The Icy Path to Foot Locker Nationals
“Foot Locker or NXN?”
A seemingly perennial question for any successful high school cross country runner in recent years. Both events are opportunities for the country’s best to come together to compete and determine who the very best are.
However, the first cross country races of the season begin around early September, and the regional races for Foot Locker and NXN aren’t until the very end of November, and the national championship races aren’t until the first or second weeks of December.
Which means a long season, and for me in the northeast, it means a cold season.
For me, the decision was Foot Locker. The history and prestige of such a small field of just 40 boys, along with it being in the warm San Diego weather, was appealing to me. However, that means the qualification course would be Van Cortlandt Park in New York City, and that course is evil. I had run it a year earlier, my sophomore year, completely unprepared and I had gotten absolutely dropped.
To train for the northeast regional race, I increased my mileage and started to do hill work daily. Along with my school work, I became so worn down by early November that I was falling asleep on the floor after I layed down to do core each day following my run.
Each run was in 30 degree weather sometimes with freezing rain, and it was inevitable that I would get sick, I just hoped it would hold out until after the race I had spent so many painful hours prepping for. However, a week before my most anticipated race I had ever run, I got sick, and as any runner knows, it is impossible to feel good, train hard, and peak while you are sick.
In the northeast cold, I couldn’t shake it.
On November 30th, I showed up to the course on a freezing cold day — as expected — but I felt worse than I ever had before a race in the warm-up. I went to the line feeling like all of the work that I had done may have been useless.
The course begins with a flat mile on grass, directly into a mile-and-a-half of brutal roller coaster hills. I went into the woods after the mile with the front group, but I was working, not what I wanted before the brutal hills had even begun. Halfway through, I thought, realistically, that I was out of it, my body had been in so much oxygen debt so early, that lactic acid was building… fast. I began to count those in front of me, and it was much more than the 10 that I needed to be within.
Despite all of this pain and worry, I told myself “Just don’t quit, you never know what might open up.”
I locked in, and I began to go by guys, one after another, and by the bridge I had passed about five guys. I was in some of the worst pain of my life, and the last thousand meters hadn’t even begun. I was congested and couldn’t physically breathe enough to recover on the downhills.
It felt as if someone had put me on a treadmill at 12 miles an hour with a pillow over my face, and they decided to cruelly mess with the incline.
I came over the bridge back towards the finish and thought I had absolutely nothing left. Observers of the race were counting the people aloud, and I heard “13!” That update made me feel pretty good, but there was work left to do. I passed 6 people in the last 500 meters and went beyond any mental barrier I had ever felt. In the last 100 meters I passed one more guy feeling pretty comfortable about my position, but then the announcer said “10!”
It was me.
I don’t know who didn’t learn their integers back at the bridge, but I had just barely gotten into the top 10, and I was euphoric. I immediately collapsed into the tent along with the other nine finalists, and only then did I realize what had happened.
In a typical Foot Locker Northeast race, the winning time is around 15:30 to 15:35. To be in the top-10, one should aim for around 15:55. However, I ran 15:34 and I was tenth. The race was won in 15:17 by Patrick Anderson — a western PA guy — and the ten of us were pretty condensed. Not to mention being followed by the 11th place finisher, who finished 6 seconds behind me.
I was shocked. I didn’t expect this year to produce faster times than legendary northeast runners such as Edward Cheserek and Matthew Centrowitz had run. However, this year’s northeast team produced some of the best guys I’ve ever met.
Three PA boys, two talented Connecticut sophomores, three New Jersey guys, and two more impressive seniors from New England. For me, coming from my independent school league in Pennsylvania, I had forgotten what it felt like to feel terrible during a race and to get absolutely dropped in the hills. It was good for me.
Then came Foot Locker Nationals, and it was incredible. The weekend feels almost like a vacation, and the connections made with the other athletes has proved invaluable. It brought us into a new circle of runners, changing what the rest of my junior year would look like. In warm and sunny San Diego on the beach, it was a great break from December in Philadelphia.
However, from a running perspective, I was still sick, and my training had been smothered for the previous couple of weeks as a result. By the time the race came around, I was not healthy or ready, and I finished 31st, and got crushed, but I was just happy to be there.
The weekend as a whole was incredible, the professional athletes and other high school athletes made it unforgettable, and the immense pain from that cold and windy day at Van Cortlandt Park was all worth it.
ROBERT DIDONATO — GERMANTOWN ACADEMY
5K (XC): 15:15.1
2019 FOOT LOCKER NATIONALS QUALIFIER
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