Lonely at the Top - PHXruns blog page
What defines a “good” race? Is it a fast time, achieving some gold standard of pain, or even catching the eye of a local Deptford resident? Whatever your response may be, it is subjective to say the least. Everyone applies their own standards to performances, making it nearly impossible to formulate some blanket statement response. However, I can say with near certainty I know what a “good” race looks like.
The team has scraped themselves off their comfy mattresses onto our not so luxurious school bus. We trek across US-30 East, stopping only to alleviate the bladder of an unnamed individual. The sun is baking the tears of junior high racers onto the pavement by the time we arrive at the acclaimed Cherokee High School. Tents are set up and port-a-potties are s(p)oiled. Nerves have begun to sink in. Tension grows as the freshmen battalion creeps closer and closer to their moment. Bibs are tacked and chips are tied. We conclude the warm-up, dynamics, and strides. The hay is in the barn. The boys are ready..
The strategy is simple: go out hard, settle in the first mile, and rip the latter half. Our comrade, KV, feeling light as a feather, knew what had to be done. He got out hard, then harder, and harder. He came bolstering through a quarter mile, reeking havoc amongst his noobish competitors. He had is game face dialed in, as well as a suicide pace. I quickly obtained a spectating position at mile one. I waited as the frosh boys streamed past me, trying to pick out purple in a mass of frenzy. I eventually locked in on him- he had followed through. Same pace. Same face. We made sweet, sweet eye contact, and he took off. The rest is history. Shiv ripped it, gripped it, then ripped it again until he crossed the line. He never quit. That, however, was the minimum for Shiv. He needed more, and he knew he was only one man for the job.
Looks can be deceiving, very rarely are they not. Zeke Rein proved this to be undoubtedly true. Create a race strategy then execute- the chalk plan for a “good” race. I could lecture Zeke about the hills, when to push, and when not to. It clearly did not matter. The man had one goal- stick with Owen Kelly. The matchup we had all anticipated was falling right into the clutches of Mr. Rein. They were together through half a mile, yet when Owen breached the mile mark, Zeke was 15 strides back. I ordered him to catch Owen to which he managed,” I can’t”. It was the most rancid load of B.S. I had ever come across. Why? Because Zeke was latched onto Owen two minutes later. Did it matter that Zeke had already dumped “everything” he had on that hill? Not at all. He found more than what he thought there was, and in turn created a masterpiece of a race. What at first looked to be a shot in the dark gone rogue, transformed into a courageous effort.
Our final race of Cherokee that will gain some attention is that of Owen Monson. Owen is no stranger to total domination. Out of millions of players, he is ranked 250th in the world for the popular video game Overwatch, involving aquiring targets in a co-op environment. On the cross country course, however, Owen is fairly new. This being his second race ever, the focus was on putting out a solid effort; do just that and the race will be “good”. I waited at the quarter mile. Alas, he came through. He was maintaining a strong pace, yet we both knew there was more. I dashed to my staked spot at one mile. In a group of four or five, Owen bolted up the hill. He was moving faster than before with the same game face as always. I yelled at him to accelerate- pass his competitors in that group. I did not know if he received the message, and if he did, would he do it? Two minutes later, I was given the answer. Near the bottom of the hill crest towards the mile and a quarter mark, he had put on a 50 meter gap. I sped off to the 1.75 mile mark. Now 100 meter ahead of his once worthy group, he increased his speed up the final hill. Over the course of a week, Owen had put down a finishing time of 90 seconds faster per mile between his first and second career race. No longer just a gamer on the desktop, but on the green, too.
You know a “good” race when you see one. Gritted teeth, clenched fists, and some mean turnover. That is PHX Cross Country. We are the Punishers. You see it on our shirts, our flags, and most importantly, how we carry ourselves. Our races look good because we care. We run for effort and not time. We run for each other. So as the season marches on, and you see Purple come whizzing down the back straight, you know we are up to no good.
I’m not gonna harp on how weird quarantine was, because we all lived through it, we all know it was weird. But that spring, 2020, stands out in my memory. If you break quarantine into phases, it was the very beginning, the three months that were supposed to be like two weeks. None of us really knew what was going on, and we had our uncanny valley school experience, and during all of that, I was running. Winters gave us a schedule for the first two weeks, and hilariously, traumatically, funny in the sense that you can only laugh because any real response would be too much to think about, that two week schedule just expanded and expanded. It was all pretty standard. Every week there was a workout on Wednesday, and a long run on Saturday, and easy runs filled the rest of the days. The easy runs and long runs I did with my dad, and that’s a whole different story that I could talk about - the first time I ran ten miles was during that time.
But in this post I want to talk about the Wednesdays that spring, specifically the Wednesdays every other week, when we had hill workouts. I did all of them on Cromby hill, which, if you don’t know, is this big hill on the North side. If you go through town on Hobo, the Schuylkill River Trail, and then cross Mowere Road and run up a little hill, you end up at the top of Cromby. So, every other week I’d run over to Cromby as my warm up, do a hill workout, and then run home to cool down.
Cromby is a brutal hill. It’s like 100 feet of elevation in a quarter mile. It’s pretty amazing for doing hills. I’d always try to figure out which part of it hurt the most during the workouts. Maybe it was really just aerobic pain. Or maybe it was all in my upper legs. Retrospectively I think they both hurt the most. But in a spring with a lot of unfair pain, Covid and police violence especially, Cromby taught me how to deal with the simple, logical pain of running. There was nothing unfair about Cromby. I wanted to run up the hill, and that required a fair bit of uncomfortable exertion, and if I really wanted to run up the hill, I’d have to get comfortable with that discomfort.
In Finland, they call that sisu. It roughly translates to “guts”, but a better definition is the skill of being comfortable with being uncomfortable. There are some things this doesn’t apply to, I guess - the unfair pain I was talking about earlier. We aren’t comfortable with Covid killing people, and therefore we ought to do our best to make sure it doesn’t. But to an extent that includes being comfortable with discomfort too, like the discomfort of wearing masks and lockdowns, and so does the idea of fighting racism, which includes some uncomfortable reckonings and realizations. I think if sisu applies at all to those complicated, unfair pains, it surely applies to the completely explicable pain we feel in running. Running faster than you ever have before is uncomfortable. As exhilarating as racing can be, it includes a lot of feelings that really suck. That’s a whole mythology of team storytelling. Declan calls the spot by the finish line on the track the graveyard, since people lay on the ground, exhausted, after racing. But if you apply the logic of sisu, that pain isn’t for nothing. If you want to run faster than you ever have before, you’re going to have to get comfortable with discomfort. Discomfort is required to do something you thought you couldn’t do, and the process of training is a process of preparing your skill of being comfortable with that, your sisu. It’s a mental muscle, and every time you push through discomfort you strengthen it.
Running up Cromby however many times every two weeks for however many weeks was a sisu building process. I credit that spring and summer directly with my evolution from “just on the team because I always have been” to really being invested, and Cromby was a big part of that. Right now, I’m dealing with a more abstract Cromby. My arms are broken. I’m uncomfortable. It sucks. Dramatically. Still though, I know that I have sisu. That didn’t go away. And if it doesn’t go away after breaking multiple bones, I imagine it doesn’t go away after a bad race or a bad workout.
Keep building your sisu,
I feel like this story starts the same way as so many others do on this team. A hot, humid, brutal summer run, bright and early in the morning. The date was July 27th, 2020, and on this day, Winters decided to bust out a new spot for us to run at, Shady Oak. Almost everyone has been there now, and its nuance is all but gone. It’s just another paved trail along the river, shaded and hilly. While the lockdown made practice the highlight of my day, on this day the energy was not there. I showed up that day unprepared and I knew it, dehydrated, barely stretched, and tired on another level. But like most people on most days, you just chugged along and made it through enjoying the highlights and forgetting the lows. Another surprise from Winters was then laid on us when he decided that day was a long run, the longest to that point in fact. I had 8 whole, painful miles ahead of me and I was scared. Not nervous, anticipating what's to come, genuinely frightful of what that might entail. I know now that 8 miles is just another long run, and for many on the team an 8-mile-long run would be easy. I was not even close to prepared for what was to come. The final pre-race surprise for that day would be one of the most impactful ones, Winters would be joining me and Will for these 8 miles meaning we would be going his pace, a frightening prospect to say the least.
Usually, what happens on a run, like the talking that occurs, all of that gets forgotten. But for once, I can distinctly remember what us 3 were talking about. For the first two miles, we talked about Alex Jones and conspiracy theories. And then for the last 2 miles out, we were talking about the Patriot Act. If you don’t understand what that it is, I implore you to google it, or if you really want to know, ask Winters. Regardless, let’s just say we weren’t focusing on the run. Now as we turned around at 4 miles, my stomach started to hurt, my legs started to burn, I'm falling a step behind. All bad signs of what's to come. Winters and Will continue talking. I feel like I can barely think by this point and I’m really just trying to get to the end of this run as soon as possible, as easy as possible. Spoiler: It will not be fast, nor will it be easy.
We reached around the 5.5-mile mark, and disaster strikes. The construction we saw on the way out is now blocking the trail to get back. A large trail closed sign blocks the path back. My first thought at this sign was to go right past it but ultimately, I saddled up for the ride. There is no way back through the trailhead, so we have to go around. The sign also presents the arrival of a new group to this story, consisting of Colin, Yash, and Luke Hihi. They ask Winters what we should do, and after a few moments of deliberation we decided to head left of the sign off of the trail. This put us onto a highway, and a bridge which you can see from the trail. On this bridge, a man in a gray truck pulled up beside us, put his window down, and offered us a map. That man was an angel in disguise. We dismissed him and kept running. After reaching an intersection and making a right turn, we headed downhill, past some houses, and then through a small neighborhood. None of us had phones and all we were looking for were directions. Then we saw it, a large gravel driveway, surely a public park. Which means a map. We’ll know where were going again. And how to escape this place. We get to the sign at the front of most parks, with the tiny roof on top and what do we see. Not a map. Not the only thing we needed…
A birdwatching guide.
Welcome to Hoy Park.
Welcome to Hell.
To say my heart dropped is an understatement. All I could do was laugh. What else can you do when you fall so far. You have no energy to cry. You just stand and laugh at your own misfortune, your own failure. Right now, you can travel on Google Maps the exact same route I took to Hoy Park, but you can’t go in. In takes real suffering, real pain, to enter that place. You can only enter at your lowest of lows, halfway through a run you never wanted to do, at a speed you can’t go, on a day you shouldn’t run. Yet there I stood, in a sick twisted form of shock and horror and yet laughing. Everyone except Winters stood around for a while he scouted uphill for a possible escape, ultimately unsuccessful. So, what did we do? We ran back the way we came. I started to really die by this point, I had stopped sweating a while ago, but I began to feel chills run down my spine. Finally, when we got back to the trail closed sign, now accompanied by a construction worker, I was offered a water from his cooler. Now when I say that was the best water I’ve ever drank I mean it. That was the taste of Life. I had escaped Hell.
But I wasn’t home free. Slowly but surely Winters and Will pulled away leaving me all on my own trying to make it back in once piece. Right before the steel bridge you go under, I stopped. Unable to run anymore, I just sat there. Defeated. Dead and yet Alive. Wishing I wasn’t. I walked onwards just trying to finish the run with what I had left. I threw up after I went under the bridge and Chia was there. Asking what was wrong. I forget what I said but I know it wasn’t PG-13. I eventually reached the end. A liberating feeling? Far from it. I threw my shirt off, said goodbye to Winters, hopped in my dad’s car with the AC on blast and went home. I would throw up about another 20-25 times before going to the hospital. It wasn’t great. I hated life. But I kept going. And after two IV bags, one call from Winters asking how I was doing, and a small amount of luck, I survived Hoy Park. And I was right there at practice the next day.
That’s what cross country means to me. A life changing experience for good and bad, a social experience in some parts, a pure mental battle in others. I’ve been asking myself a lot of what others can take away from this story. And it’s not something shallow like “I’ve been through worse suck it up.” What I think you can and should take away from this is that everyone on this team will have their Hoy Park moment. That pit of despair, the lowest point, where you just want to quit. These moments are crucial to not only running but to life. Cross country means so much to me and in this case, it became a learning opportunity to understand what I can handle, where I can go, and how I can push through everything holding me back. That is more important than any time or place in any race. You only get 4 years of cross country, please savor them. The more and more I reflect on my time on the team, the more and more I realize how little I have left. Enjoy every day at practice, you only get so many of them.
~Jacob Cross - Class of '23
The outcome of a race is often decided before the gun even goes off, as the physical and mental preparation required to successfully perform in a race has a huge effect on a runner’s ability to “put-out” and do well. However, when it is a new season, your knowledge on preparation for racing can be a bit rusty - maybe because you haven’t done it for several months, or maybe you’re brand new to competitive racing. This can be especially true for the mental side of race-preparation. Everyone (hopefully) understands that stretching out, hydrating (even if you’re in school the day of a race), sleeping well, and other physical tasks are necessary to do well in a race. However, the mental preparation for a race is much more difficult to fully wrap your head around. How much should I be thinking about the race? How emotional should I be about it on the bus ride over? How about a week before? Should I be trying to hype myself up or stay mellow? Learning the answers to these questions is a painful process, and if you ever feel like you’ve fully “figured out” racing, you are probably a few races away from one that punches you in the gut and makes you question your philosophy on preparation and racing. So, how would I best advise you to prepare for a race?
There are two core items that you must understand going into a race: what you need to do, and what is about to happen to you. Knowing what you need to do is simple: what’s the race strategy? Do you need to come through the first mile between in 6:20? Do you need to stick with a specific person and beat him at all costs? Do you need to run a challenging first half mile then dial it back? What task do you need to accomplish? A lot of this is up to Winters, but making sure that you understand exactly what he wants you to do is important. A related piece of advice: set concrete goals. Saying “I want to run fast,” is not the same as, “I want to come through the first mile in 6:20.” Saying, “I want to try as hard as I can,” is not the same as, “I want to run a reserved first two miles, and then go ballistic the last 1.1.” Make sure that your goals are material and real rather than unclear so you actually know whether you are doing them correctly.
Now that you understand what you need to do during the race, you need to understand what is going to happen to you during the race. It is going to hurt a lot. In case you missed it: it is going to hurt a lot. If you are not prepared to be crossing the line totally exhausted barely able to feel your legs or control your breathing, you are not as ready as you need to be, as that brutal experience is what it may come down to for you to achieve your task. I use the word “brutal” intentionally, as racing is a brutal experience. I have come to view competitive racing as a combat sport, maybe not of the punch and kick kind of combat, but of mental combat. You need to be willing to go step-for-step, mile-for-mile with someone until they can’t take the pain that your effort and running is making them feel. Imagine you were in a foxhole with an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat, where only one of you walks away alive. In that situation, you need to be willing to be vicious. You need to be willing to be savage. You need to be willing to do whatever it takes to beat your enemy and live on another day. I’m not saying that you should view racing as a military encounter, but what I am saying is that in the same way you need to be willing to not stop fighting when the enemy punches you in the face, or stabs you, or bites you, you need to not stop racing at a high effort level when you start to feel sore, or when another racer makes a move to try to pass you. I’m also not saying that every race will be a hellish, primal experience. What I am saying is that you are not fully ready to race unless you are prepared to face anything that gets thrown at you. No matter what, you need to keep executing your task.
How could you possibly prepare for a race mentally knowing just how brutal it has the potential to be? How do I think about a race in a productive way? Quite frankly, I’m still working on finding the answer to that question, because I’m not sure myself. I think that figuring out how to think about racing is a career-long process. However, I do have a few pieces of advice: