It's NCAA Championship weekend again. Cross country teams from across the country have put the finishing touches on a long season of training, some hoping simply to hold on for one more race, others poised to surprise the competition with a perfectly timed peak. Whether you are talking about the Division I, II, or III level, the NCAA cross country meet is probably the single biggest day on the collegiate distance runner’s calendar.
The local running community looks on with interest. Saturday's DII and DIII races have come and gone, and we can celebrate the victory of a Minnesota woman in the DIII race. Many are curious to see how the Golden Gophers will fare on Monday, and some of us may be checking up on the old alma mater as well. For those of us who ran collegiate cross country, it is also a chance to look back and remember the journey.
For me, memories of NCAAs are bittersweet. I was a member of two NCAA championship teams at Stanford. Coached by current University of Oregon coach Vin Lananna, “the Machine” (as we called ourselves) was the dominant program of the late 1990s. Coach Lananna has done it again, taking an Oregon program steeped in tradition, and returning it to greatness.
When I think about my college team, I think about a great bunch of guys bonded closely by the pressures of performing on the course, and the greater pressures of a training regimen so intense that it pushed us either to become great or to crack.
I, unfortunately, usually fell into the “cracked” category. The best I could manage were my final two seasons, when I subbed in as a varsity runner at the district meet. I ran 6th or 7th on the team, which once was good enough for All-District honors, but never got me to the starting line at the national meet.
In 1997, I traveled with the team to Furman, South Carolina; I was the alternate – the guy who warmed up with the team and did the whole routine up until it was time to start the race, at which point, I stepped off to the side and assumed the role of cheerleader.
We won the meet. It was an incredible weekend to be a part of, and I truly cherish having been there with the team. But at the same time, it smarts that much more to be that close and not quite make it.
The disappointment of sitting out the national championship meet was certainly great, but it did not really take away from the experience of being a part of great teams. If I could go back and do it again, I would not have chosen to run for a team that was not quite as good, even if it meant I would have had more racing opportunities like the NCAA XC meet.
By running with the best, I learned how to push harder and dig deeper than I ever thought possible. I developed the humility to understand that the body can only be pushed so far before it rebels. Several of my teammates went on to run in the 2000 Olympics. I watched them qualify and compete with a great sense of pride.
The years that followed saw the typical post-collegiate dispersion and loss of contact. A couple of my teammates continue to train and race today. Most of them trained for another year or two after graduation, and then hung up the spikes. They felt like they had gone as far as they could in running. If there is a lesson to be learned from my experiences, it’s that at age 22 or 23, you are only beginning to come into your prime as a runner. I wonder what some of the guys who roundly whipped me meet-after-meet may have accomplished if they had continued to train with passion for another five or ten years.
If disappointment has a silver lining, it is found in the sense of possibility, the feeling of just missing something that could have been great, and being that much hungrier for a taste of success. I finished my collegiate career and turned a new page on running. Rather than staying with Coach Lananna and the Nike Farm Team, I joined a small club team called Hoy’s Excelsior, based in San Francisco. I ran cross country, road races, and eventually made it back to the track.
I did many of the same grueling workouts – six by a mile, or ten by a kilometer – and I continued to do them hard. However, I took more easy days in between, and I rested well before racing. Those minor adjustments took my career to a new level. Eventually, I ended up back in Minnesota and the marathon soon became my obvious niche.
When I watch NCAAs these days, it’s no longer with the envy of the guy who didn’t quite make it. I remember how hard it was just to make it there, and the pressure of having to time your training so well – to push yourself to new heights, and to balance there for that one day without stepping off the edge into the abyss of illness, injury, or overtraining. So when I watch, I feel pure unadulterated excitement to see such a mass of talented runners barreling along the course. The runners attack the race, fueled by miles and miles of base training, endless interval workouts, and the realization that, for a few moments, they are living their dreams.