So first, let’s get one thing completely straight. This was the National Championship (technically, the USATF National Club Cross Country Championships), but there weren’t any entry standards. Given the right circumstances, mainly a club willing to have me and my willingness to get my bones to Seattle, I could have run in this at eight minute pace. Or slower. Indeed, in the masters’ race, there were plenty who did, seeing as the masters race includes not just us forty-somethings but fifty-, sixty-, and seventy-somethings. The race video reveals more than a few departing the starting line at a leisurely pace. So getting into Nationals wasn’t in itself an unattainable feat.
That being said. when I report that I finished 152nd of 356, frankly, so what? Reporting that I didn’t embarrass myself, beating about a third of those in my five-year age group (48th of 68), well, that’s nice too. It proves that moderate-size-fish-me stepped out of my local small pond and dove into an ocean of serious competition. It says I ran a respectable race but, as expected, I’m nowhere near the apex of this game. No surprises.
Running with a team with the historical cachet of Greater Boston is somewhat heady in and of itself, even though they’re all normal folks, and nice ones at that, who’s company I truly enjoyed on the trip. But leaving the hotel on Friday for our course scouting expedition, jogging in a pack of twenty-five-plus bright red Greater Boston jackets through the streets of downtown Seattle heading for the light rail was an unexpected high. Runners tend to be individualists. Buck the trend. Don’t follow the crowd. We’re different. But when it is your crowd of like-minded individualists in a visible show of force on the other side of the country, it’s all about team, and it’s a rush.
Seattle’s serious lack of winter daylight seemed to bring race day about that much quicker. Thirty-seven packings and re-packings of my race-day backpack later – who says I’m not obsessive-compulsive? – we were walking into the Jefferson Park golf course (with many thanks to City of Seattle for allowing us to trash their golf course). First surprise: An admission fee! Not for us, of course, but imagine that, people would pay to see us run! Second surprise: A real-live printed on glossy-coated dead trees program! With our names in it! Now, in the age of instant publishing, seeing your name in print has long lost its luster, but still, the Wicked Cool factors kept stacking up right alongside the myriads of cool jerseys from teams across the country. Nationals!
From there, five two-kilometer loops. The first a little different, the next four identical. No hills to speak of beyond a few mild slopes. Simple. So simple, that as a marathoner, I didn’t care when I learned the race was ten, not eight kilometers. Yah, another lap, so what?
Well, five laps is a lot when you’re burnt by the end of the second, that’s what.
Obviously my goal here was to run the best I could, deliver the best place possible for my team, and walk away proud. But wrapped inside was another nugget: a score to be settled with a rival from neighboring Lowell, a rival who’d beaten me the night we met this past summer, and to whom I’d returned that favor at the New England Cross Country Championships. This was the rubber match. Beat “Bad Dog” E.J. Period.
Turns out the Lowell team started only a few boxes to our left. Within a few hundred meters, as I danced and jumped to stay upright in the starting rush, memories of being gored by spikes in high school (from which I still carry scars) returning to haunt me thirty years later, I’d picked up E.J.’s distinctive gray locks to my left. By the first turn he’d dropped in a stride behind me. Game on.
The reality was that I wasn’t in this race from the perspective of a serious contender. I’ve already noted my unembarrassing but unimpressive finish places. I was at capacity, all cylinders firing, not much more I could do if the earthquake hit and I had to run faster to escape the collapsing ground just to live another day. Had someone, anyone, crept up on me to pass, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have let them.
But not E.J. He’s not getting by. No matter what.
In his mind, a similar scenario. Anyone else, would he, could he have hung on? Unlikely. But for him, let Cattarin go? No way. No matter what.
And so it went. Loop one. As I told my cross country kids, run the first one hard and say, “Oh crap, I’ve got four more to do!” Loop two. Oh crap, there are really three more? This really is ten kilometers, not just five easy loops. Agony set in rapidly. E.J. stuck like glue. Some guy in the woodsy section of the loops kept screaming, “This is NATIONALS! Show ‘em what you’ve got!” The course slicked up, this being Seattle it was damp to start and became more so as the drizzle accumulated, and first one, then another runner went down in front of me on the lower turn; without spikes I now had to choose my route carefully, step light and sure, as well as sprint like the world was ending. Four loops. Hang on. He’s going to smoke me on the final stretch, I just know it.
But I won’t let him. Flail. Break things. Risk permanent heart damage. Whatever.
A teammate watching my finish (after all, I was fifth man, and as epic as this was for me, they were all done minutes earlier) said simply, “You were all over!” The booth review of the tapes makes it look almost smooth (for those of you who actually followed the video link, it’s about sixteen minutes into the show). All I can say for sure is that E.J. was ten feet back. Two out of three, game, set, match. For this year at least.
Had I been in his shoes, I would have had the same reaction he did: win or lose, neither of us would have run the races we did without each other. For me, it was a minute and a quarter off my best ten kilometers, though to be fair I haven’t run all that many of them. And it wasn’t embarrassment, or humiliation, but instead exhilaration.
Final Irony Department: Following on my previously reported Nerdism of my annual mileage effectively matching the crow-flies distance from my front door to Jefferson Park, another nerd-like bit arose: Saturday’s race was day 206 of my streak, and those of you who knew all the area codes before they proliferated into an unmemorizable morass know that 206 means Seattle.