NIRCA Nationals Recap, 2018
There are endings. That knowledge itself is the first transition from infancy into life, the concept that what is might not be at some point. There are endings and we all know it, and though we spend acres of time traversing across meadows and muddy fields, we know an ending is out there, somewhere. There are endings, and we deal with them.The writing process is a mystery box of horrors, so you may not realize for every snappy one-liner you get in these articles, there are dozens of rejected phrasings that never see the light of day. The line that's supposed to go here is "you can die without ending, but you can't end without dying, at least little bit," which is one of those smooth truisms that mean nothing without context but can be said to make you sound wise. Rejected one-liners for this space include:
- "There are no endings without some pain."
- "I could never write conclusions, but then again who can?"
- "Everything ends, except for your online times, which will last forever."
None of these are relevant, revealing, or concise. But distance running is also none of those things, which leaves us with a great deal of unexplained matter to grapple with. This leads back to the one-liner I did pick, which is illustrative of the truth that when something ends, a part of memory or friendship or something is never recovered. [If you want to read more one-liners, please go to the rejected introduction of this article.]Once you're not in it anymore, you can't go back, even if you can try and pretend like your high school reunion is something meaningful or the 1986 New York Mets are still present. They're not. They're something different now [note]That is not to say that all endings are bad. Some endings are really good for you. I don't even think the apparent end of this country season (and ostensibly my college cross-country career on the whole), which, if you recall, this essay is supposedly about, is bad. The end has happened.[/note].And in this swirling context of conclusions and valedictions, I traveled with the Northwestern Track Club to Lexington, Kentucky. I will dispense with the results first, because they are my least favorite part of these recaps. The men's team finished 28th of 36 and the women's team was 24th of 28. You can look up all the individual results on our team page, graciously updated by VP Emma Kumer. Standouts from this meet included President Megan Beach, also running her last race, who PR'd with a 23:37, and the aforementioned Emma Kumer, who also PR'd. David Gleisner ran a 27:05 to lead the boys.Honestly, the graphic Emma made for the results is so great, I'm just going to put it here.Yes, every woman who ran ran a season best. So did 6 of the 11 men. It was a tremendously successful season for everyone involved. Go us! Also, Karli Goldenberg finished the race and had a time. I don't know what it was, but NIRCA screwed up and they should be ashamed of themselves. They should also be ashamed of the expense of these races for smaller clubs, but I digress.Look at the -16 for Adam Forrest! That's a good golf score! I imagine Izzeh was happy to be running on rolling hills rather than one big one. Nathan Legault is my Track Club MVP this fall.The first-years who came with us (Mike, Meredith, Jason, Andrew, and I'm just throwing Maura in here because she has to mentioned somehow but doesn't fit the category) are all great. Cam and Robby! Excellent stuff.In many ways, national NIRCA races are peak Track Club. Regional races are vast productions. National races, which usually involve significant road trips and overnight stays, are pure fun. This one was no different. Thanks to the good graces of the Johnson family, we were able to stay for free in Louisville for the night and eat some amazing food. The road trip went smoothly thanks to the impeccable organization of the Earl of Transport and the President.When you are young, sports require so much travel. The days of the local soccer league or running club are far in the future. For now, we must drive, as all clubs must drive. And the driving is good. It creates bonding experiences and creates a litany of inside jokes. It builds character, as they say. On the other hand, the cold we experienced in Kentucky tested that character significantly. The Waffle House and fast food we ate on the way back tested our stomachs significantly.And yet we prevailed. The slogan of the Northwestern Track Club in 2018 is "we do our best." This, of course, is ironic because at no point do we ever do our best. Our best is obscured by not having a huge budget, obscenely expensive races, obscenely hard classes, obscenely bad running routes, and obscene weather. The motto of "we do our best" thus means, "we do our best with what we are given." And we do.Take Robby Winter, for example. He was hurt for much of the early season work. He still ran a great race and had a PR. It's the same down the line for Adam, Izzeh, Emma, Meredith, Tucker, Jason, Andrew, Renzo, Megan, Karli, John Docter/Laboe, etc. Even though by all respects, Northwestern should never be considered downtrodden or an underdog in any respect due to the pomposity of its marketing, I think the Track Club's general demeanor and commitment to "winging it" does earn us some leeway there. But man, is any other team in the country as good at winging it as we are? Probably. But again, we do our best.
However, the worst thing you can do in life is assume the races don't matter. If you give into meaninglessness during a race, you end up with a nice +61 by your name. In the movie Inception, the main character's wife (the hilariously unsubtly named Mal) goes insane because she stops believing the world is real. A similar situation occurs while in cross-country, where the mental game is deceptively simple but hard to master. The only way to truly lose the mental aspect of cross-country is to believe your race and your fate are not important. Once that happens, you lose.And maybe, at some level, that is why I write these recaps. I write these recaps so that, maybe, at some point, someone decides they want to go on these crazy road trips with midterms and homework swirling around, and somewhere in that calculus, reading about his or her exploits on this blog actually pushes them to achieve something meaningful, in some fashion. Maybe they'll go just a bit faster. And to achieve that simply through writing and expressing my memories and appreciation and "posting," well that's free real estate, as they say. At first, I tried to write blog posts for myself. There's some corner of the Internet where my high school winter track blog still exists, densely populated with terse and dramatic retellings of my struggles and exploits. That was the not-so-great precursor to this project, but it also sucks, and not just because the writing is bad. The whole idea of that blog is flawed because writing about yourself while you are living and breathing a team experience is reductive and stupid. Maybe afterward, after things have ended, the self-reflection arrives.And so I tried something different. I wanted every single person on this team to feel important, as if this whole Track Club was part of some epic endeavor that the world would never see the likes of again. The more I wrote, the less I ever wanted myself to be the central character. It transitioned into club sports as a whole, fictional track club horror stories, global track measurement conspiracies, or small details in each member of the club's lives on a particular day set to LCD Soundsystem. And it's not like I don't enjoy writing about myself. No, I'm a sucker for self-analysis and reflection, as you mayyyyy have picked up. But I found that writing about my own thoughts on running didn't make me feel like the sport was any more meaningful or precious. If I was going to make good content, I had to do some real journalism[note]#atmedill[/note], which does not include waxing poetically for hours about how you feel about a subject. Save that for your podcast.But ironically, now that my time as a competitive, dues-paying[note]Please keep paying dues to my successor.[/note] member of the Northwestern Track Club is officially over, all I can think about is myself. That onerous +61 seconds, the muddy hills, the time it took to get to Kentucky, all of it...now I want meaning. I want someone to write a Track Club recap about me and tell me about how my distance running career was still indubitably worth it. I want someone else to write about my 22 seasons of distance running and put them into historical context, perhaps relating them to a work of art or piece of music that I find entertaining and can later attach oodles of delicious meaning and weight. If you want to do that, feel free. But that's selfish and only delaying my realization of how I actually feel about distance running.What I feel is that, while sitting in the Johnsons' living room in Louisville, Kentucky, I once again felt like I was truly living. This is how I feel during every cross-country meet I've ever been to, from the bus to Somers, New York in late 2011 to the last second when David took the vans back from Ridge Avenue and left me underneath the streetlights next to the Civic Center. And the idea that that feeling is ending, in any way, because as I said you cannot escape endings [note]or was it some other one-liner[/note], is terrifying and I do not like it. I do not like not running. I do not like it in a house. I do not like it with a mouse. I do not like it in California, or New York, or Istanbul, or anywhere.What I really like is aimlessly dancing to "Mamma Mia" for one of those newfangled music video apps that make me feel old. I really like discussing the finer points of Batman comics. I really like crossword puzzles. I really like being told which font is Garamond and which font is something else entirely. I really enjoy talking about geography and historical video games. I thoroughly enjoy knowing a bona fide Oakland Athletics fan. I'm really happy whenever Halloween socks are brought up, in any context, and I can't ever properly explain. I enjoy thinking about artistic jumproping while watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.I really like discussing the future of the Democratic Party while in motion. Turns out I even like listening to musicals, on repeat, for hours on end. It turns out I like debating about what states are in the Midwest, and watching videos of some kid playing piano with his hands behind his back. I even like listening to classical music on road trips, sometimes. And I like giving handfuls of tortilla chips to freshmen, learning about long-lost family friends, endless commenting on New Balance backpacks. It seems I like talking about Australia, Arrested Development, Arsenal vs. Chelsea, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Wet Hot American Summer, trail maintenance, zoology, Mat Latos, Korean-American church, why triathlons scare me, Wisconsin, Father John Misty, NUTC FC, Wam Sebber, The Game of Life, the Mets, and a billion other things that I can't fit here, but will fit in the Great Inside Joke Counter in the sky [note]And somewhere in my head, I'm still afraid because I don't want anyone to think that this is in any particular order I'm just reeling these off the top of my head and staring into space.[/note].In toto, to the general public, none of this means anything. But given that I'm in a particularly reactionary, "learned nothing, forgotten nothing" mood, I want to make it clear that it all means so much to me. I would also like to make it clear that I actually care very deeply about the races, and I often get so panicked and nervous that I try to throw up at least once in the two hours before. I'm not ready to thank anyone for anything because that implies something has already passed me by. So, thank you all, I guess, but don't take that the right way. Misinterpret it, please.Throughout my life, I actually dream about various cross-country trips a lot. I dreamt we were all driving to Montana to visit a National Park, and every possible thing went wrong. I dreamt we drove to Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In those half-nightmare, half-stupid and slightly weird subconscious images, every teammate I've ever had cycles through the vans. I realize that I am dreaming when the people don't match the timeline, and then I wake up, because I don't want to see the ending. I never dream about racing. Perhaps they are too important.During this season, I've become aware of the anime Run with the Wind, which details the story of a college track club trying to run a Ragnar-style race. Realistic examples of running in popular culture are essentially nonexistent, but the show and the novel its based on are scarily accurate in depicting what club track is like. When the characters interact and talk about paying dues or what they used to run in high school, I laugh hysterically.Of course, the depiction is not entirely accurate. There's no depiction of Northwestern's crushing workload and social burdens. There's no Joyce. There's no cross-country, and the actual sport of American cross-country is its own kettle of fish entirely. I guess I'm going to have to just make my own artistic interpretation of NIRCA XC. Or, maybe, I just finished it.The trip to Lexington, Kentucky, took six hours and our entire lives. In the first hour, we were barely out of Chicago and unsure of what music to play. In the second hour, we were hating the state of Indiana and looking for a meal. In the third hour, we found a solid rhythm and switched drivers. In the fourth hour, we stared out the window and tried not to sleep. After the fifth hour, we stopped in Louisville and slept in a house with three adorable cats. And after the sixth hour, we were left in the cold with one unshakeable goal. Then it ended. Then we went to Waffle House.