North: The Conference Championship

The North team warms up at the final meet where they'll all be together

I just ran.

– Hannah

In race after race, she struggled with anxiety. This anxiety caused the girl with the long lithe legs and a killer stride to close up her fists and shuffle. Occasionally, though, she could break through and we would see a sneak-peek at the runner she could be. Often this occurred during the first mile of a race when she’d run with her teammates Natalie, Lydia, or Ashleigh before giving in and shuffling again. The worst of it came in the first meet when her nerves completely engulfed her, but over the next few races she seemed to be winning her fight, only to once again seem consumed by worry over these last few weeks.

On this, the Conference Championship, the last meet of the regular season, Hannah came roaring out of the woods hot on Natalie’s and Ashleigh’s heels, not a quarter of a mile into the race, but with a quarter mile to go.

Clear blue skies and a great big ball of sunshine greeted North’s bus as it pulled into the parking lot of the sprawling exurban high school campus hosting today’s conference championship, the last meet of the team’s regular season. When the bus doors open, all ten of the team’s girls descended from its steps, the first time a complete team assembled at a race in over a month. Even better, a season record nine out of the ten girls were there to race!

This wasn’t just any race; the conference championship is different for several reasons. First, it’s where the team competes for the top spot in their conference, of course. Second, for North, the top seven finishers would earn a spot on the team racing the following week at the district meet. And finally, for those that are not in the top seven, the conference championship is the last race of their season.

Every girl was there to make the most of her opportunity, either race for the last time this season or to make the District team. While Sydnie, Lydia, Natalie, Ashleigh, Hannah and Vidhi were essentially locks for a spot, the seventh spot was up for grabs between Calina and Caitlin, whose season-best times were within several seconds of one another. Neither of them had yet beaten Mollee this season, meaning she was also very much in the race for the Districts team.

The North girls warm-up before their conference championshipWarming-up before the Western Reserve Conference Championship, from left: Natalie, Hannah, Lydia, Sydnie, Ashleigh, Caitlin, Vidhi, Mollee, Calina.

Previously on North

The team took to Andrews Osborne Academy, to race on a fast course around its scenic campus. With Natalie back, only Mollee was missing. Even injured Cheyenne came to cheer in her ankle brace! Building on her redemption performance at rainy Gilmour, Sydnie scored her first victory and first sub-20, both handily. Lydia broke 22:00 for the first time, getting down into the low 21s. Ashleigh was back to her old self and got down into the low-22s for the first time all season. Natalie struggled to keep up with the teammates she used to easily beat, but dug deep and kicked strong at the end. Hannah seemed more worried than normal, but got out there anyway, and with the help of Vidhi finished respectably. Calina ran powerfullyon her own and took over a minute off her PR.

With eight girls racing and only seven allowed in the Andrews Osborne varsity race, this left Caitlin, the lone JV race participant for North. In every prior race she paced herself off a teammate, and naturally she was nervous about venturing into the uncharted territory of relying on herself. Showing how far she’s come, Caitlin pushed herself harder than ever and dropped more than two more minutes off her PR, running a once unthinkable 27:29.

Race Number Eight: The End of the Regular Season

There was a noticeable, bubbly contentment in the black tent as all ten North girls milled around it for the first time since Mentor, five races ago, the only other race all season to have that distinction. Natalie, in particular, was her most relaxed self in the company of her two dogs, one of whom joined the girls on their warm-up. There was no hint of tension between Calina, Caitlin, or Mollee, the three runners most likely to be duking it out for the last spot on the team for Districts.

Natalie and her dogs at the conference championship race Natalie and Calina bring Natalie’s dogs along for a shake-out.

The weather was picture perfect and no one fretted about what to wear or how it would affect the course. By now,  each girl had worked out some manner of kinks in her approach to racing and all seemed eager to demonstrate growth and make the most of this race, realizing now what was true all along: that each race is an opportunity to show your best self.

All season we’ve watched these runners evolve. Each has worked hard not just by running many miles, many hills, and Coach Grove’s killer workouts, but by identifying weaknesses to overcome or strengths to exploit. And with her journey that this cross country season drawing to a close, each girl arrived at the conference championships with the hard-earned freedom to just run.

Just

“Place not pace!” is a mantra the girls have heard over and over this season, the coaches hoping to score as many points as possible with their small but tough team. The goal, after all, is team performance. But for some runners, perhaps the best advice to help them, and by extension, the team, advance is, as Hannah said, “Just run.”

We are taught time and again that the best way to overcome your fears are to confront them, slay the dragon, chase away your demons and stand victorious atop the mountain. But if your fear is not the dragon, if your fear is yourself, sometimes the best thing you can do is stuff it deep down inside and just get to the business of dragon slaying. To “just run” is to turn away from your fear of the pressure to succeed instead of confronting it. Let go of your hangups and enjoy the ride as much as you can, even at the expense of performance.

In a cross country race setting, the freedom to just run is particularly hard-earned. It requires the ability to overcome prerace jitters, which as most of us can attest, is no small feat. It requires that you understand your role on your team and you team’s role in your success. It requires you to disregard your preconceived notions about yourself and your standing among the pack. It requires you to be able to silence your fear of failure. It requires you to embrace the inevitable discomfort that will set in. It requires you to show up, to have faith your legs will get you where you need to go, to be the runner you are and nothing more, to be open to seize whatever opportunity lay before you.

To just run is to place yourself before the race and do your best to enjoy the ride. Put your worries behind you, don’t fret about pace or your route or your to-do list. What freedom! And it comes as a reward for hard work of practicing mindfulness, preparing a plan, and learning to trust oneself. As Hannah has showed us all season, it’s not always easy, but it has the potential to yield very positive results.

Six

Sydnie just ran as she executed the strategy she learned through trial and error and practiced to the point of near perfection. She ran her first mile conservatively and she picked up the pace and picked off runners until she finished in a commanding third place in 19:57 on a tough course.

Sydnie finishes the Western Reserve Conference Championship race in third place

Lydia just ran, open to whatever her hardest effort would yield. As she’s learned works for her and as she’s done eight times this season before, she pushed herself as hard as she could from the start until she finished with her second sub-22 of the season, just missing earning All-Conference honors.

Natalie just ran, not worried so much about whether Lydia would beat her or if she could keep up with Ashleigh as she was once wont to do.

Ashleigh just ran, making the most of whatever her body would give her, showing up for herself and her team as he Senior season comes to a close.

Hannah, as you now know, just ran and finished with a season best time, her first time under 24:00 this year.

Vidhi just ran as she pushed herself too hard to bother to smile this time.

Hannah just runs during the Western Reserve Conference Championship race. Hannah just runs.

Seven, Eight, and Nine

There were no surprises in this top six, but with Caitlin’s and Calina’s season bests only seconds apart, and Mollee potentially capable of besting them both, who would round out the team of seven moving on to Districts?

At the beginning of the season, it seemed like it would be Cheyenne who would be the seventh runner on the team. But when Cheyenne was diagnosed with a stress fracture after the third week of the season, the spot seemed to belong to Mollee. In week five, Calina competed with Mollee and finished many minutes behind her. And, until that time, Caitlin had only come close to Mollee in the first race of the season.

But, Mollee did not race in weeks five, six and seven, which also happened to be the weeks that something happened to Calina and Caitlin. After we talked to Calina about pushing hard enough to get uncomfortable, she took the advice to heart. After Caitlin missed a race because of illness, she returned with a renewed fire. And together, Calina and Caitlin pushed each other and worked together to become better than either ever could have dreamed at the beginning of the season. Caitlin especially, went from devastation after coming in last for the second time in week four, to a realistic shot to be the seventh runner on the team in week eight. And she knew it.

A mile into the race and Calina was all in, just racing, as she worked harder than ever, while mere seconds behind her was Caitlin with Mollee out of the hunt significantly behind them. Around a mile in, Caitlin dug deeper than she ever had before and just went for it. She buckled down and attacked a hill as she tried to catch Calina.

Caitlin chased Calina as they wound through the long section of trails, she was focused and confident and committed. But as she approached the two mile, her effort caught up to her. Who knows exactly why, but a stitch overtook her slowing her to a crawl. Angry and frustrated, Caitlin watched as Calina ran away from her. She choked back tears and her frustration only deepened when Mollee caught her with less than a half mile to go.

It was fitting that in the last race of their season, Mollee and Caitlin would fight to the finish together. Mollee on a quest to finally get her sub-30 and Caitlin with something else to prove. As they rounded the corner, Caitlin looked defeated as Mollee excitedly saw the clock and started sprinting. But then new Caitlin pushed old Caitlin out of the way, dug deep, and just sprinted as hard as she could to edge Mollee to the line by less than one second.

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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 Western Reserve Conference Championship Race results 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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7 comments

  1. Gosh, I just loved high school cross-country. This takes me back! Thanks for sharing! Those were some of the best times of my life!