Meet Recap: 2017 USATF National Cross Country Championships, Bend

The lead pack in the Men’s Open race about to finish one of their five loops of the course. (Joe Dudman photo)

River’s Edge Golf Course in Bend was the setting for the 2017 USATF National Cross Country Championships on Saturday, February 4th. But a couple forlorn golf balls embedded in the thick mud near the top of the first hill was the only clue that that other pastoral sport had ever taken place there. In the days leading up to the meet, a thick blanket of snow covered the area, but dozens of intrepid volunteers helped to clear the race course in time for the start of the first event on Saturday, leaving an easy-to-follow ribbon of green grass and soft mud between walls of snow.

Women’s Open winner Aliphine Tuliamuk builds her lead on a downhill section. (Joe Dudman photo)

The day began with a 4k community race (two circuits of the 2k loop), followed by Junior, Masters, and Open races throughout the day. The grand finale was a 4 by 1k “Brewer’s Relay”. Road conditions were icy as my Red Lizard teammates and I left our rental house and drove over to catch the shuttle to the race. There was lots of speculation and uncertainty about what to wear for the ever changing conditions: Spikes and how long? Screwed shoes? Trail shoes? Tights, long-sleeved shirt under the singlet? Sun breaks and bright snow made sunglasses a distinct possibility.

Men’s Open 2nd place finisher Stanley Kebenei kicks it in to the finish. (Joe Dudman photo)

By the time we arrived at the shuttle stop, temperatures were in the 40s, and skies were partly sunny. The hilly and slippery course aside, racing conditions were ideal. A short bus ride took us to the start, where we checked in and took a short warmup run around the neighborhood, as the course itself was reserved for the races only. Although the course had been cleared, the volunteers’ work wasn’t done, as helpers with shovels created small streams through the snow to guide the melting runoff and prevent additional flooding in the “athlete’s village”.

We watched the masters women’s race, cheering on our Red Lizard teammates and other familiar faces, then it was time to prepare for our start. A few minutes before the gun, the sun ducked behind some rain clouds, so I doffed my sunglasses, and put my hat back on, anticipating some drizzle. The weather during the race proved to be a mild mix of light wind, scattered clouds, and bright sun breaks.

Joe Dudman maintains the illusion of forward motion during the 2017 USATF National Cross Country Championships Men’s Masters race. (Stephanie Ross photo)

We gathered at our starting corral, wished our neighbors good luck, and charged into the mud and up the first hill at the sound of the gun, ready to take on four loops in our 8k race. Despite a little wind and some intermittent light showers, conditions were comfortable. I wore a long-sleeved tech shirt under my singlet, gloves, hat, and trail shoes, and concentrated on settling into a solid pace, familiarizing myself with the course and the footing, and most importantly staying upright! I ran the first loop pretty solidly, surprised to find myself ahead of some familiar friendly rivals. But that wouldn’t last long, as I quickly tired and began to get passed over the course of the next three laps.

The course was a fun one, despite some significant uphills, with a nice variety of wide, grassy sections and narrower, more technical segments, including a dirt hill climb complete with a couple boulders. My choice of trail shoes proved to be a good one, as I had traction from heel to toe, while many of the runners with conventional cross country spikes were sliding, slipping, and falling on the downhills and corners when they landed on their heels. At one particularly steep and slick downhill, a 70 year old runner’s feet went out from under him, and he slid sideways across the course in front of me. Ordinarily, I would have asked him if he was okay, but I had to concentrate fully on hurdling over him and not tripping on him and making things worse.

I struggled over the last three laps, unable to staunch the flow of runners passing me. But the spectator friendly course meant there were teammates and other friends frequently providing encouragement, and that helped keep me moving forward, even when progress was slow. Near the top of the hill on the final lap, my teammate Peter came up alongside me and gave me some positive words. I hadn’t realized any teammates were still back there, so seeing a friendly face gave me a much-needed boost.

Peter pulled away and a couple other runners passed me too, but I pulled myself together and kept them within sight down the last hill. I put on as much of a kick as I could muster around the final turn, passing one of the runners, then focused on the ultimate push to the finish. I edged past the other runner, and crossed the line one second behind my teammate Peter, salvaging a little satisfaction from a difficult race and disappointing performance. Thanks to our teammates, we were able to capture 3rd Place in the 40-49 division, finishing a mere two points ahead of 4th.

The lead pack in the Men’s Open race settle in on one of the few flat sections of the course. (Joe Dudman photo)

After a quick trip back to the rental house, we returned in time to watch the Open Women’s and Men’s races, both 10k. Most of us were glad we hadn’t had to run five loops, but the toughness and speed of these athletes was inspiring. The athletes, the organization, and the volunteers made the 2017 USATF National Cross Country Championships a great success, despite challenging conditions.

Full results of all official races can be found HERE.

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