Race Recap: Cross Country Challenge 8K
Because I’m still a relative newbie to this running business, I continue to cross “firsts” off my running to-do list. Sunday marked my first off-road race, and I can say with certainty it won’t be my last.
I tackled the Cross Country Challenge 8K in Gilberts, Ill., with friends Will and Brian. We arrived early for the 10 a.m. race and headed into a huge barn at Indian Hills Stables to get our packets and sa-weet race schwag (long-sleeve tech shirts and stocking caps with tassels. Score!).
Now, when I signed up for the race in August, I knew a December trail run would come with the potential for some horrendous weather. Snow, ice, wind, cold — the trademarks of a Chicago winter. So all things considered, the race-day weather was manageable: upper-30s with clouds and wind. I opted for capri tights, a long sleeve tech shirt with thumbies and an ear warmer.
As we stayed warm in the car, we marveled at the people duct-taping their shoes on, the overwhelming number of high school cross country teams and the few brave (stupid?) souls who opted to run shirtless. With 10 minutes till the gun, we began walking toward the start line. Little did we know that the start line was more than 10 minutes away. We trekked around the barn, across a field, over the expressway and onto a gravel road. We walked up to the starting area just in time for the gun, and off we went.
Mud and Hills
The first quarter-mile down the gravel road felt wonderful. I started to warm up and patted myself on the back for not overdressing. The course turned to an open field. By the time we made it across and up the first killer hill, both of my feet were soaked and mud-covered. “Well, it was fun while it lasted,” I said.
The course took us through a series of hills, fields and narrow trails over various farm properties. We climbed through wooden fences, held onto trees for balance and did our best not to lose our shoes in an insanely muddy pasture. (At least, I hope that was just mud.)
We did a fair amount of walking because of the slippery conditions and the log-jams created by particularly narrow passes. At one point, an eager (obnoxious?) runner attempted to bypass the line by going off the trail and through the trees. He caught a foot on a downed limb and promptly face-planted. The collective groan of a dozen witnesses likely hurt his pride as much as the fall hurt his knees. (Sucka!)
Creek Crossing Ahead
Somewhere around mile 2, the moment we were all waiting for (dreading?) arrived: the creek crossing. We’d been hearing all morning that it was knee-high water. Will veered a little to the right, spying a potentially shallower section, and waded in. I stopped at the edge, hesitated for a moment, and then went full-steam ahead into the icy water. Yeah, knee-high, my ass. My entire lower body was submerged. My right foot hit the creek bottom hard, and momentarily I felt like I might lose my shoe. But I didn’t, and I successfully forded the creek. I guess all of those years of playing Oregon Trail finally paid off.
We emerged with soaking-wet legs and were greeted by another field. I was thankful for the open space to warm up and run alongside Will and Brian so we could kid about the creek crossing. Brian picked up a pair of discarded gloves (“I’m looking for quality, not quantity.”) A woman in front of us peeled off to throw away her weighed-down sweatpants.
We reached the halfway mark and began the trek home. It wasn’t a true out-and-back, but pretty darn close. And, with an out-and-back course, you know what that means: we had to cross the creek again. It came up quickly, with two lines forming: one more shallow, one more deep. “Eff it, let’s just go for it,” we decided, hopping in line for the deep end.
The drop off to get into the creek was muddy, slick and steep as hell. A rope was tied to trees on either side, which we used to lower ourselves into the water, wade across and pull ourselves back out. My shortness got the better of me again. The frigid, muddy creek came up just below my chest. The shock of the water caused me to go into hysterics. I was laughing so hard, I had a difficult time pulling myself out.
This time, there was no warming up or drying off. From the waist down, I was frozen. It felt like I wasn’t wearing any pants at all. The only remotely warm part of my body was my chest. (The girls were high and dry!) And there was still the matter of about two miles of muddy farmland hills to contend with.
No matter. We forged on, laughing and talking and enjoying every second. Will’s white tech shirt was now black on the bottom half. “I wore white on purpose so I’d look like more of a badass.” Brian’s once-gray shoes were now as black as his tights. We unanimously decided that we have to run this race again next year.
We crossed the giant open field again — this time, into a fiercely cold wind — and turned back onto the gravel road. The finish line was in sight, and I sped off in my usual dash to the finish. Brian took the bait and chased me down, both of us finishing in a dead sprint. High-fives and smiles all around.
Post-Race Fun (and a Fail)
Back at the car (following the uber-long hike back across the freeway and field), changing clothes was a logistical nightmare. I’m pretty sure I mooned half of the parking lot (you’re welcome), and I realized I forgot to bring a clean pair of socks. FAIL.
The post-race spread was delightful. Salad, penne pasta, Chicago-style beef sandwiches, fried chicken and chocolate Oreos (Brian tossed a handful of those babies in his jacket for later. “Pocket cookies!”) Throw in the aforementioned schwag and the badass course, and you’ve got an incredible race bargain for the $45 entry fee.
As we drove back into the city with frozen toes (“Hey, Will, can you put the heat on the feet?”), I realized something significant. For the first time ever, I ran a race without caring one iota about my finish time. Instead, my goals for the day were to have fun, get dirty and avoid falling on my face. Mission accomplished. — Mags