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December 13, 2018

Club Cross Country Nationals: The Best Party in American Distance Running

The Masters guys were already a beer or two deep by the time we stood on the starting line. It’s one of the most unique starting lines in the U.S. running circuit. There are sponsored teams in crisp, new, perfectly matching kits alongside scrappy crews in barely matching singlets with Nike waffle XC spikes that they wore in high school.

While the NCAA Cross Country Championship is made up of neatly parallel teams in similar kits and of a similar size, Club Cross Country is a raw, hacked out cross section of competitive running in the U.S. I found myself among the conspicuous orange mass at the very center of that start line as a member of one of the four scoring teams that Club Northwest brought over the mountains from Seattle to Spokane.

But even with four teams, when the gun went we were consumed in the mass of athletes. We were more than 400 strong and shaking the frozen turf of the long downhill starting straight. It’s in that first few hundred meters that this race is at its best. I say that because it’s in that moment that, no matter how mediocre your training has been or how far separated you are from your best days as an athlete, it’s this moment that connects us back to that first footrace as a scrawny high school kid. All adrenaline, fearless, flying and believing for a fleeting second that this will be the best performance you’ve ever put forth. I know that’s what it felt like for an athlete from Bellingham who put down a 27-second 200 meters to lead the whole race, at least for a few seconds.

Especially for athletes who really know the sport, running this race is like getting to take the ice with your favorite professional hockey team or running 27 seconds for the first 200 meters to lead the race is like taking a swing at your favorite enforcer. It’s not going to go well, but at least you get to be right there and in the thick of it.

That sentimentality, the drama of that scene, faded with the rapidly accumulating fatigue. It’s the body admitting that I hadn’t done enough quality work to be able to hang with this pace. I struggled through the middle miles, vaguely reading the backs of the kits around me and recognizing professional mid-distance guys as they cruised past. I could see the leaders across the course. I spotted Garrett Heath, Ben Blankenship and Hillary Bor – these heroes of American distance running absolutely flying over the grass. It was a sobering to realize I was so far away from the front of this race that I was more a spectator than a competitor and a dangerous self pitying despair set in. But I wasn’t the only one going backwards. And, more importantly, there were guys around me running the race of their lives. Some found momentum in the last couple kilometers and hammered home to sneak under 33 minutes for the first time.

The finish line is carnage, people collapsing, vomiting, slamming beers, quiet celebration and crushing disappointment. It’s a reminder that long after college, even in as a completely obscure, much less than elite athlete, we get to be emotional about running cross country, we still retain the right to live and die with a championship race.

And it’s precisely that intensity of emotion across this field, from the Masters to the recently post-collegiates, that drives the energy into the afterparty, which, with fall marathons in the rearview mirror and summer track on the distant horizon, is probably the best opportunity for the entire running world to get a little rowdy.

Despite being one of the most stacked and toughest to predict races to take place on American soil all year, Club Nats gets limited coverage. It isn’t nationally televised, it rapidly slips down the LetsRun home page and after a couple of days the focus is back on indoor track.

But maybe that’s OK, because Club Nats is really for the athletes. It’s about connecting to other athletes from all over the country and realizing there’s a thousand ways to stay in this game. It’s also a chance to see a very human side of athletes who regularly perform at what seems like an impossible level, and find out that even the people at the top of the sport go through ugly chunks of training and have really bad days. It’s hopeful to see a sixty some year-old athlete loaded down with individual and team title medals and know that this might be my second of thirty or forty Club Nats I get to run in my lifetime. It’s about standing next to a couple of 50-year-olds looking around the room and knowing that their 1,500m PB’s are faster than nearly everyone in sight.

So I’m torn about arguing for more, better coverage for this race. I’ll always argue the pros deserve more cash for winning a race like this and that more money might draw an even more stacked field to the race and more drama at the front. But I think there’s also something special about having a race that’s insulated from the masses and that is instead raced and followed by people who really know the sport, who have identities that go deeper than fun run 5K’s. This is for the people who bear themselves to the unforgiving reality of a cross country race.

Every single number on the starting line represents a dream that probably started on the grass of a high school invitational course and, whether it’s led to the Olympic Games or has been nearly snuffed out by injuries, these athletes have been drawn back to the same elements where it began.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who had a disappointing day at Club Nats or might be spending the next couple of weeks asking hard questions about their training and the amount of time they can justify committing to this game. But it’s comforting to know that whatever direction running may take, Club Nats will be there waiting to remind you you’re not alone in this pursuit. And maybe even feed you a few free beers.

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