It's a challenge. But it's so rewarding.
State championships provide an opportunity for athletes to finish their seasons off on a high note. The competition is sometimes the best you'll see all season. The conditions are great...the temperature has dropped considerably.
In most states, athletes will set a new personal best at the state meet.
But not in Tennessee.
In the Volunteer State, you're not only racing against the competition...you're racing against Steeplechase.
From the start, the footing is suspect. The first quarter mile represents exactly what you're going to see throughout the entire 5K course: rolling hills, soft footing and a slight angle that makes things uncomfortable. As you head around the first tunnel of trees and take a sharp left turn up the first hill, you can feel the hurt a bit earlier than usual.
Steeplechase is starting its battle.
Four years ago, I ran this meet for the final time. I loved Steeplechase. It presented an opportunity to out-will and outwork an opponent over one of the countless hills.
It made things interesting.
The first mile is up and down, finishing with a long and gradual uphill. As you cross the first mile marker and hear your split called out, it can be a bit surprising.
"Did I really just run THAT slow?"
Or, even worse...
"That's a lot faster than I was supposed to be at this point..."
If your response is the latter, good luck. Steeplechase may get the best of you in the final two miles. That being said, mile two presents an opportunity to move up and use the course to your advantage.
The second mile at steeplechase is the only one where your split is going to be faster than it usually is. The long downhill on the second inner loop allows you to pick up some steam. And then you glide down a gradual quarter mile downhill to the fence, where flatter land awaits you next to Old Hickory Boulevard.
That single strip of flat, straight land is as smooth as Steeplechase gets. And that flat stretch catapults you into a brutal final mile.
At this point, all bets are off. You're only thinking about the finish line and all of those workouts in the summer are coming back to you. In the final mile, the footing gets worse. You're running on a slant for much of the final kilometer. You go up...and then back down...and then there's the final 200 meters.
As a runner who ran in this meet twice, and as a spectator who's watched and covered state for the past seven years, I can tell you that things get absolutely crazy in this final 200.
If you want to win state, you better win the battles on the final hill.
There's never any moment to relax and coast into the line. That hill adds an extra variable to the equation, and if you slow up on it and someone behind you sees you drift back towards them even a little bit, they could get back in the race.
You may not get the time you want on the first Saturday in November on the toughest course in the area, but you'll find out who competes the hardest.
Cross country at is core is a battle. It's not about the times. It's not about the conditions or even the workouts that have led up to it. It's about maneuvering that course as fast as you can in order to beat the guy or girl next to you.
Because you're not just racing the competition. You're racing Steeplechase.