US Mountain Running Championships – Lessons from Cranmore

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

                This past weekend, I flew to Boston and then drove 2.5 hours up to Cranmore, New Hampshire, for the US Mountain Running Championships. This race was the first time I’ve run a qualifier for a US national team, as the top 6 males and top 4 females made the team that goes to Poland in the fall for the world mountain running championships. I finished 8th overall, missing the US team by 2 spots (around 40 seconds). Going into the race, I thought that I might be able to sneak my way on to the team. I tempered my expectations though, by telling myself that it was a long shot, that there would be a lot of fast(er) people there, and that it would be hard to quality having never run the course or a similar event before. I took comfort in the fact that I’d been running a lot of hills, both up and down, and hoped that the sheer volume that I’d put in since the Double Dipsea would make up for the lack of race-specific preparation. It didn’t.

                The US and World Mountain Running Championships alternate every other year between an up/down course and an uphill only course. This year was an up/down year, but the course designers in Poland switched it up a bit and made the course down/up (as in you start with a downhill and finish with an uphill, rather than starting up and finishing down as in past years). Cranmore tries to emulate the world’s course profile as best it can and did so this year, creating its own down/up course. The course consisted of 3 4k (2.5 mile) loops with around 800 ft. of climbing and descending. A 1.5 mile descent to the bottom of the mountain followed by a 1 mile climb back to the top. I thought this down/up format would play better to my strengths, as I am a much stronger uphill runner than a downhill one. I figured if I could just get through the downhills without losing too much ground, I could make that time up on the climbs. I couldn’t.

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I don’t like downhills.
Credit: Mike Scott

                That being said, the race itself went pretty well, from an objective viewpoint. I started out somewhat (read: too) conservatively, finding myself around 15-20 place after the first downhill. I gained back probably around 10 places on the climb of the first lap, finding myself in the top 10 when I arrived back at the top. I tried again to push the downhill on the 2nd lap, but had a hard time doing so. I was passed by 1 guy during this downhill, tried to go with him, but couldn’t. He finished 6th. Again, I passed a couple of people on the climb on the 2nd lap and moved up into 8th place at the top. At this point, there really wasn’t anyone too close to me, so I focused on pushing when I could and maintaining my position. I could see a couple of guys up in front of me, but didn’t make up any space on the downhill (I probably lost some, actually), and  I wasn’t closing fast enough on the uphills (if I was closing at all, that is), to make a bid to move into the top 6. So I finished the 3rd lap (and the race), in 8th place.

                I was a little disappointed immediately at the finish, and seeing the guys who had qualified right in front of me stung, as I felt like I could or should have pushed harder. That disappointment has grown over the past couple of days. I’m not angry that I didn’t qualify, but I feel like I should have, and that’s what hurts the most. Qualifying for the world team was definitely well within the realm of possibility on Sunday and knowing that I was so close is a very bitter pill to swallow. I fear that I won’t ever come that close again, or even have the opportunity. I know that isn’t true, but those are the thoughts that are in my head. Again, from an objective viewpoint, 8th at a US national championship is a fantastic result. Don’t get me wrong – I am very proud to have placed in the top 10, but it still feels as though I came up short.

                Before and during the race, I found myself wondering how I would feel at the finish if I didn’t qualify. I knew I would be disappointed, but I didn’t think it would be as bad as it was. There were a couple of times during the race where I thought to myself, “I could finish here [here being 8th or 9th place] and be OK with it.” That was a lie. I wanted to qualify and anything short of that would be considered a missed goal. Being on the podium was especially hard (I know that sounds selfish, but it’s the truth) because I was standing next to the guys who had qualified. I wanted so badly to be in their shoes and when they dismissed the 7th – 10th place runners from the stage to introduce the world team, I found it very difficult to walk down the stairs (emotionally and physically, I might add).

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Credit: Scott Mason

                Over the past couple of days, I’ve had more time to reflect on what I learned from the experience. I’ll try to put some of it into words here…

                The course was not overly hard but had elements for which I was completely unprepared. I learned (well, not really learned because I already knew this, so let’s say it was simply reinforced) that I am not a great (or even pretty good) downhill runner. Since the race was at a ski resort, the trails were grass/dirt fire roads as opposed to the singletracks I am used to running on Mt. Tam. This proved to be a huge disadvantage, as it favored those who could just bomb downhills without any regard for footing or obstacles. I am not comfortable with that sort of downhilling right now. I much prefer more technical descents, where foot placement and body movement/positioning/control are very important and it takes more skill than simply throwing yourself down a hill as fast as possible. As a result, I found myself pretty far back after the first lap. Had I been more prepared for this type of descending, I would have put myself in a better position to qualify. I gained ground on most of the other competitors on the climbs, but every time we’d hit a descent (both the long one which made up the first half of each lap and a shorter one about halfway back up), I’d lose all of the ground I’d made up and then some. It was really frustrating to just see people pull away from me like that. Add to that the fact that the uphills were steep enough that no one was running that much faster than the others, so making up the ground I’d lost proved nearly impossible in most cases. Another reason I think I held back a bit was because I was afraid that the downhill would kill my legs for the uphills. That didn’t really prove to be the case, thankfully. I should have realized that after the first lap and gone harder on the downhills. Either way, the solution is fairly simple (if not easy): learn to downhill with reckless abandon.

                I learned that I am good at changing gears on climbs. The mile long climb back to the top had several really steep parts, but some less-steep parts as well. I found that I was better able to accelerate to a faster pace than most others as soon as the terrain leveled out, even just a bit. I made up a lot of ground on people that way. They seemed stuck in the shuffle that’s generally reserved for steep climbs and couldn’t shift their legs back into a longer stride once the climb eased. I credit that to the climbing on Tam, which constantly changes pitch and has taught me to change gears with the gradient on the climbs.

                I learned that I need to do more race-specific preparation. Granted, that was made more difficult by the fact that I had never run this sort of race before, but I still didn’t do any hills reps in the weeks leading up to the race. I did one long uphill tempo, but other than that, I simply ran and made a point to climb a lot, and hoped that would be enough. It wasn’t. I won’t make that mistake next time.

                I re-learned how important knowing the course is. This is something that the Dipsea reminds me of year after year, but I took it for granted going into this race. I was naïve in thinking that I could excel without having seen the course until the first loop. My plan was to learn the course on the first loop, and then run it to my strengths on the 2nd and 3rd loops. That is too much to do during a race. You need to know the course going into it because you’re not going to have the mental capacity to learn and remember things while you’re pushing yourself to the limits. Next time, I’ll at least walk the course before the race.

                Finally, and most importantly/surprisingly, I learned how badly I want that USA singlet. Heading into the race, I tried to downplay the importance I was placing on this race for myself, but as race day drew near, it was impossible to deny. I was nervous, apprehensive, and fearful. I didn’t want to travel all that way and come up empty-handed. Looking back though, I got what I deserved. I didn’t prepare enough and relied too much on my natural fitness to get me somewhere that others worked undoubtedly harder to get. I’ll say it once more: 8th place is an awesome result for my first mountain running championships, but it wasn’t what I came for. But, to place 8th with hardly any race-specific training gives hope that I can qualify for a world team in the future. Right now, I am disappointed and upset at myself for not taking this event as seriously as I should have. I’ve had a lot of success with running, but nothing has been quite as black and white as it was here, where you either made the team or you didn’t. Often, a goal is to run well at a certain event. Rarely (if ever) has it been to qualify for a team based on a performance at a given race. So if I don’t run well, there’s usually another event coming up that I can focus on. I had much less trouble shaking off a bad performance at club xc nationals (arguably the biggest race of the xc season) than I will have moving past this race, even though I ran much better on Sunday than I did at club nationals.

                I’m not used to this type of failure and it sucks. I think I didn’t prepare properly because I was afraid of how I would feel if I failed to make the team. No, that’s not true. I know that was the case. That’s why I neglected to run any hill repeats. That’s why I was trying to convince myself on the 2nd lap that it would be OK to simply finish 8th or 9th. That’s why it hurts so much right now. Because I can’t shake the feeling that if I had just admitted that I wanted this and trained my butt off for it, I would feel much better even if I had still failed. I would know that I left everything out there. As it is, I don’ think I can say that. I didn’t give up, but there were times at near the finish when I was thinking to myself, “Come on. Just run. Drive up the hill. It’s not that much farther,” and I didn’t. I told myself that my legs were tired. I told myself that the guys in front were too far away. By not trying, I protected myself from the possibility that I might try and still come up short. I learned that the feeling of regret for not going after it is worse than actually going after it and failing. I won’t make that mistake again. And if a USA singlet isn’t in the cards for me, so be it. But it certainly won’t be due a lack of trying.

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I don’t want to feel this way ever again.

Congrats to all of those who qualified (Magda and hopefully Chris!). I hope to join you one day.

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About afvarner

Runner. Donuts. Sneakerhead. Not necessarily in that order. Nike Trail Elite. Picky Bars. Gu. Vicory Sportdesign.
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3 Responses to US Mountain Running Championships – Lessons from Cranmore

  1. Keep your head up, you are still a young gun and will have plenty of other shots at this team or others should you choose. Good to see you learned how race specific prep and course knowledge are key. Its taken me several bad races to learn those lessons, great that you have learned them after one good race.

  2. Karen says:

    Sometimes it’s kind of weirdly good to fail so you know how much you actually want something. I had many of the same thoughts during 100 miles attempt #1 and the same weirdo disappointment. Now that you know what you’re dealing with, you’ll kill it next time 🙂

    Also, excellent post – thanks for the read 🙂

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