By Will Geiken

Last year’s cross country circuit ended up being a season-long duel between Scott and I that culminated with my barely holding him off in the points despite his phenomenal race at PA’s. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised that this year’s circuit was equally arduous. However, rather than being a reprise of last fall, this year I found myself sparring with the world’s most handsome runner, the embodiment of all that is good in the world, the one and only "Strongman" Rajpaul Pannu.

Coming into the season, my individual aim was to replicate my experience from last year, where I raced myself into shape and, in doing so, put in enough high finishes to take the circuit while preparing to get after it at Club Cross. I also wanted to ensure that I was doing my part in helping the open men take the team circuit, so getting in five races fit the bill.

With those individual and team goals in mind, and just one workout under my belt, I ran headfirst into the season at Golden Gate Park. There I surprised myself with a fourth place finish in an Aggie sweep. It looked like I was already off to a better start than the previous year. Meanwhile, Raj had already won at Santa Cruz, where the Aggies took the team win; placed second at Empire Open; and placed second at Golden Gate, giving him a significant lead in the circuit.

The next weekend, I set out to defend the individual title at Garin Park, but, as many runners have discovered, Phil is very hard to beat in the last 600m of a race. Finishing second did give me a boost in points though, and the race gave the open men three of the five required team wins.

The following weekend was another course I hoped to defend on, John Lawson, and this time I was able to hammer out a win on the winding turns and small hills. Raj finished close behind in fourth, narrowing his lead to one second place finish’s worth of points and helping give the open men their fourth team win.

Two weeks later I raced at Matt Yeo and was surprised when Paddy O’Leary, a SFRC trail runner who I’d held off on the single track of John Lawson, pulled away from me on the flat dirt track that is the Aggie Open. All credit to Paddy for an impressive race, and, as you will have noted, this left Raj and I tied in the standings. The team battle, however, was over for the regular season, with the open men having taken five wins leading into PA’s.

The stage was set for an individual showdown the following Saturday, where Raj and I went head to head on the hills of San Bruno. With no worries for team standings, this race was strictly for points, and while I ended up edging Raj out for the win, I found that racing for points can be treacherous. In the week between Matt Yeo and San Bruno, I began noticing a minor strain in my abdomen, and while the pain was never severe enough to affect my races, it should have served as a warning that my body was feeling the stress. But, as runners will do when confronted with minor setbacks in the middle of a season, I trained through and hit several more weeks of hard running before PA’s.

Due to the fires, PA’s was pushed from the weekend before Thanksgiving to the weekend after, which meant that I was racing the Silicon Valley Turkey Trot three days before PA’s instead of four days after, but that kind of turn around is generally doable. At the Turkey Trot, I made it through the first mile just off the lead pack and then ran what felt like my maximum effort for the remainder of the race. The result was a bit of a shock though, as my time was significantly slower than I’ve run on more challenging courses. I did my best to just ignore the result, as I needed to be ready for PA’s on Sunday, but, as you probably guessed, Sunday’s race went the same way. When the Aggies around me started racing during the second and third loops, my legs didn’t have the go they had had earlier in the season. I finished 11th, and while the team side of things could hardly have gone better, with Aggies taking the first 11 spots, I was hoping to have been more of a factor than I was. At the end of the day though, all congrats to Raj. He ran a commanding race, and he absolutely deserved the circuit win. He’s also a great teammate and an all-around great person for anyone who followed the Garden Street "beef."

With just two weeks before Club Cross, I dropped to minimal mileage and devoted my efforts to recovery. For the most part, it worked. By the time we got to Spokane, I was feeling close to normal again. Unfortunately, my legs feeling normal didn’t prevent a new pair of spikes from creating a beautiful blister on my right foot, making the many accelerations necessary to run fast in Spokane painful and sapping. It was a fittingly frustrating end to my personal season, but being with teammates and family made for a fun trip all the same. Additionally, a number of Aggies had great days that should be celebrated, including the open women who took fifth place!

Looking at the season, my key takeaway is that I was trying to focus on too many things. I was doing workouts to be fit for a half marathon in January, while wanting to be in peak XC fitness in December, while racing hard in September, October, and November. Complimented by a job that involves walking around for most of the day, I didn’t give my body enough time to recover. To my credit, following a similar plan this past spring had worked out fine, but that may have also played a role in the events of this fall. By the middle of the season I was tired, but we all get tired when training, and I was still hitting the workouts. What I didn’t realize was that I was building up a deficit, the exact nature of which I’m still not entirely sure of, and I ended up paying that deficit the week of Thanksgiving. I approached that week as bullheadedly as I was approaching the season, thinking, "I’m going to race twice, and the only thing that can stop me is me." Sure enough, what stopped me was me, and I was forced to self-evaluate in the days leading up to Club Cross, which is never where you want to be in championship season.

It would be dishonest for me to say that I’m content having learned a valuable lesson and moving on from here. The truth is that I’m disappointed (not in the team, we took the PA circuit and saw some solid performances this fall); just in me. However, I know that it won’t do me any good to hold on to that feeling for long, so I’ll be doing my best to drop that and get on with running. After all, I’m still alive, I’m still having fun, and there’s a big race in Houston coming up…

As always, thank you to the many fantastic people in my life who love and support me. It’s a privilege to be able to run, and, even with the ups and downs of racing, I’m repeatedly impressed by how much I have to be thankful for.

USATF Club XC Nationals