A rain delay postpones the warm up before what is to be a hard effort, but not an all-out race. It remains all too early to spike up and go head-on into a full 8000m competition. The Elon Invitational, the first competition for UNCG’s Cross Country team, is just a primer, a rust buster, but it serves it purpose well. It’s a shorter race, just 6000m, which we’ll run in flats instead of spikes – a clear nod from the coach that yes, today will be a tough run, but nothing that doesn’t fit into the context of a workout.
For about an hour, we sit in the vans and wait for the storm to pass. None of us are looking forward to having to go outside – wet shoes are the runner’s nemesis. Yet still, the time comes and we all step out into the now-muggy air that smells of damp and dirt. We all take note of the air that hangs in the lungs a little longer and is a bit cooler than before. Jackets and sweatpants come off, revealing the indelible marker of the distance runner – the short shorts. Some pithy stretches take place then we bound off to limber up and get ready for the shy of four-mile workout we’re about to run all too quickly. Chock it up to eagerness.
Drills are run through, trainers are untied and flats – shoes designed for road racing – are laced up. As we all go through the shoe change ritual, the talk is all about how high the grass is and how uneven the footing is and so on. It’s the first time any of us have put on a uniform in months, so it takes a while to determine the right amount of this kind of self-effacing chitchat to distract us from the jitters that accompany any toeing of the line. Inexorably, we all get a little pensive when we’re called up to the starting area. The silence presents an opportunity to examine the sort of dynamic that’s emerging on the team.
Training partners, usually in pairs or threes, talk quietly without making eye contact about sticking together and working as a group throughout the race. The disparate groups exchange silent nods to the other sets of partners. This is just one of the subtle ways we tell each other than anyone wearing yellow has got your back, is your support group, is looking out for you. There’s only one freshman out here with us today. The others are momentarily sidelined with niggling injuries that like those shorts are the marker of any distance guy worth his stripes. This one new kid is still learning these little exchanges but is coming along and making his presence known a little more every day.
The starter calls us all up to the line over the megaphone, and his attempt at a joke fails to defeat the heavy crosswind blowing across the repurposed soccer field. Everyone takes little fleeting glimpses around while the starter explains all of the procedures and workings of the race. Little scalpels of green cling like barnacles to already-soaked through shoes. The gun goes off and the race goes out unexpectedly hard. Most teams are wearing spikes. Our flats struggle for traction somewhat on the damp field. Nevertheless, the race is underway and we have to remind ourselves to keep this one under control – there are bigger fish to fry in the two months or so that lie ahead.
The course follows loops around the perimeter of fields that all look the same, making the race go all that much faster. We all remain within spitting distance of each other, as was the plan. Before we know it, we’ve rolled up on five kilometers somewhere in the low to mid 16 minute range, around a minute slower than what we hope to come through the same split in the 8k in the weeks ahead. The last three minutes or so it takes to run the last kilometer are dispensed with rapidly and we all reconvene at the finish.
The top five, the ones that score in a cross country meet, all come through within about a forty second spread from about 19:20s to 20:00ish. We’re not all too concerned about time today, though. A post race workout, some cool downs, then were on the bus back to campus. The mood on the way back is collegial, but we’re all a little tired and 6:30am practice the next day is in the back of everyone’s mind. Today just served to whet our appetites for what is to come, the Wolfpack Invite in two weeks.