North: A Tale of Two Races

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“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.

Racers, including Lydia, descend part of The Hill.
Varsity racers, including Lydia (6973), descend part of The Hill.

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.

Calina (left) and Mollee warming-up
Calina (left) and Mollee warming-up

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.

The start of the JV r
Calina and Mollee (third and fourth from left) started the JV race together.

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.

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Our cheesy montage illustrating how pre-race, mid-race, near the finish, and up The Hill, Mollee and Calina approached the race very differently.

Transition

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.

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From left: Mollee tells Lydia about her race, as Hannah, Vidhi, and Ashleigh prepare to head to the start of the varsity race.

The Secret

Lydia is another good example for Calina, if she wants to learn to get more out of herself.
Lydia is another good example for Calina, if she wants to learn to get more out of herself.

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!]

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From left: Hannah, Lydia, and Sydnie in between warm-up drills.

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.

Sydnie

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.

syd sprints to the finish
Sydnie pushes herself to the finish at the McDonough Invitational.

Ashleigh

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!

Fearless Ashleigh (left), attacking the start.
Fearless Ashleigh (left), attacking the start.

Lydia

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.

Hannah

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.

Hannah Hands (left) versus Super Hannah (right)
Hannah Hands (left) versus Super Hannah (right)

Vidhi

Smile, Vidhi! You got this!
Smile, Vidhi! You got this!

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.

You can see the full results of the McDonough Invitational varisty race here and the JV race here.

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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12 comments

  1. Oh my gosh I got a little teary reading this. I ran cross country for 3 years in middle school, and came in last nearly every time. But like Calina, I finished happy. My 11-13 year old self just didn’t have enough of a competitive streak to suffer.

    I started running again about a year ago, and now at 32 I’m training for my first half marathon, and I’m scared. I’ve set a goal that is going to make me *suffer* and I am just not sure I can do it. I’m going to re-read this a few times and remember not to confuse uncomfortable with incapable! Thank you!

    1. I’m so glad this helps! I struggled with this, maybe not quite so bad, but still had no concept of how much discomfort I could weather until I was well into adulthood. Any little twinge in high school and I thought I was struggling with some horrible injury! But kind of like love, people can tell you what it’s supposed to be like, but until you truly experience it yourself you just won’t know for yourself. Good luck in your half! I think you have the perfect goal defined right there!!! Let us know how it goes!!!

  2. Love to hear how these North girls are developing and learning to race. I honestly still feel that I’m still figuring it out. As someone who only started “racing” at 41, at 46 now, I still don’t know how to embrace the discomfort and give it my all. I feel like I know it when I’m there but if I don’t PR or come within seconds of my PR, I must not have given it my all. I’m still learning that race course and conditions are factors and that I need to control the demons and use my mantras to push through it.

    Your words to Hannah will either resonate with her if she truly wants to race, but I do think it’s ok (outside of XC commitments) if she doesn’t. Some people love running more than racing and that’s ok as well in my book. But she’ll never know, if she doesn’t truly try, what drives her.

    Congrats on your racing return in the 5k. Looking forward to hearing more on your journey back.

  3. These girls are so awe-inspiring. I enjoy reading about each of them, and Salty, I can’t express enough what a great job you do narrating it all. I still think I haven’t given it my all yet. I relate to Hannah the most. I’m afraid of discomfort. Last year I placed third in a 5k with 23:50, when I know I could have maybe pushed it to a sub-23. When I can’t give it my all in a shorter race, it makes me fear long-distance races even more. I struggle with pre-race nerves, nerves about potential discomfort, and it always shows on the course. I’m ready to step it up, and I think I can learn a lot from the North ladies, especially my mentee, Lydia!

  4. On this topic of knowing if you gave it your all/raced as hard as you could, it’s funny b/c I was questioning myself about this after the 1/2 marathon this weekend. I kept asking myself if maybe I backed off too much and didn’t push myself hard enough. But then I remembered how awful I felt when I finished, so tired and could barely stand up, and how trash-tastic I felt the next day and I knew I ran as hard as I could in the race. Usually, my barometer of if I went to the well in a race is if I feel like puking or falling over immediately upon crossing the finish line and then how banged up I feel the day after. I love reading about the toughness of these girls. True grit!

    1. Yeah, good point. The post race wreckage is a great indication you left it all out there :) I can’t say enough about how awesome these girls are! Each week I walk away feeling so inspired and in awe. Plus, they’re cool chicks and I just love hanging out with them and watching them race their hearts out ❤️

  5. I am impressed that so many of these girls are able to dig so deeply at such a young age. I think I have only given my all once – when I got my sub 3:30 marathon PR. I was mentally prepared, knew it was going to be hard, but knew I could do it, too. I think I often fall into the same trap that Vidhi does, “confusing uncomfortable with incapable.” But not only do we have to believe that we are capable, we have to understand that with capability comes discomfort. I am inspired the most by the best runners who run their hearts out. Being fast isn’t a natural gift that either you have or you don’t. Being fast means you want it badly enough to suffer and work for it. When I see others go after it, I start to believe that I am capable of it as well.

    1. There really is nothing more satisfying that breaking through a mental wall! In the one time I went for a sub-3, I could have backed off and coasted to a PR, but I kept pushing and pushing well past where my brain was telling me I should. I ended up bonking hard, but going through that experience showed me that even the worst case scenario of pushing past that discomfort wall is, not only survivable, but I have never been prouder of myself after a race than that one even with missing all my goal times.

  6. It is astonishing how much of it is mental, isn’t it? And that is totally situation-dependent. In Vidhi’s place I would be tempted to call it quits altogether and walk, so major props to her that she finished still running! Other times, I don’t push hard – for fear of finding out that I won’t perform up to my own standards. Still other times, when there’s a goal within reach, I somehow find an extra gear. (I once ran a small local 10K where I thought I had a good chance of coming top 10 – with prizes for the top 10 runners! I didn’t make it, but I ran a PR.)

    1. Watching them race five times now, the mental struggles are as visible as the physical ones. Vidhi and Hannah in particular. I explained Hannah’s more here because it’s the most drastic and because she showed both sides in this race – Vidhi really didn’t. Vidhi did kick at the end to break 30, but she did not have the game face I’ve seen her have in other races at any point this week. But for both their body language and facial expressions drastically change between when they feel good (usually at the end of beginning of a race) and when they are mentally struggling, most of the middle of a race. I ran almost 5 miles with Vidhi faster than she is racing 5k one morning a month or so ago. I KNOW she is capable of racing much faster – minutes faster. I think in the race setting some people “flip the switch”, but flip it from perceiving running as relaxed and fun to perceiving it as a grueling experience. It might be pressure or anxiety causing it, or it might be a simple misconception. But my hope is by showing them how they look on the outside they can gain insight into what’s going on inside and make more informed and empowered decisions about how they approach running and their lives! :)