In case you hadn't heard yet, rabbit PRO Rachel Schilkowsky placed 9th at the 2018 USATF Cross Country Championships last weekend and earned her spot on Team USA for the NACAC XC Championships which take place on February 17th in El Salvador!! We are so excited and proud of Rachel. And we are so excited to share this multi-part blog series from Rachel sharing her experience at XC Nationals and representing Team USA. Here is part I:
My decision to compete at the 2018 USATF Cross Country Championships in Tallahassee, FL was kind of spur of the moment. The race took place on February 3rd. I booked my flights on January 17th. Though this particular USATF Championship had been on my radar since last summer, after months of struggling with a nagging hamstring injury this past fall, I had all but written it off. You see, when your training over the last 6 months looks like a sine wave, it’s hard to think you’ll be ready for your local 5k let alone an actual National Championship.
But for some reason, after only a few weeks of decent workouts in early January, a tiny flame of hope began to burn inside me. Maybe I CAN do this. Maybe I should at least try. After all, what do I have to lose?
Going into the race my plan was pretty simple: go out with the lead pack and try to hang on as long as possible. I knew that, given my current lack of speed, my strength was all I could really count on. I wasn’t going to be able to drop a blazing fast last mile and run people down; I was going to need to grind it out. Whatever place I started the race in was likely as high as I was going to finish.
My ultimate goal was to qualify for the NACAC XC Championships and, in doing so, make my first ever Team USA. Though I knew they only took six people to the NACAC XC Championships, I was hopeful that a least a couple of the girls who would undoubtedly finish in front of me would decline their spots. With that in mind, I figured that aiming to be somewhere in the Top 10 would at least put me in the conversation.
I was oddly confident as I made my trip down to Florida. Sure, the fall had been a huge disappointment and I had still experienced some hiccups in my training over the last month, but I had had some pretty great workouts in the last few weeks. I had proven to myself that I was strong, both physically and mentally. Though it would be incredibly difficult, I thought for sure I could hang onto the lead pack for at least part of the race and the gut my way through the rest.
However, life had other plans for me. When I woke up the morning of the race, I felt off. Not sore. Not tired. Just, flat. I felt completely and unequivocally NOT ready to race. It was frustrating and disappointing but, when I objectively thought about it, totally unsurprising. I hadn’t truly raced in over four months.
My last real race had been on September 30th – a local 5k that turned into an all-out dual when another prominent New England runner drove nearly two hours to try and snag the rather hefty course record cash bonus. Since then I had competed in four races, but had not actually raced any of them. Three were done as tempo runs – one of which I wound up having to drop out of. The fourth was the USATF Club XC Championships in December where my sole goal was to be a solid #4 for my team. Accomplishing that meant chilling for the first 3k and then picking it up the second half, effectively ensuring that I didn’t blow up and cost us a spot on the team podium. On top of that, I had been training almost entirely on my own the past four months, and therefore didn’t even have the experience of being pushed by someone else in workouts to draw on.
As the morning of the race drew on, my flatness persisted. I felt flat on my shake-out and again on my warmup. I felt flat as I did my strides. I even felt flat as I walked to the bathroom. When the gun went off and the flatness followed me across the field, I knew I needed a new race plan. At 800m I was running 5:20 pace and was already getting dropped by the front pack of 8 women. So I made a decision. I swallowed my pride and settled into the chase pack. As much as I wanted to be racing with those top women, and although I knew that I would be ready to do so very soon, I knew I wasn’t ready to do it quite yet.
Instead I chose to try and win the race for 9th place. I told myself that, if anybody tried to bridge the gap or make a move, I would go with them. By the time we finished the first 3k loop, the chase pack had dwindled to a tight quartet. After an opening (mostly downhill) mile of 5:26, my little pack had settled into around 5:40 pace. Given that we were running over grass, up and down hills, and around tight turns, this was still a respectable pace. At that pace I felt much more comfortable and in control. I was definitely working, but I was within myself. Looking back, this was exactly the type of race I needed to get back into the swing of things. If I had gone out with the lead pack, I would have been red-lining it from the get go and would not have been racing so much as simply hanging on for dear life. In the chase pack, where the pace was maybe a little slower than I thought I might be able to handle, I was able to really focus on myself and practice the art of racing.
I practiced settling in behind people during windy stretches – something that, much to my college coach’s dismay, I seemed incapable of doing (I was always THAT person who needed to be on the front line). I practiced throwing in little surges on uphills and around turns to try and shake people, a tactic that is often used against me but that I rarely employ and have yet to master. I practiced mental strength tactics, like taking the race one loop at a time and compartmentalizing all the things I was feeling. You’re breathing a little hard right now, but your legs still feel good. Focus on taking long, powerful strides while you get your breathing under control.
A little after the 6k mark, the two other girls remaining in the chase pack got the slightest bit of a step on me. For a moment, I went to a dark place. I thought to myself, “This is it. This is where you fall apart and get dropped. Your training has been so sporadic over the last few months, and now it’s going to show.”But just a few steps later, I pushed those thoughts from my mind. “No. You’re not doing this. You did not fly all the way down here to get 11th. You’re going to stay with these girls for another loop and keep yourself in it. Just get yourself to 8k, and then see what happens.”
So that’s what I did. I pulled back up alongside the pair and hung tough. And sure enough, when we came through 8k with one 2k loop remaining, I found my second wind. I was certainly working hard by that point, but I still felt remarkably in control. I began to push, my confidence growing with each step. I had kept myself in it, and now it was time to throw down. With a little less than a mile to go, it was just me and another woman. Despite the fact that it seemed I had at least locked up a Top 10 finish, the sense of urgency inside me only grew. With no way of definitively knowing who from among the women in front of us (if any) would decline their NACAC spots, I knew I needed to fight for every last place. My absolute worst fear was that, thinking I was out of contention, I would give up a place late in the race only to discover afterwards that the person who beat me actually ended up making the team.
The woman running beside me, who I had noted had remained incredibly calm and steady throughout the race, was relentless. When I tried to make a move around the 9k mark, she instantly responded and even threw in a surge of her own. I realized I needed a plan. I needed to wait until the right moment, and then make one final, definitive move. With a little over 400m to go, there was a hill. ‘The Wall’ they called it. We had traipsed up it three times already and, although it hadn’t seemed that bad before , I knew that this late in the race, it was going to live up to its name. That is where I’ll make my move.
So I settled in behind her single file. And I waited. I felt like some sort of animal, like a cheetah waiting to pounce on its prey. I felt antsy. The closer and closer we got to the hill, the more anxious I became. After what felt like an eternity (but was really only a few minutes), we reached the base of the hill. Instantly I swung out wide and surged upwards. I thought back to all the hilly runs John and I had done around our neighborhood in Providence and was immensely grateful. By the time I reached the top, I had put a few steps on her, but I knew I was not out of the woods yet. The finish was a straight and downhill but deceptively long stretch. If I wanted to hold the ground I had fought so hard to gain, I needed to push all the way to the line. So I leaned forward, opened up my stride and barreled down the slope. I even ‘went to the arms’, as John likes to put it, during the final 100m.
I crossed the finish line in 35:49 to take 9th – 2.9 seconds ahead of 10th and 5.6 seconds ahead of 11th.
I had done it. I had gotten Top 10.
But unfortunately I did not yet know if I had achieved my other goal.
For that, I would have to wait.