K out in Sherbourne Falls.  It's not the best race in the world: it's in the middle of nowhere; you don't actually get to run over the Bridge of Flowers; and, there is the dumbest hill ever in a race at mile 3.  Anyways, it is important in my own personal history.  It was a year after I had returned from my cycling across the Balkans.  But also, while I was a good 10 minutes behind the rest of the Somerville Runners: Jon May, Chris Smith, Robert Cipriano and Joe O'Leary, it convinced me I could run with these guys if I tried.  That night I went out and I bought two packs of cigarettes.  They were the last two packs I ever bought.  Other than the 2 and a half I had a month later at Nellie and Carl's wedding, those cigarettes were the last I ever smoked.

I only remark on this as to view Sunday at Franklin Park. From the bottom of the Bear Cage Hill to the Mile 2 mark, I knew Joe was right behind me.  Emerson had yelled for me and then him as I made the turn off the hill: "Joe's still right behind me." And, throughout the stretch along the team areas, people who knew Joe were cheering for him.  Soon after the turn by the stone lean-to where the BAA puts their tent, I ran past the Mile 2 mark and then Joe ran past me.  I immediately pushed to get onto his shoulder and stayed with him until the hill up to the picnic area in the Wilderness.  Maybe I could have kept with him; maybe my own judgement of perceived effort isn't correct yet*; or, maybe, I wasn't quite ready to run a race with Joe, physiologically or psychologically.

Regardless of my own understanding of my abilities, this cross-country season has been a major catalyst for improvement.  I entered the season with 3 goals: 1) run 18:30 at the Mayor's Cup; 2) Break 32 minutes at USATF-NE Championship; and 3) score at least 16 points in the Cross Country Grand Prix.  While I achieved, and even surpassed, two of these: "There ain't no Coupe de Ville hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack Box"

New Hampshire Cross Country Festival

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

There are two basic strategies to getting faster are to increase volume or to increase intensity.  My strategy for this cross country season was a hybrid.  I was going to increase the volume of miles while increasing the intensity of my quality workouts.  However, I made a conscious effort to take everyday runs without worrying about any pace.  While my quality workouts shot up in intensity and speed, my everyday runs were slower, longer and easier.  

Due to the XC schedule, I had to take each step in increments.  The first race - New Hampshire Cross Country Festival - I thought would be too early to see any improvement and had yet to install any tactical (specific race) workouts.  And while at the time that was true, looking back it was the first step. My 20:26 there was probably equal to a 20:00 5k at Franklin Park.  

"Speed is the essence of war"

The goal of intensity workouts should be two-fold - physiological and psychological.  Most of my workouts early in the cross-country season were geared toward 10K pace.  I attempted to put in interval blocks of several miles on bike paths.  Later I switched over to largely shorter, faster track workouts: 10 x 400; 15 x 200, etc.  In the beginning, psychologically I could run "that fast" over some sustained period.  But then the shorter stuff taught my brain I could running even faster - even if for 30 seconds....

Wayland XC Festival
"With regard to precipitous heights, if you are beforehand with your adversary, you should occupy the raised and sunny spots, and there wait for him to come up."

While this two pronged strategy got my race paces - in general - down (At Wellesley, I ran 22 seconds faster than New Hampshire), I new that to really gain I would need some tactics.  Three of the seven XC races I planned this year would be a Franklin Park.  So the week between the Greater Boston meet and the Codfish bowl, I substituted one quality workout with doing hill repeats (up and down) on Bear Cage Hill.  In the 5k it comes at mile 1.5.  But, for the 8k it comes at mile 1.5 AND mile 4.25.  This stretch is crucial.

Women's Leaders - Mayor's Cup
This training paid off immediately in the Codfish Bowl.  At mile 1.5, I passed many of the college kids who were beginning to straggle.  And coming down the back side of the hill, I knew I could catch a breathe before heading back out.  By the second time up, I was the only one around me who was comfortable going up the hill.  I passed a couple people up the hill and then one more in the stretch to the finish.

"The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim."

At New Hampshire, I may have made a crucial mistake.  At mile 2, we ran up to this tall tower that looks like a lighthouse. (It's obviously not, since Manchester is 45 miles from the ocean.)  But, I caught up with Bradley at that point.  But, I chose neither to overtake him nor even to attempt to run with him.  This is because, somewhere, I feared either my own speed or my own capabilities.  

I learned a little more by the Codfish Bowl.  And as we were on the first loop through the Wilderness - about mile 2.5.  I was closing in on Bradley.  My immediate thought was, don't pass him until you are ready and then make sure you don't slow down afterwards.  So I sat behind him for about 50 yards and then I swung around him making a joke.  I was running at a perceived effort that I thought I could continue.  I was also pushing myself beyond a psychological envelope.

Two weeks later, at the Wayland Cross Country meet, I was able to channel this envelope pushing confidence again.  First, I was now really ready to smash that 20 minute barrier.  Second, there was the Emma vs. Jesse rivalry and this was the last time we would race one against one in the season. And, third, I came across the passing Bradley moment again - at about 1.5 miles. This time maybe I had more confidence and I passed him.
Emma finishing at Mayor's Cup

"Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win."

For me the "gold standard" of Cross Country is the Mayor's Cup.  It's held every year on the weekend of my birthday.  It's run over the course that was the 1992 World Championship. And, it's a challenging but neither technical nor "hard" course.  For Mayor's Cup, I thought I had lined everything up.  My training had largely been centered on this as the stepping stone to the Holiday racing schedule.  And after running the Codfish Bowl once, the USATFNE meet twice and this race thrice, I was ready.

Indeed, at the gun, I did a good job of not getting caught up in the blazing across the field. Once we made the first turn around the Stadium, I had eased into a very quick pace. I didn't know what exactly to do. I felt like I was working but not about to blow up. So when Maria Severen came by me, I just ran with her. 

I hit mile one at less than 6 minutes. But instead of my usual ease up because we might screw everything, I put my head down and as we took the left to the Bear Cage I just took a big gasp. I went up the Bear Cage hill between a full charge and hard run. at the top I let myself breathe and while I hadn't caught my breath by the top we got to the downhill, I took off down it anyway and spent most of the ballfields finding my breathe again. 

In the end, I had put up a 6 flat on the second mile. I was now a little tired but enough trips around the park made me comfortable enough to know what I had to do. On the uphill through the wilderness I decided not to put a hard run in since I knew from the picnic area to the ballfields would be gentle downhill. 

Sure enough, At the steep downhill of the ballfields, I had regulated my breathing and was ready to just put in a hard 600. It didn't feel that fast with one or two people passing me - including the woman's winner who passed me like I was standing still. However I was still running hard. After the last turn where the backstop no longer is, Longo was there to yell at me: "YOU CAN BREAK 19!" 

I just put my head down and made for the line, breaking 19 and beating last year's time by a full minute!

Mayor's Cup Finish
photo by Emma
"If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles."

As we came off the Bear Cage Hill the second time at the USATF-NE meet, I could see Joe ahead of me.  There was no way I could catch him now.  Maybe if I had stayed with him going up to the picnic area?  Maybe I can keep with him; maybe my own judgement of perceived effort isn't correct yet; maybe, I am quite ready to run a race with Joe, physiologically; or maybe I am not quite ready to run a race with Joe, psychologically? 

Or maybe it's as easy as - I shouldn't have run the first mile faster than six minutes?

Cigarette adverts might be borrowed: "I've come a long way," I might still be trying to learn myself.  

Race # 1: New Hampshire Cross Country Festival
Location: Derryfield Park, Manchester, NH
Date: 8/22/15
Distance: 5K
Goal Time: 20:00
Actual Time: 20:26

Race #2: Greater Boston Track Club Cross Country Festival
Location: Wellesley, MA
Date: 9/13/15
Distance: 5K
Goal Time: 20:00
Actual Time: 20:04

Race #3: Codfish Bowl
Location: Franklin Park, Roxbury, MA
Date: 9/26/15
Distance: 8K
Goal Time: 32:30
Actual Time: 31:45 (Cross Country PR)

Race #4: Wayland Cross Country Festival
Location: Wayland High School, MA
Date: 10/11/15
Distance: 5K
Goal Time: 19:45
Actual Time: 19:27 (Cross Country PR)

Race #5: Mayor's Cup - Franklin Park 5K
Location: Franklin Park, Roxbury, MA
Date: 10/25/15
Distance: 5K
Goal Time: 19:15
Actual Time: 18:55 (Cross Country PR)

Race #6: USATF-NE Cross Country Championships
Location: Franklin Park, Roxbury, MA
Date: 11/8/15
Distance: 8K
Goal Time: 31:30
Actual Time: 30:57 (Cross Country PR) 

*- Perhaps the most amazing part of the Fitzgerald article - the Matrix is 15 YEARS-OLD?!!