“I was surprised. I thought I could finish with Mollee,” Calina said, reflecting on her first ever high school cross country race as we sat on the grass watching the varsity girls warming-up. While Calina and Mollee started the JV race together, Mollee finished about three minutes ahead of Calina.
This week, the North girls boarded the bus and headed to fairy-tale-like Forest Hills Park, a strange contrast to the rest of East Cleveland, the former home of John D. Rockefeller and now a city so beat down and strapped for cash that it can’t afford to paint lines on its roads. There, with Caitlin and Cheyenne out sick and Natalie on vacation, Mollee and Calina would run in the JV race and Vidhi, Hannah, Lydia, Ashleigh and Sydnie would line up for the varsity race.
This is the McDonough Invitational. A race known for a hill so long and steep it’s infamous among greater Cleveland cross country runners. Other than The Hill it’s a fast course, when dry, but after several days of intermittent heavy rain, it wasn’t clear how the course would hold up, especially near The Hill.
Previously on North
When last we left you, the team traveled to Brecksville, where their streak of improved race times came to an end. Even so, captain and the team’s top runner, Sydnie gained some traction after a rough start to the season. Lydia and Ashleigh raced gutsy races, finishing side-by-side and second and third for the team.
Meanwhile, Natalie, accustomed to the number two spot, placed fourth for North. Hannah, with calves cramping, struggled from start to finish. Mollee ran another solid race, her slower time only attributable to the tougher course and conditions, and Caitlin was devastated after coming in last for the second time.
Cheyenne, recovered from mono, and fresh off her solid performance in her high school cross country debut at the Mentor meet, was back on the bench with a sprained ankle. Calina was set to kick off her season, but an asthma attack left her gasping for air on the sidelines. Vidhi, recovered from her minor ankle injury, was off taking a college entrance exam.
Mollee and Calina
Mollee and Calina stood there, shielding their eyes from the sun as they tried to locate their teammates racing in the boys’ JV race. As the start to their race approached, they abandoned their posts and headed over to the starting area for their drills. Today, both girls were relaxed and jovial, normal for Mollee, but a marked change for Calina, who just a week earlier had panic in her eyes as she suffered through an asthma attack minutes before the start of the Brecksville race.
It was hard to know what to expect, especially from Calina. I’ve only seen her practice a couple of times, plus the course and weather would be a factor, but what level of impact they’d have was hard to say.
What does it mean to race?
What does it mean to race? I mean beyond showing up and running a set distance on a set course at a set time with other people. What does it mean to really race? Coach James always tells his runners, “today is about place, not pace.” And sure, it’s about coming in ahead of as many people as possible, but how does one know if she’s accomplished that? How does one know at every moment of the race that she’s giving it her all? How does one know after it’s over if she could have given more?
A Tale of Two JV Racers
At the start of the JV race. Calina and Mollee were together near the back of the pack. Mollee, naturally, looked focused, while Calina looked slightly giddy, which was understandable with it being her first official race and all. As the girls progressed further along the course, Calina fell back from Mollee. At first a little, and then progressively more and more. As I ran to The Hill, I assumed Calina would be struggling mightily.
When I arrived, I watched girls attack The Hill in a myriad of ways. Some cruised up, others power hiked, a couple held hands, one girl rolled back down, some cried. I probably don’t need to tell you how Mollee handled it. She stuck her nose to the grindstone and worked that thing! She alternated game face with grimaces as she attacked it one step at a time.
And then came Calina, who seemed noticeably energized by the cheering spectators who had gathered around the summit. She alternated game face with grins as she glided up The Hill. As soon as she crested it, she slowed to stroll.
Then, at about a half mile to go, I saw Mollee for the last time before the finish, and her grimaces had taken the lead over game face. This and her characteristic race-pink cheeks exposed how far down into her well she was, which made Calina’s arrival several minutes later all the more stark in comparison. She was smiling and waving and enjoying the attention of a fan.
I tell you this, not because Mollee’s approach is better than Calina’s. It’s not. It’s different and I tell you this, well, I tell Calina this, because it’s important for her to know if she wants to keep up with Mollee next time. There’s 100% nothing wrong with running for the pure enjoyment, never pushing past whatever point keeps a smile on your face. However, if she wants to compete at the highest level she is capable of, or even simply at a higher level from today, then Mollee’s approach is a good example for Calina to learn from.
After Calina finished, we walked back to the team’s tent to check on the varsity girls as they prepared for their race. Hannah was relaxed. Happy Hannah was back and excited to show off her race-day Christmas socks. Lydia’s energy was slightly dimmed by a cold, while Ashleigh was her usual smiley self somewhere under a pile of clothes. Vidhi seemed a little more nervous than in the past, but if she was, it was understandable given she’d missed two meets before this one. And Sydnie was nice and relaxed and ready to race.
Calina came down to the starting area to see the varsity girls off. Tired after the excitement of her first high school cross country race, she plopped herself on the grass along the starting line to spectate her teammates’ warm-up drills. I was enjoying chatting with her, so I plopped down beside her, which gave my camera a nice angle anyway. As I looked through the viewfinder, I listened to Calina’s thoughts about her race. I listened to Calina tell me about her disappointment in not keeping up with Mollee. And I replied with something along these lines:
Well, one thing I think a lot of runners struggle with, something that takes them a long time to figure out, is how to push themselves hard in a race. It’s something I didn’t fully understand until I was an adult. And even then, I’m never sure I’m giving my all. But I do know that to race your best you have to get uncomfortable. It hurts. You have to not be afraid to drool and make weird faces. Mollee really understands this. Syd and Lydia definitely get this too. They aren’t afraid of the discomfort. I saw you and you were enjoying your first race. It was great! But if you want to keep up with Mollee, if you want to be the best runner you can be, then you have to decide to let yourself get uncomfortable, maybe drool, and even experience pain. Of course, you don’t have to do that if you don’t want to. It’s up to you how you approach it.
[Sorry for the lecture, Calina!]
A Tale of Five Varsity Racers
Like Mollee and Calina, there are stark differences in how each of today’s five varsity runners approach racing and each could learn a little something from the others and each, to improve her racing, could benefit from at least thinking about whether she fully appreciates the secret.
There’s a reason Sydnie is the top runner on the team. Like Mollee, there is no drama with Syd; she approaches racing like a job. She’s focused and there to perform her best. Her strategy today was to go out with the leaders and hold on as long as she could, which she did. She went out with the leader, and fell off around a mile in, but was closer to first than third was to her, until she made a wrong turn! Quickly a friendly voice called out to her and she was able to correct the error, but not before losing two places in the process. Even so, she committed to doing her best, no matter what came her way and pushed all the way to the line.
If there’s one thing Sydnie could maybe use is a little more emotion, whether joy, anger, passion, a little wildness to let loose to discover if she has an extra gear lying deep inside.
Ashleigh doesn’t seem to ever worry about a thing when it comes to racing. She seems happy to be there and to enjoy pushing herself from start to finish. When others on the team and otherwise cower in the face of discomfort, Ashleigh doesn’t seem to notice it. She seems fearless. Today, she went out aggressively near the front and never backed off on her gas pedal. The result: her first medal ever at a high school cross country meet!
Lydia might be the girl on the team who can go deepest down into her own well. She wants it so badly, she’s willing to suffer to get it. Even with a bad cold, she powered up The Hill and along the entire course, racing superbly. At this point, the key to Lydia’s improvement is physical. Consistent training will yield dividends over the next two and a half years.
And then Hannah. She knows the secret. The problem is that Hannah seems terrified of it. As soon as the discomfort of racing sets in, it’s like she thinks it will turn into an avalanche and suffocate her. When she gets a little uncomfortable, she shrinks. You can see it in her face, but especially in her hands. I call them the Hannah Hands, when she draws her elbows in tight, tightens her hands to fists, and brings them up to her chest. This also shortens her stride to a shuffle.
The thing is, Hannah could be one of, if not the top runner on the team. If she can learn to accept the discomfort and know it won’t really hurt her, that she can race-suffer for twenty minutes and survive, she could instantly drop minutes from her race times. Why do I say this? I saw her finish for the first time. When she knew she wouldn’t die, when the finish was close, Hannah Hands disappeared and Super Hannah came out to sprint effortlessly (while smiling, no less!) to the finish.
It’s not Vidhi’s hands that belie her, it’s her head. Vidhi tilts her head back and lets her head move side-to-side with a pained expression on her face. While Hannah could begin to address her weaknesses by reminding herself to relax her hands, Vidhi could begin to address hers by relaxing her face and even smiling to counteract whatever negative thoughts must be swirling around inside her.
During this race, Vidhi was passed going up the hill by the last runner, which, of course, put her into last place. It was terrible timing, in that she was already struggling with discomfort, so getting passed and moving to last place must have magnified the impact. Vidhi did not get fired up, she seemed beaten down. She is capable of so much more, but one has to wonder if she (and Hannah and Caitlin for that matter) is confusing uncomfortable with incapable.
“Flip the Switch!”
At points in any race, some foreseeable, like the start, hills, the finish, and some unforeseeable, like going off course, falling, the sudden surge of a competitor, you must make a choice: are you going to back-off, are you going to push a little, a lot, or are you going to go all in. Are you going to flip the switch from what makes you comfortable and dive into the discomfort to discover who you really are and what you’re really capable of? The choice is yours.
Can you relate to any of the girls more than others? How do you know when you’ve given your all?
We’ll be back next week with our next installment of North.
For past posts in this series, go here.