Alone in the tent, the other girls having completed the varsity race and left to cheer for the boys’ race, Caitlin changed her shoes.
She had been counseled to see this as an opportunity, and she was trying to focus on the idea that she could break free from just hanging on to whichever teammate was in front of her and really run her own race, but it’s never easy when you’re alone. Especially on a cross country course as wooded and idyllic as this one, it can feel like you’re in a fairy tale: you’re heading into the dark woods by yourself and you don’t know what’s going to happen out there. You don’t know if you can handle it, how you will confront the challenges ahead of you.
Caitlin jogged the lonely quarter mile to the starting line, where she awkwardly walked out among the thick packs of the other schools’ JV teams for drills, reaching down to touch her toes every three steps. As they chatted vibrantly and veteran runners led skips and lunge walks, she put on her brave face and moved with purpose, determined to pretend she was confident. For a moment, she forgot which drill she was supposed to do next. Visibly panicked, she stared ahead toward the thick forest of trees.
When she came out of those woods, who would she be?
Andrews-Osborne is one of the team’s favorite meets. The host school, like last week’s host school, Gilmour, is a prep school with both boarding and day options. But because it’s close and the invitational is on the small side it feels a little more low-key than some of the other races on their schedule. Bonus! The course is a fast one and the weather, at least on this day, was cool, crisp and dry, as close to ideal as it can get.
Lately the team has struggled with attendance, but today, nine of the ten girls were present! Even injured freshman Cheyenne came and hobbled around in her boot to cheer on her teammates and Natalie was back from a long vacation. The only missing runner this morning was Mollee, unfortunately missing her third meet in a row. This left eight racers, the most since Mentor. But the number eight created a bit of a quandary: each team was allowed to field a maximum of seven runners in the varsity race. Much to Caitlin’s chagrin, the coaches decided to run Sydnie, Lydia, Ashleigh, Natalie, Hannah, Vidhi, and Calina in the varsity, leaving her alone in the JV race.
Previously on North
Seven of the girls traveled to Gilmour Academy, where Hannah sat out with a bruised knee while Sydnie, Lydia, Ashleigh, Vidhi, Calina, and Caitlin raced in the rain. All six attacked the muddy course, with Sydnie flawlessly executing a tactical plan to place fifth and nab a season-best time in the process.
Lydia proved she’s all in, with yet another gutsy performance from start to finish. Ashleigh managed to put in a solid performance in spite of the frustration of being overdressed and weighed down by sopping wet clothes. Vidhi, who often struggles with negative thoughts when racing, worked hard to channel her cheery off-the-field attitude onto the race course, and it worked! She also logged a season’s best time.
Lastly, Calina and Caitlin continued their quest to push themselves a little harder each race. Working together, Calina pulled Caitlin and Caitlin pushed Calina to a previously unimaginable sub-30. It was the best meet of the season hands down, with all the girls, even Ashleigh, walking away with big smiles.
The Varsity Race
Of course, Caitlin wasn’t the only North runner viewing this race as an opportunity; all seven girls running in the varsity race headed into those same woods before her. While many of us quantify our victories in terms of a particular pace, time or a place number, out on the course we often discover that the greatest victories come in the form of growth. We leave the starting line with certain preconceptions and often return with those notions shattered or disproven. And even though those quantifiable victories are definitely sweet, we often find the deeper we go into the darkness the more likely we are to emerge better, more whole and with a greater understanding of who we are as runners.
As the course marshall’s ATV roared along the trail, weaving through the thick sea of tree trunks, the lead girl appeared behind it in a flash of black and orange. It was Sydnie, looking completely relaxed as she held first place by a wide margin. The next time I saw her, she turned a corner in silhouette, then flew past me with second and third having narrowed the gap to about 100 meters. But that was as close as they’d get. She picked up the pace and cruised to her first win of the season. Syd’s victory today: sweet sweet victory itself. That, and building on the renewed confidence she gained after her epic comeback performance at Gilmour.
Tell me again what place I came in?
Not far behind her in about 20th place flew Lydia’s curly ponytail, gaining on the heels of a tight pack just ahead of her. Later, near the two-mile mark I would see her struggling a little, paying for that fast first mile, but as I counted heads, I realized she had just passed into 12th place and looked stronger than anyone else nearby. She would go on to finish with a 45 second personal best of 21:19. She ran a faster time than last week and did it looking much more relaxed and with it! Lydia’s victory today: establishing that her potential is far greater than she imagined at the beginning of the season.
From left: Coach Justin, Lydia, her twin sister, and her mom are all smiles after a big PR.
Early in the race Ashleigh was only 10 seconds behind Lydia, breezily hitting just under a seven minute pace, her calm and pleasant demeanor having returned after last week’s hiccup. Someone else might have worn it like vindication, but on Ashleigh it simply looked fun. Later she told me she felt much better than last week all around, and not just because she had been overdressed. It isn’t obvious at first, but when I look deeper, I can see that running is about more than just time and place for her. Ashleigh’s victory today: rediscovering her joy on the race course.
In the team’s fourth place came Natalie, bundled up from head to toe and dragging on the heels of three weeks away from the race course. Her long, perfect stride was as beautiful as ever. “It’s good to see that stride!” I shouted, cheering for her. But her face showed stress I hadn’t seen in her before. Thinking back to her earlier races this season, when she commanded her position as second place on the team so easily, it was tough to see her struggling in the wake of her time off. But by the finish, Natalie dropped the disappointment and fought for every last second and position that she could, with possibly this meet’s best sprint finish for the team. Natalie’s victory today: after possibly taking her natural ability for granted, realizing that she wants it.
Speaking of tough, fifth place was held by Hannah early on, her Hannah-hands clenched before her, clearly struggling with pre-race nerves. She looked like she might give up, and from her demeanor before the race, being on the course was a victory in itself. A few seconds behind her Vidhi charged ahead, trying to catch up. Over the course of the race, Vidhi would push Hannah ahead and, just before the two-mile mark, would be leading her along, with an air of uncertainty that seemed as if she might be trying to help coax Hannah onward. In some ways, these two are very similar runners: both want terribly to achieve a good performance, but that want and the associated stress gets in the way. But where Hannah lets her anxiety derail her talent, Vidhi doesn’t quite seem to fully realize that her talent is there. Hannah’s victory today: showing up for herself and not quitting. Vidhi’s victory: testing out uncharted territory by pushing herself harder than she has yet.
Bringing up the rear, just 20 seconds behind Vidhi and Hannah, Calina turned through the trees, tugging at the hem of her shorts when she spotted the camera. In spite of this little wardrobe adjustment, she brought out her A-game. She focused on her goal and even though she was working much harder than ever, stayed relaxed and managed to find the line between putting in a hard effort and enjoying the ride. She went on to run a 27:26, a season-best by 90 seconds! Calina’s victory: discovering that running fast can be fun.
Calina makes it look easy as she closes in on the finish of the 2016 Andrews Osborne invitational.
Out of the Woods
When you’re on a team, you never have to go into the woods alone. At the very moment Caitlin, staring out from the starting line, had pushed aside her fears, the North team’s sophomores, Calina and Lydia, appeared as if out of thin air and fell into sync with her, lunging forward, first on the left, then the right. The three giggled together as they went through their mental list to make sure she had done all the drills, then strode out for the pre-race huddle. Usually these lead off with practical talk about the course and strategy, but this time Caitlin crumbled into the other two with a huge smile of relief and the three squeezed one another in a warm hug.
Empowered by her friends’ gestures, Caitlin seemed genuinely eager on the starting line and shot out with a first mile in 8:43 – faster than she’d ever run a mile before! With her teammates cheering her on, she charged ahead, but by 1.75 miles in she was struggling, and it was clear her early exuberance was taking its toll. After lots of “keep it up” cheers, she needed to hear some practical advice. I slung my camera over my shoulder and started running alongside her. “Caitlin! You went out a little too fast, and that’s okay. You’re coming up on the two-mile mark – rest until you get there, go as slow as you need to. Once you get there, start working again. Then half a mile later you push. Hard.” She nodded, taking in the advice and visibly slowing. “It’s okay to rest here! You got this!”
Sure enough, even though her two mile split was 9:23, when I saw her at 2.25 miles, her stride was back, along with her game face. Remember, this is the same Caitlin who, earlier in the season, was scared to warm-up more than a mile or to run strides fast for fear of running out of gas. The same Caitlin who seemed terrified of opening her stride more than a shuffle. The same Caitlin, for whom breaking thirty minutes this season seemed impossible before she surprised everyone by doing it at the previous meet with twelve seconds to spare. This same girl came out of the woods after the final turn and sprinted to the finish in 27:29, her last mile as fast as her first.
No, this isn’t a fairy tale; the North girls aren’t destined for the state championship this year. But as each one approaches the edge of the far side of the woods of this season she is a slightly more experienced, wiser, more competent version of the girl who entered.
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 Andrews Osborne Academy Invitational here.