A day when we are all champions: The .US 12k Championships, by Max Lockwood

Molly Huddle photo courtesy of USA Track & Field

The .US 12k Championships was held this past Sunday, November 16, 2014. For the second year in a row, the .US champs were held in Alexandria, Virginia, on a cold, fall day. 

Molly Huddle defended her 12 k championships and ended an amazing year of racing on both the road and the track. This writer hopes, no, implores Molly Huddle to stay on the track and roads, and hold off from the marathon path for at least another year. 

Brian Schrader won the men's title in the last desperate steps. The NAU athlete is showing how much promise he has so early in his career. 

We asked Max Lockwood to write this piece about the 12k championships. 

The USATF 12K Championships; A day when all are champions.

Sundays are  usually a day for taking it easy and sleeping late. This past Sunday, however,  I woke up at the crack of dawn, to run and cover the 12k USATF championship running race in downtown Alexandria, VA.  

I was reminded of the amount of dedication, energy and sheer extra effort that is involved and needed to train for and run road races.  There is the going to bed early, eating right, refraining from any alcohol and or partying and of course, getting a solid sleep.  That all must be considered when taking on this activity.  Remember this, if anyone ever makes some comment speaking about what a waste of time running is or what is such a big deal, it is just running. 

The answer has just been provided.

Upon motivating myself to get my coffee, clothes and other items on and prepared, I ventured out the door, hopped in my car and drove down to the race.  Like many races going on this time of year, the air was cold but not freezing, making the temperature bearable but by no means perfect.  

In other words, goose bumps adorned the skin.  

Getting down to the start line was a piece of cake as the roads going into Alexandria were quiet and easy to navigate.

There was plenty of parking and the volunteers did an outstanding job of shepherding cars to the right spots.  

As I made my way to the race start, I was excited to see so many familiar faces I have come to know over the years. The energy was buzzing and the excitement was certainly brewing. I came to the race to run and write about it and capture it from a runner's perspective as well as a student of the sport.  

As an athlete, I have pride and never want to over analyze a performance. The goal is always to run the race to the best of my ability on that given day.  So, as the race neared and the crowds began to meander to the start line, I started to get excited.   So many familiar faces from year's past were around to say hello and bring some comfort to the pre-race jitters. 

Being a local and running so many races over the years for so long, one comes to really appreciate and enjoy the camaraderie of the other citizen athletes who take time out of their lives to make the sport and the local races successful. 

As for race logistics and just getting the things set up, USATF did a fantastic job.  The race start was well positioned the course marshals and organizers were abundant and available, there were more than enough porta-potties, and the race announcers did a great job getting people to the start line well on time.

A nice feature about this particular race, of course, was the fact that  world-class athletes were running it alongside local recreational athletes.  So, we had this wonderful mix of old and young, talented and less-talented, fit and fast and slow and somewhat fit. The whole thing was a nice snapshot of what is really great about the running community. 

How many other events do we see professional athletes sharing space and a race with local runners who, though dedicated, are not close to earning a paycheck through it? 

The answer is very few if any.

Once at the start line, the race becomes something other as the anticipation begins to grow, the runners become focused and this sort of stealth like silence takes over.

Well, this race was no different as the Elite women were off in the first wave. Then,  the Elite men started,  and then the Masters and all the locals.  It went off beautifully, and as with all races, at the beginning, there is always this sort of powerful thrust of energy where everyone goes out with an intense and robust thrust into the streets before them.  

This race was no different.

As with all races, I began with a hard charge and then tried to settle into a rhythm.  At this point, the lungs and legs are still not fully engaged and so, momentum is the driver.  I love this initial effort. It is at this point that I feel powerful and the run is rather effortless. 

Of course, like with everything in life, the honeymoon never lasts. As the race progressed, some of the fatigue in the legs began to present itself.  For the first two miles, I felt great and never went into an anaerobic state where the cardiovascular system begins to labor. I could tell early on, that either as a result of the cold or something else, the hips were a bit tight and my gait was not as fluid as I would like it to have been.  Regardless, this is part of being an athlete and I am sure many others were dealing with their own little aches and tweaks.

As the race progressed I tried to settle into a groove that allowed me to run smoothly without getting sloppy, while also maintaining pace. As many of you probably know this is not easy.  My mind and soul beckoned me to run faster but my legs/hips and overall mechanics were just not having it.  As a result, I needed to shorten the stride a bit and tuck it in, content to run slightly slower and more comfortable pace.  Always one to take in the other athletes,  I spied the legendary Joan Benoit Samuelson among the local treasures, all putting their passion and energy to the test and braving the roads.  It was almost surreal really, as the feet were pitter-pattering and the heads and shoulders were bobbing to a beat so unique and all their own. 

It was quite special.

As the Elite runners, our very best on the national spotlight, came at us from the opposite direction, their legs and bodies moving with an effortless ease. I took in the great moment and realized that regardless of one's speed, on race day, we are all putting forth the greatest expenditure of effort and passion our bodies will allow. Our pain and our overall energy expenditure is one hundred percent equal.

At about the 8k mark I noticed my leg speed began to decrease and no matter how much I grimaced and tried to will the body to do exceptional things, it would not respond. And so, I allowed my pace to slow a bit and was gradually passed by a few of my competitors.  Maybe in years past this would have bothered me, but perhaps, due to wisdom or maturity or just becoming mellower, I was not discouraged and waved them on.  On race day, there is no shame in losing to others, so long as you give it your all,  and this is where I was.  

As the race began to conclude we made a turn onto the flat heading towards the finish.  It is on this final part of the race journey, when there is a burn in the legs and lungs and a sense of urgency captures the spirit.  We sort of all go into a crazed state,  that is hard to explain or even comprehend as we are all moving fast and trying to move even faster while at the same time thinking we are slowing down due to the amount of pain and sheer will power being presented.  It is quite awful and yet, powerfully intoxicating.

I ended up finishing the race in just over 47 minutes, which is not what I wanted but not bad.  I am just beginning to incorporate more disciplined speed-work into my training vs. just running and my hope is that this will pay off huge dividends come Spring.

After the race I was honored to join in a brief cool down with some of the top masters runners around ,including Phillippe Rolly, Steve Kartalia and Dave Berardi.  Running and talking with experienced and highly accomplished masters runners is always a treat simply because they have been with the sport for so long and truly love it. They really appreciate that the sport has given them so much and have had such a long and tenuous affair with it to appreciate the various ups and downs many meaningful relationships must endure. So, this meeting was no different,  and stories were shared along with some good laughter and supportive words of encouragement.

After the cool down I went over to the awards ceremony were the various athletes were being honored.   The first to be honored were the Elite women.   Molly Huddle, the current star of the women's running circuit, continued her dominating ways as she took the lead early on and won by a solid 13 seconds over a fellow Providence Road Island athlete, Emily Sisson.  After the ceremony, I had the pleasure of chatting with Emily Infeld, the 6th women's finisher and Elaina Balouris, the 5th.  Infeld, a former Georgetown Star and now professional runner, spoke with a smile and sense of graciousness.... simply saying. "I did OK and of course, I wanted to do better but overall I am pleased."  In a similar vein, Balouris, a young and very talented 22-year-old fresh out of college who is training with the BAA in Boston, expressed the same sentiment....  " I ran as hard as I could and am really excited to have been able to maintain and stay so close to the lead pack.  I mean I was running with Olympians out there and just that alone is worth the effort and experience."  

After the women received their awards the Elite men came up to receive theirs. 

Unlike, the women's race, the men's went down to the wire and the winner was not determined until the final sprint.  And what a finish it was!  

Brian Schrader, an accomplished college athlete with great talent and potential for sure, came to the race as a relative unknown and was not expected to be up there near the leaders but as the old saying goes...."Anything can happen on game day" and not only did Schrader win against stellar competition but he broke a long standing American record held by Steve Spence for the 12K.   His 34:10 time is now the standard to beat for this unique distance.   Diego Estrada finished just one second behind and Aaron Braun two seconds, to make it a very tight and compelling one, two, three finish. 

The really great thing about having such a stellar field and competitive race is that they all pushed each other to run their best for the distance and of course, capture the US 12k record.  So, while the man of the hour is Schrader, one might say that the top five or six, all running together for much of the race, got the record.   

After the race Schrader still could not believe his victory. 

Here is an excerpt from a USATF press release.  USATF press release  "I'm pretty speechless. I just tried to stay in contention with guys like Diego and Aaron. I think I just got lucky at the end. I have indoor eligibility left (at Northern Arizona), so that's what is next for me. I've never even made NCAA Outdoors before, so I'm still kind of in shock about today. I haven't won a race in a while. Never run a 10K or a 12K before."

As I walked about and spoke with the athletes I was truly impressed with their candor, sense of respect for one another and the sport and their humility.  Back at the hotel, where the warmth and coziness of the lobby seemed to attract runners and spectators alike, I noticed a tall and lanky athlete, Jim Spizak, a young and talented runner from Pittsburg.   I walked over and we began to chat about the race. Spizak, who is not currently signed to any running shoe company and is working for True Runner, a specialty-running store in Pittsburg, loves to run and the sport and is just happy to take part in these events.  Says Jim, " I really did not know what to expect coming into the race. I mean, there were some really legit athletes out there.  I had never run a race of this distance before and so, I did not know what to expect.  I hung in their with the lead pack until 8k or so when things started to spread out and the lead pack moved ahead.  I am not sure if I could have gone with them but overall, I am happy with my performance." 

In summary, I will say that this was a really fulfilling race for so many of the reasons mentioned in this article.  We had such a mix of experience, purpose, talent and expectation sharing the same road, running hard and competing and enjoying a wonderful race experience. Not too many other sports can boast this shared journey where athletes of all abilities, talents, and walks of life simply cast aside their resumes, toe the line and give it all they have and then walk away with a smile and sense of accomplishment.

To learn more about the USATF, the championship races they sponsor and to become a member, please go to their website at www.USATF.org.  The get results from the race go to http://www.national12k.us/Results.aspx

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