“You’ll want to go out hard.”
“Yeah. Otherwise you’ll end up surrounded, battling for space. And that’s when guys go down. And you don’t want to go down at the start of a 200 man race.”
“Go out hard then?”
And so I did. I ran as fast as I’ve ever run. One or two minutes later I was among the top 20 in the race. And I was absolutely flying.
“I’m going to like this.” My first mile was around 4:20. A personal best.”I could win this.”
You probably already know the ending. I did not win. Instead, I imploded spectacularly and suddenly. Runners came flying by one after the other. I was moving. Backwards. I limped through the rest of the race. Finishing in a dazed and confused, eye-opening stupor. My first Cross Country running race was history. And so was my first lesson in pacing.* I was completely hammered. But that was all it took—I was hooked.
“You told me to go out hard.”
“Well, yeah. But not that hard.”
I was a Senior in High School. I needed to fill the void created when I was cut from the basketball team. Years of long practice hours, thousands of free-throws, jump shots and speed drills had unceremoniously been made obsolete one year earlier. I floated through that winter, angry and aimless. Spring came, and baseball pulled me from the brink of idle delinquency. After a summer of running—occasionally—I joined the Cross Country team. Track had never interested me much. It was boring. Especially the indoor variety that I competed in. Running the 1500m on a 200m track gets dizzy in a hurry. And I can still smell the stale hot dogs of the concession stands. Which if you ever wondered, is not a good combination—indoor running and hot dogs.
*Alas, that is a lesson I am still learning.
Cross Country on the other hand looked fascinating. 5 demanding kilometers over grass and through sand and up stairs and around trees and every other oddball obstacle and course deviation one could imagine. And the pace was scorching. I’ve never finished a bike race as blinkered and tuckered as I did every one of my XC races. I joined the team as a Senior. Which meant that the pecking order had already been established. I was an outsider. And while my teammates were my friends—or became such—there was an unspoken possibility that I would gum up the natural order of the team. But I had one goal in mind: to be a part of the Varsity seven. In Cross Country, each team fields seven runners. And being a Senior, I had no intention of spending the Fall running JV races. I’d seen football players play down, and it was a sad and demoralizing sight to behold. Nonetheless, I started the year doing just that—racing JV.
But quickly enough I earned my place among the top seven. I had a good season. I out performed my own—and everyone else’s—expectations. My best race? A 16:47, which wasn’t bad for a guy who ran like a gorilla. I finished the year wondering what might have been had I not spent my entire life chasing delusions of basketball grandeur. I am 5’9″. I should have known better. I came to love running. The searing pain. The variety. And that I could do an entire workout in a spotted Speedo and nobody seemed to think twice about it.**
**If you ran XC in High School, well, then you know.
Why am I writing all this? Two reasons:
1) I’ve always enjoyed trying new things, especially when it comes to athletics.
2) It dawned on me recently, in a sort of happy discovery, that Cyclocross is Cross Country running. Only on a bike.
Both are ran over absurdly ridiculous courses—mud, sand, pavement, dirt, grass, hills, stairs, and barriers. Both are largely uneffected by the weather. Both are eye-bleeding, leg searingly fast and short events. And both are a mild mutation of their more mainstream, sensible cousins.
It’s the perfect marriage of two things I love to do—ride a bike, and run XC.
I still daydream about my running days. Not because they were idyllic and wonderful. But because the running itself was addictive. Unique. Wonderfully painful. Cross Country mountain biking is similar, but different enough that the fix is also different. I haven’t really experienced that running high since the Fall of 1995. I realized on Saturday, while doing my second set of 7×20 Tabata intervals, that perhaps CX would be that fix. That high. If not exactly, at least very similar. And that was both nostalgic, and encouraging. In a sick sort of masochistic glee, I am really, really excited about the particularly dark pain cave that that sort of effort engulfs one into.
The thrill of discovery and potential and the unknown is one of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed jumping into new sports. Lacrosse. Mountain biking. Backcountry skiing. Nordic skiing.
And now Cyclocross.
“You’ll want to go out hard.”
“Yeah. Really hard.”