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The Advantage of Staying On Your Feet

The Advantage of Staying On Your Feet
Or: The Slog and the Fury of the 2017 USATF Cross Country National Championships

by Scott Knackstedt 

photography by Rob Kerr 

The grains of bauxite-red pumice rattled through the flooring and beneath our feet of my old Subaru. The SUV ahead, too, did its part to shower my hood and windshield with these tiny abrasives that, for their part, served to mitigate the threat of sliding off the heavily snowed highway. Having started the trip in Seattle hours earlier, braving the daily disarray of Tacoma traffic, the monotony of the south Washington I-5 corridor, and the hour-long blizzard through Government Camp on Highway 26, we had at last arrived in the high desert of central Oregon. It was the final hour of February 3rd and the night before the 2017 USATF Cross Country National Championships.

Two of my teammates  – Rob Schlegel and Reed Breuer – joined me earlier as I passed through Portland, where we first feasted on pre-race burritos before confronting the adverse driving conditions ahead. Rob McLauchlan and Tyler King were waiting for us in Bend, having arrived hours earlier. The five of us were the small team fielded from the much larger Jacuzzi Boys Athletic Club (JBAC, henceforth), a sinuous mélange of mostly former collegiate runners who, by and large, inhabit a dense orbit around Portland. I am a Seattle satellite, but there is a constellation of JBAC shooting stars streaking through Arizona, New York, and other fortunate parts of the country. The JBAC’s gravity has even roped in a few non-Americans, but we all share an ambition and thoughtfulness to our athleticism, facing sport and life with a countenance that is equal parts lively zeal and breezy stoicism.

Saturday arrived and, as our race was not until 2:20 in the afternoon, we managed our pre-race routines with a faint and palpable nervous apathy. Many of us were unsure of our fitness for the national meet and, although we saw this as the incredible experience that it was, we still had to whittle away the tedium. Timing light meals, going for easy shake-outs, and making full use of stationary toilets with two-ply paper can occupy a restless runner much longer than should be permissible but, eventually, it was time to lace up.

The race was held at the River’s Edge Golf Course and at first blush it would seem that the directors held a deep and abiding aversion to level ground. The 2K loop upon which all of the day’s races were composed was a serpentine acclivity, as if it were first conceptualized by pouring maple syrup on an uneven pile of pancakes. The weather, too, though ideal by objective standards had done its part in weeks past to conspire against the day’s competitors. Well over a foot of aging snow blanketed the terrain and, although a path had been cleared, the 45° temperature fomented a silent deluge of snowmelt to permeate the course. Aggressively tenderized from the five earlier races, the senior men’s 10K was predestined to be a slog.

Teams of all stripes and colors were there, from the squads fielded by the armed forces, local clubs of scrappy amateurs (like us), to the clutch of professional harriers who have the legitimate physical aptitude to qualify and represent our country at the world championships in Kampala next month. One such runner was the indomitable Scott Fauble. A standout at the University of Portland, Scott has since become the cornerstone of HOKA NAZ Elite team, finishing third at the XC championships in Edinburgh (behind Garrett Heath and Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah) and fourth at the US Olympic trials in the 10K last season. Today, his soul-piercing blue eyes were overshadowed by a mustache that, should it have become sentient, could have out-dueled any contender from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. He’s also a founding member of the Jacuzzi Boys.

I spoke with him about how his training had been, and he noted that he and his equally mustachioed colleagues were in a good place for a strong performance. They had focused on aggressive hill training in the run-up to this race, acquainting themselves with the slopes of Sedona through a combination of imperious fartleks and the sort of long runs that can remind you that, no matter how in shape you are, there’s always something to challenge you. He noted, too, the advantage that they had training at altitude in Flagstaff. Most runners had to come up to Bend’s 3,600-foot height; the HOKA crew descended from their home at 7,000. The surface was another animal, though, and he knew that the day’s mud was not something anyone could properly prepare for.

He was right. Seconds after the gun fired there were no longer any dry feet in the race.  A few optimists took to employing exaggerated strides in futile efforts to land on what was perceived to be dry land, but the sodden earth was unforgiving. We funneled from the start onto the slopes of the course and, during a brief descent, the first handful of runners began to fall. Neither artful nor well-managed, these crashes were the kind where a sense of unexpected loss of control rears itself as panic in the frantic moment before impact. Once on the ground, the discomfort of the mud below would initially play second fiddle to threat of spikes from above.

My first fall didn’t arrive until the third lap.  Rob, Reed, and I were close at the 2K, coming through in the 7:20s, with Tyler and our other Rob ahead of us by 15 and 25 seconds, respectively. Scott was a minute ahead of the JBAC, running in the lead pack with Chris Derrick, Trevor Dunbar, and Olympians Leonard Korir and Shadrack Kipchirchir, giving the crowd what they came here to see. For me, though, it was during the second lap when the first consideration of not finishing the race entered my thoughts. Yes, I was wet and muddy – those were manageable discomforts – but the unrelenting hills and what I’d like to think was the altitude (but was likely my own less-than-ready tier of fitness) was quickly eroding my confidence.

 I have never dropped out of a race before, but this course was hellbent on seeing just how much pain I could tolerate before I would be forced to reverse that claim. When I fell on the backstretch during the sixth kilometer it was a slide on my ass.  One lap later – another two kilometers of burning thighs, ebbing morale, and greater separation from my teammates – the next fall was far more dramatic. I fell forward that time, sliding penguin-style and colliding with the snowdrift as the course turned, feeling the prick of bark slivers embedding into my shoulder and knee. Had resignation to my suffering not already settled in, that fall could have been a turning point. Detachment had already taken up residence in my consciousness, though, and I was going to finish this godforsaken race.

Elsewhere on the course, Scott was confronting similar challenges.  By and large he had run evenly – his 2K splits were 6:11, 6:06, 6:08, and 6:08 through the 8K – but early into his fifth lap he took a fall.  He lost some ground on Derrick and Dunbar, but his strength promptly availed and put him back on their heels.  Entering into his final kilometer, however, he fell once more, hitting harder.  Mason Ferlic, who saved his fastest lap for last, blew past as Scott fought to regain his footing and stride. His father and coach were waiting at the top of the final hill, yelling at him to let it rip and he lit up with what fire was left to kick for a finish in the top ten.

Minutes later I followed suite, mustering what little force remained to cross the line.  Rob and Reed were there waiting for me, both looking beat but not broken. Tyler was not far away, exuding an unexpected cheerfulness, while our other Rob was missing as we arranged for a team picture. I felt bad for saving my slowest 10K for the national championships. I can accept my shortcomings for the race, but I felt as if I let the JBAC down. We all have those races when the pieces just don’t come together, when paces aren’t sustainable, when you can’t respond to the challenge, and when more than just laces untie.

I found Scott later, spangled with bits of the course like the rest of us, and spoke with him about his race and that final kilometer. With a curt laugh he remarked that with this race “staying on your feet is pretty advantageous.” He said, “I was already in the hurt locker and then to lose my momentum and get caught by Ferlic was devastating. That last K was almost certainly the most pain I have endured in a race in a long time. Maybe ever.” Scott is not one to throw superlatives around lightly and I felt that I harbored at least a small frame of reference for what he had endured. He continued, “ I just kept telling myself that I could take more; it was almost a desperate curiosity that I embraced in order to give myself a chance to catch up. I wasn't able to but I think that I certainly found a way to go deeper into the well than I have previously been able to take myself.”

We wrapped up our time on the course and made our way back to a warm shower, clean clothes, and dry shoes. As each of us recounted our experiences about the race, Reed, who was reviewing the early results as the trickled, suddenly exclaimed that our team had made the podium. Scott, with his strength, determination, and leadership, helped cinch the HOKA NAZ Elite team victory.  Chris Derrick and his Bowerman TC crew captured second. The JBAC took third.  

It is not uncommon that big races can leave you with some important life lesson, or at least an affirmation of something that you had a sense was true but needed to experience personally – to feel the fire and fight the slog for it to be written onto your heart. Despite his falls, despite being passed, Scott was awarded the final spot to represent the US in the world championships. For us, we later found out that we would have tied with the fourth place team were it not for an important factor that broke it: we had five runners finish the race. They only had four.  

Sometimes you have to embrace a desperate curiosity. Sometimes you find a way to go deeper into the well. And sometimes just staying on your feet is advantageous.

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