For a single moment, I thought I had lost a National Championship. It was the longest second I had to endure that whole run, that whole painful run. It was a foolish moment in my running career. The idea that I would see a jersey sprinting past into the finish corral as I was turning around to right myself was more than I could handle. Fortunately, as I grabbed the siding of the course to allow for a quick maneuver, I still had the championship. The goal then, as relief began to coarse through my body, was simply to get to the line.
The Bend, Oregon course for the USATF National Champion Cross Country meet is anything but easy.The ups are downers and the downs are worse than the ups. The altitude gives you all the wrong kind of feels in the final 2k and the surface has five different faces throughout. Grass, mulch, rock, dirt, mush… nothing was a positive except for the factor that everyone had to run it. You stand on the starting line and look straight ahead at what is your first hill. A sign of a hard course is when you have to look up to see the first turn. Needless to say, the 2017 meet is going to have plenty of storylines to fill your social media needs for the next week. Especially if someone misses the finish line again.
I still cannot believe I did it. I pulled a Roy Riegels for a brief second and will probably never let myself forget it. Everyone in the mix zone afterwards was offering me excuses. “It was USATF, their volunteers didn’t point you in the right direction!” or “Don’t worry, it wasn’t as noticeable as many may think.” But seriously? If you were watching the live feed you could see just how easy that turn was to come off of the circuit and head toward the line. My favorite reasoning was that I must have lost count. Maybe someone on another 2k course somewhere else in the world has experienced losing count, especially in the colonial 12k days. But no one was losing count on the Bend course. It hurt too much to forget. I knew exactly how much race I had left on any given painful step throughout that full 10k. My mind was not going to let me forget that “We only have 2k left Craig, don’t mess this up now!” And especially coming into the kick, “Craig, let’s make this look good, tighten it up, don’t look uncomfortable and don’t do anything stupid…. like missing the finish line turn!!” The point is that no one else is to blame. I knew the course and hopefully all this does is help to avoid the same issue for next year.
My first season as a pro had its positives and definitely a fair share of learning moments. For instance, my 13:51 Arizona State Record 5k was pretty cool (granted, I hear there’s a pretty solid group of guys who train in Tucson that could challenge that on any given weekend). But my first pro race in Minneapolis wasn’t as “cool.” It was a humbling moment as I saw that Molly Huddle beat me by over a minute. Club Cross was also a humbling moment after my freshman mistake of taking the race out and rabbiting Jonathon Grey.
I will make mistakes throughout my professional career and all I can do is restrain their consequence. But I have to say that starting the year of 2016 off with a Championship victory makes it feel like a clean slate. The training at altitude is getting easier to handle and I feel stronger than ever. I like that I have been able to avoid injury for almost two years now and I think that consistency is finally paying off. It’s all about making the right decisions and realizing that forcing things is never a wise decision. It could always pay off but more times than not, being safe and backing off from time to time sees its dividends down the road. I have to give credit to Ben Rosario for that one as he has preached being smart since I arrived in Flagstaff and as people can begin to observe, it’s something that works across the board for the whole NAZ team.
Mike Albright Photography