Pan American XC Champs: Vargas, Venezuela

(Pre-Read warning, this is a long one).

It has not been a fairytale winter, my knee and IT band wouldn’t totally settle down. I cross-trained a ton, did what I could running, and just wasn’t sure where my fitness was at. We’ve all been there; we all know we are maintaining, maybe even making fitness gains if we work hard enough during the time off but you lose the ‘feel’ for running.

Time kept bowling forward and the Pan Am XC Champs kept creeping closer and closer. I did not want to give up the opportunity to represent my country but I honestly did not know if I was in good enough shape to properly represent my country. No matter what I knew if I went I was definitely going to give it an honest and best effort.

IMG_9172March 1st arrived and I was boarding a flight to make my way down to Caracas, Venezuela. I won’t deny that I did very little research about this trip. I made a bit of an assumption that if I was not responsible for organizing my own travel that I would get critical information from the team headquarters. And for the most part Athletics Canada gave us all the critical information; there were a few missing pieces even they could not have anticipated.

Three flights later, bleary eyed and out of water Team Canada arrived in Caracas, Venezuela. We were off to a coastal town, Naiguata, Vargas, Venezuela. We arrived to a sweet little beach area, and while it may not quite have been to North American standards I always find it magical to be on the ocean. In Hannah Georgas Ode to Mom she sings, ‘If there is magic on this planet it’s in the water,” and I absolutely agree with her.

When you take an overnight flight you have to prepare for the fact that you are not going to get a great sleep, if any sleep. You have to plan to get good sleep before and then again after. With the race on Friday, I knew that Wednesday night was a critical sleep night. The coaches and managers probably thought I was pretty high maintenance when I emailed before the trip even started to say I would really appreciate an early team meeting so it did not interrupt my beauty sleep! (Although I’m sure they were already a planning an early night for all the athletes).

The rooming situation was unique to say the least. We ended up with all four senior ladies in one room. I wouldn’t have changed it for anything in the world. We were able to support each other in such a unique way by all being together. And I have no idea how that room stayed so clean and organized with four girls and all our luggage. Picture less than 200 square feet, 4 single beds, baggage galore, and a lot of heat and humidity. Plus, only 1 bathroom; seriously we had amazing chemistry as a group of ladies.

What was only a three-day trip seemed a lot longer, and not in a negative way (you know those trips where you’re wishing your life away). I made some great friends, met a lot of amazing people, ran a race, played on the beach, and got to see a small glimpse of a really cool part of the world, although not the safest part! We did so much as a team in three days that it just felt like so much longer. And as I sit here the day leaving the team, I miss them already.

IMG_9114-2After putting our toes in the ocean, doing our shakeouts, getting some food, and
less water in us than we wanted, the four of us crawled into bed in our little ‘suite.’ While there must have been some muttering (four young women in a room, of course there is chatter), but I think the sleeping beauties were down and out for the count within minutes.

Pre-Race Day
On Thursday we were taken to the course for an inspection. We loaded on the bus as a team and headed over to a golf course, in a town just west of Nagaita, called Carabellada. We organized ourselves under a tree while we waited to find out where our tent was. The team was really fortunate that our brave (IT) therapy team decided to run in the masters race. It was the best feedback we could have received. It also really prepared us for how hot it was really going to be (sorry Chris and Carolyn you looked a little worse for wear after having run in that heat, but thanks for showing us how bad it really was!).

What was the course like? I was blown away by how awesome it was. Twisty. Turny. Hilly. Lots of different types of terrain, thick grass, dust, sand, rocks, roots… basically all of the things that make for an excellent cross-country course. Plus, it had two water stations along the way! I knew it was going to make for a great race the next morning.

Race Day
Race time was 10:40 on Friday. I had convinced myself that the temperature was going to be 20 degrees. I was relying on information from my phone, which was for a town about 20km away, (20km if you bored directly through a mountain!). Needless to say it was not 20 degrees when we stepped up to the line.

When we arrived at the race site the junior women were doing their final preparations before their race started. Spiked up they had doused themselves in water and ice to try to keep their core temperatures down. Their run as a team was super inspiring. They went out conservatively, ran as a pack of 6, and with 2k/1 lap to go they put the hurt on all the other competitors. Watching Branna and Maddie go 1-2 in the junior women’s race was so inspiring (it also put the pressure on!).

I started my warm up at 10:00am with my teammates, Laura, Lisa and Julie-Anne. With the rising heat I knew I would only need about 7 minutes to build a bit of a sweat. My drills and strides were going to be the crucial element. My goal was to try to keep my core temperature in that sweet spot, just warm enough I was ready to go, but not over heating.

My goal for the beginning of the race was to channel my inner-Rachel Hannah and go out conservatively. Luckily for me the race went out conservatively and I tucked myself in behind people. I wanted to do as little work as possible and let others control the race.

My second goal to conserve as much energy as possible was to run the ups and down efficiently, take every tangent, and run the corners with as little effort as possible. And to get as much fluid in and on me at the water stations. For the most part I was able to do that. In the first two laps (of five) it was tough to take the corners exactly as I wanted, there were just too many of us bunched together.

Around 5k the pace picked up and I knew it was going to be a game of attrition; who could survive the pace and the heat. Again I stuck to my race plan and tried to hide behind people as much as possible. Feeling pretty good I kept my focus on feeling like my core temperature was not rising and keeping the leaders within striking distance.

Through the 6k mark, the fourth lap, I had noticed a decrease in the lead pack. I let the Peruvian woman take the lead and sat in behind her. Somewhere on the back of the of that fourth lap I started to feel warm, ok hot! Knowing I had about 3k to go I focused on not letting it get to me and staying with the leaders.

Just before the bell lap, the American, Allison Morgan took off. I tried to go with her and started to fall back; and here I made a tactical error. Sitting in the 2-3 spot with the Venezuelan I sat back and tucked in behind her. I was going to let her do the work to the uphill and decided that was where I would go if I felt ok.

Here is why I know I made a tactical error. I went up and over the last hill and my legs did not go lacticy. I knew I was feeling ok and really let myself take off on the downhill. I also noticed at this point that the gap between the American and I was no longer increasing. Had I just stayed with her…

I dug my heels in and pushed the pace as hard as I could. Through 9k I reminded myself ‘you can do anything for three and half minutes, just go.’ I saw Coach Lynn as I crested the last gradual hill and I channeled all of her energy as I tried to real that American gal back in.

Coming into the finish grandstand area I could hear Chris and the all the junior athletes cheering for me. I dug in as much as I could to get the American girl. Unfortunately, it was just not enough; but for my first international cross-country event, I will take a silver medal.

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I have to mention my teammate Lisa. I am not going to say Lisa had the race of her life, that would not do justice to how well her training is going. Lisa is just coming into her ‘race-self’ and is showing the world what she can do. Lisa finished fifth, was second on our team, and is proving she’s got the goods to be a great racer.

The other two gals were a little more affected by the heat. Laura and Julie-Anne fought valiantly until the end. We ran as a team, we podium’d as a team, and we did a great job at showing the world what Canadians are made of.

I cannot thank the coaches, therapists, and manager enough. I had some really great laughs with all of them, but I also really appreciated getting to know them. Chris saved me. You can imagine that a tight IT and sore knee really didn’t like flying that long. He got it loosened up and made it feel like the injury wasn’t an issue while running – I can tell you that while he was working in my hip, I could tell it was tight (holy shnike that hurt!). And, so sorry Gillian that you really had to get to know me (thank you doping control).

For a first international cross-country event it was amazing. I loved the magic of it all, the unknown, and battling the elements thrown at us. I was inspired by my teammates and IST. I can’t wait to do it again one day.