Last Saturday, I ran in my first actual cross-country race in 11 years.
It was both weird and not weird.
I’ve run dozens of races since graduating high school and ending my “competitive” running days. I’ve gone back and forth wishing and feeling relieved I didn’t go out for cross-country or track in college. I’ve been pretty happy with most of my road races and the handful of trail races I’ve run in. In a lot of ways, I didn’t really realize how far I’d gone from my cross-country days.
To me, what makes it a “cross-country” race (as opposed to a trail race) is A) the mixture of terrain and B) the general speed of the course.
GENERALLY speaking, cross-country races will be run over grass, dirt, pavement, gravel, mud, sand, whatever. Everything from open fields to single-track. Or you just run around a golf course for three miles and call it a day.
GENERALLY speaking, cross-country courses are, to some extent, made for speed. Trail races are often all about LET’S RUN UP AND DOWN HILLS ALL DAY YAYYYY, while in a cross-country race, people are there to run fast. There might be a few climbs, but they’ll be mild compared to your average trail race.
And beyond that, there is a certain energy to cross-country races. You’re not out there to run/walk or have a good time with friends or go for a PR or knock something off your bucket list. You’re out there to fucking race.
I started thinking about all this when I discovered the Dirt Dog XC Series last month. Once I discovered the race series, it was a foregone conclusion I’d sign up for something, despite not really “training” in any sense of the word all summer. (Especially when I saw how cheap the registration fees are!) So I did. And I started getting super excited.
This would feel like coming home. It would be a celebration of how I first fell in love with the sport. I would find renewed strength and dedication to training. I might even discover I was fitter and faster than I thought.
Well, some of that sort of came true.
I pulled into the parking lot on race day and immediately realized I was more than a little out of my element. Every single woman I saw looked like she could easily kick my ass. I texted my husband: “Yeah I might come in last place…” I nervously found the registration table, furtively scoping out all the runners warming up and stretching.
Guys, it looked NOTHING like any road race I’ve ever been in. The majority of the people there were obviously in good shape, wearing singlets or team jerseys (most belonged to dedicated training groups or local racing teams) and racing flats.
And? I was one of the youngest people in the field. By, like, 10 years or more. And even the people who wear clearly in their 50s or 60s looked like they’d easily beat me. I saw a woman after the race (who had, in fact, kicked my ass) pushing a baby stroller (with — I assume — her baby in it). She was wearing a sports bra and skimpy little running shorts — almost bunhuggers — and had a freakin’ six-pack. And she was far from the only one. I was impressed.
Compare that scene to road races with thousands of people of all ages, shapes/sizes and levels of fitness, some/many (depending on the race) wearing costumes or shirts proclaiming things like “13.1 BECAUSE I’M ONLY HALF CRAZY” or “RUN NOW WINE LATER” or whatever.
And still, lining up at the start definitely felt different than any road or trail race I’ve done. My heart actually started pounding with a burst of adrenaline different than I’d experienced before any half or full marathon — this was less about nerves over the distance or my training and more actual competitive fire.
We all took off hard at the start (instead of trotting across the start after waiting for your wave’s turn in a road race) and the familiar jostle of feel and legs and elbows began. I love that part. It usually only lasts a few seconds, but the moments of physicality in a non-contact sport bring a little extra thrill.
I had no expectations whatsoever about my time or anything. Which meant I didn’t run a smart race at all. (I also hadn’t checked the course map or profile.) I slowed down each mile. I got passed a lot. For at least the last half-mile, I was just hanging on for dear life, slowing down a touch with every step. In the last grassy stretch across the field to the finish, I had no kick left. Kicking it in to the finish used to be one of my strengths.
I may have to join one of the teams that had women participating next year. Because that was the only thing missing. Well, that and any semblance of fitness. I’m already looking forward to competing in the full race series, as much as possible, next year. I’m already envisioning finding a couple races — a half marathon and a few 5Ks/10Ks or trail races — next winter/spring, then focusing my training on these races to see if I can stack up next year.
So was it a “homecoming” of sorts? No. More like a taste of the sport I plan to fully return to next year.
I totally started writing this and then realized I’m writing about running and training, sort of, on the right day for Tracy and Alyssa’s Training for Tuesday link-up! So I’m linking up with those awesome ladies.