Originally, I had intended on starting my blog from the beginning—of my competitive running days that is. However, the weekend of October 27th, 2018 was so special to myself and my team that I feel it would be foolish not to share with my readers first and foremost.
The morning itself was crisp and cool, with a slight breeze tainting the air. In simpler terms, the conditions were ideal for some fast races. Course conditions were also superb: a tad bit soft, but not quite muddy or slippery. As our mini bus pulled up to Newman Golf Course in Peoria, IL, I felt at ease surprisingly, as I was about to face the toughest challenge of my rookie season: the Missouri Valley Conference Championship.
In the days leading up to the race, my coaches had continuously hyped up the team, claiming that this was the best team they have seen in years. Personally, my coaches persuaded me that I was prepped to earn All-Valley honors, which requires one to place in the top ten. I recall feeling a slight sense of unease at this thought, I was worried about disappointing my coaches. I certainly did not believe that I could possibly be top ten in The Valley and wondered what had gotten into their heads that they thought this!
However, those doubts and negative emotions drained from my body as the team set up camp at the course on race day morning. I looked at the faces of my amazing teammates and realized that it was not me I was racing for: it was for them. All the countless hours and miles built up running, the time spent in the weight room, the extra “little” things we all did to recover after difficult workouts: all of that led up to this very moment. As our coach put it: “All of the hay is in the barn”, meaning that everything that could have been done has already been done. All we needed to do now was trust the training we have put in and have faith in each other. These thoughts comforted me, and I felt a certain weight being lifted off my shoulders.
10:30 A.M.: 5 minutes until race time
Our team huddled close together in a circle of seven women. We united hands as an upper classman led us in prayer, as she does before every meet. Our coaches joined the misshapen circle to offer final words of reassurance. I guarantee that I did not obtain a single word of what was said to us, but I knew I did not need to at this point. All the hay was in the barn.
10:35 A.M.: race time
Silence. Deafening silence.
Suddenly I was engulfed in a herd of runners all gunning for the first turn about 400 meters away. To me, it sounded as if a stampede was making its way through the course. All other noises and distractions faded away until all I could hear was the repetitive pounding of hundreds of feet. A runner to my right shoved me into my teammate on my left. I witnessed another teammate elbow a nearby athlete into the flags lining the course. These women meant business.
I eventually managed to escape to the outside and obtained a better position within the top group. My training partner took off in front of me, aiming for the lead runner. I kept myself in control, hanging back some ways. The pace was quick, no doubt, and I did not want to risk dying later in the race. As the race progressed, I passed by many Redbird supporters, as a large majority of our track team and families came out to support us. I even heard what some of them were yelling at me:
“Eyes up on Audrey, Rachel! Keep your eyes on her!”
“You’ve got help behind you, hang tough!”
"Atta girl keep doing what you need to do!”
My coaches went by in a blur, screaming frantically and jumping around excitedly. At this point, I knew that our team was in the process of doing something amazing: I realized we were having the races of our lives.
With 1,000 meters to go, I caught up to my teammate (Audrey). In catching her, I was able to help her, as we built off each other’s energy and fitness. This was how we trained: together. Thus, it is only appropriate that we race with each other, too. As we approached the finish line, I caught sight of the clock and almost cried tears of joy. We truly were having the race of our lives. I turned at the finish line to hug Audrey as she came across a second after me. We placed 8th and 9th in the MVC, which is exactly what our coaches wanted us to do. The next two Redbird finishers also finished the 5K circuit in under 18 minutes, recording lifetime personal bests and top-20 finishes.
11 A.M.: Post-race reactions
As we relished in the simultaneous pain and joy of what we had accomplished, the team scores were projected on a large monitor nearby. We entered the conference ranked 5th in the MVC, and we ended up in 3rd, a mere ten points behind Loyola who placed second. The coaches were ecstatic and celebrated like we had just won the whole thing. Family, friends, and teammates surrounded us with words of praise and many, many hugs. I somehow managed to make eye contact with coach Bovee and he smiled warmly at me before pulling me into an embrace. He spoke softly of the future and what was to come for me and this team.
The women and I embarked on our cool down jog and recalled the highlights of the race to each other. The day ended with many smiles, laughs, hugs, and even tears of joy. No words can truly describe what it feels like to accomplish a goal, especially a goal that is accomplished together through teamwork, grit, and passion. Go Redbirds!