The Day I Fell in Love with Cross Country

by Chris McClung

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I wish I were brave enough to let this photo stand on its own to tell the story. It so perfectly captures the essence of a powerful weekend at the USATF National Club Cross-Country Championships in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on December 13th. I have struggled to find a word or words to explain what the weekend meant to me, but when I look at this picture, I see it clearly. This picture whispers the messages of the weekend softly with each of its 1,000 words. I want to try and put those words on paper for you, though I will probably need a lot more.

In most of its 17-year history, Club Cross-Country Nationals (Club XC) has been the THE national cross-country team competition in the US beyond the high school or college level. It’s the only place where adults in historic running clubs like the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) get to face off on a level playing field with the Central Park Track Club from New York and the Bowerman Track Club from Portland along with dozens of other clubs from across the US. It’s a place where the elite or sub-elite runner can practice racing to build strength and fitness in the long off-season between outdoor and indoor track seasons. It’s a weekend with a cult following among cross-country geeks who might not be as fast at the elites but can’t help but put on the spikes for one weekend a year for love of the sport. It’s a place where everyday runners like me can line up on the same starting line as Olympians because your speed isn’t what matters at the gun, just your willingness and courage (or naivety) to toe the line.

I first learned about Club XC in 2010 when Steve began using it as a winter training tool for Rogue Athletic Club (RAC). I have followed the race since then if only to cheer on the men and women sporting the Rogue crown at the starting line. The RAC women have made a name for themselves at the meet, finishing on the team podium twice in 4 years (1st in 2011 and 3rd in 2014) and just off the podium in 4th place in the other two years. Perhaps most famous in the Club XC world, however, are Rogue masters running goddesses Chris Kimbrough and Carmen Troncoso. Chris was known in the Club XC world well before her Cap10k victory or Beer Mile World Record. She won the masters race in 2011 and this year as well (more on that later). For her part, Carmen is Club XC royalty. She won the masters race in 2008 at the age of 49 and has gone on to finish first in her age group of 50+ ladies in each of the last 6 years. “Watching” and cheering from afar has made me a fan of the weekend with a desire to get there to see it in person some day.

That day came this year when Steve (my coach) decided to have a group of us take a break from the rigors of marathon training cycles and focus on a season of speed. We would work on our weaknesses with the hopes of building to fast 10ks on the road and grass, capping our season at Club XC a few weekends ago. And what a weekend it was!

Back to the photo from the top: it captures an unscripted moment at the end of the day, when a group of us (RAC and TeamRogue athletes) were cooling down after all of the races were complete. We didn’t know the picture was taken until a few days later when a friend shared it with us. What you see in our faces and smiles that won’t be controlled is pure joy – the joy of running, the joy of doing it together as a Rogue family, and the joy of racing in its purest form on the grass and mud of an historic cross-country course at Lehigh University.

This joy and spirit was pervasive throughout the event as runners and fans gathered to celebrate the essence and purity of running for an afternoon in beautiful (and cold!), rural Pennsylvania. There were no mile markers or pace groups or water stops or bands on the course or medals at the end, just running and racing and teammates supporting each other. Now, that’s not to take anything away from the spectacle of a road race or marathon. All of those extras are fun and cool and bring energy to our sport in a different way, but it was very refreshing to see all of that stripped away and find our sport alive and well in its simplest form.

Some of my favorite moments:

Watching Chris Kimbrough, Carmen Henkiel, and Cassie Troncoso of Rogue Team Tronky win the Women’s Masters race. The weekend consists of four distinct races: open men (10k), open women (6k), masters men (10k) and masters women (6k), each with its own start. The fields in all four are usually competitive, but this year they were downright stacked with record turnout in every race. IMG_2248

The Women’s Masters race was never in doubt. The photo above was taken seconds after the start. If you look closely in the middle, you can see the lone figure of Chris Kimbrough with a 3-4 meter lead already. That was the closest anyone would come to her throughout the race. Like herds of cattle, fans (and runners racing later) moved around the loop course in groups to see the race as many times as possible. By 1000 meters, the gap was 30 meters, and it would stretch to 80 meters by the end of the race as Chris won going away with Cassie and Carmen to follow in 13th and 21st place, securing the team win. In the day and age of doping where you can’t trust the best of the elite athletes as heroes, I saw 3 women emerge as heroes more worthy to follow, support and cheer for. It was so inspiring to watch them all race with such fearlessness. I felt the same cheering on the Rogue AC ladies as they all ran strong races to finish third in the women’s open team race.

Cheering on the last place Male Masters runner. The 80-year-old Elliott Denman finished last place in his race, over 1 hour slower than the first place runner. He was still on course as everyone prepped before the start of the Women’s Open race. With the course looping back on itself, he was center of attention for a moment when everyone stopped their buzz of activity and preparation to cheer him loudly on as he ran by. At the time, we didn’t know that Elliott is a former Olympian from 1956, but as was so true throughout the day, it wouldn’t have mattered. This is/was the people’s race. Anyone can enter and line up, and though competitive, your time or speed only mattered on the results sheet. What mattered most was being there, supporting each other and, though it sounds cliché, simply giving your best, whatever your best was on that day. I am sure Elliott, as a former Olympian, is no stranger to that, and it was a special honor to cheer for him that day.

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My race experience. On paper, I got my butt kicked, finishing 485th out of 572 runners in the final results. But, this race was simultaneously the hardest and coolest and perhaps most fun experience I’ve had in running shoes (spikes). As someone who didn’t run XC growing up, this was only my second cross race, and I didn’t really know what to expect. The start itself was mind blowing. Instead of being seeded by pace from front to back, the cross-country start line is the most democratic in running. In XC, everyone lines up shoulder to shoulder on the same starting line. That makes the start line as wide for XC as it might be deep for a typical road race. Lined up a few meters to my right was 5K Olympian Matt Tegenkamp and between us a guy that would finish 2nd to last in the race.

When the gun went off, nearly 600 runners sprinted forward, jostling for seeding and positioning as the course gradually narrowed from a 100 meter wide start line to a 10 meter swath of grass about 800 meters ahead. I started right next to three other Team Rogue teammates who got out faster, and within seconds, I was separated from them by a sea of other runners closing in on us from the left and right. You could see nothing but bodies bobbing up and down between the lead pack of runners and myself. After 800 meters as the course looped around to the left, I looked over to see a snaking line of men stretched out like a creature with a mind of its own.

Per Steve’s instructions, I relaxed and settled into rhythm in the first 3000 meters (of 10K) and then, to use his pre-race words, began “goat-roping,” catching and passing about 50 runners in the latter parts of the race (including the guy in front of me in that photo!). I ran hard and went into a deep and dark pain cave as the legs grew tired from 10K of grass and mud on rolling terrain. There were certainly things that I could have done better. The time wasn’t fast, and my place isn’t impressive, but it doesn’t matter, I did what you do in cross-country… I raced. I raced and passed as many as I could until the final steps to the line, and even in the pain, I loved every minute of it.

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That’s what we all did. We ran. We raced. We cheered. We smiled. We laughed. We found joy in our sport. We did it together. But, I didn’t have to tell you that… the picture said it all. I can’t wait to do it again.

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Screen shot 2013-06-24 at 2.46.38 PMChris McClung heads up all things retail at Rogue Running, and coaches The Morning Show, a group for half marathoners and marathoners alike.

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