A season inside the New Mexico Lobos - Jake Shelley - USA Athletics Scholarships

A season inside the New Mexico Lobos – Jake Shelley

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Yesterday Jake Shelley broke 8:00 for 3000m in Sheffield. This result was just part of a longer journey through the NCAA navigating its many ups and down. Here’s his story.

 

A season inside the New Mexico Lobos

I arrived at the University of New Mexico 18 months ago in August 2013 in terrible shape, having been injured for pretty much all of 2013 up to that point. I was a disaster during the entire cross country season that year. I almost finished last in my first race at Notre Dame, then got demoted to the B race at Wisconsin, then finished 46th out of 64 at the Mountain West Conference Championships, before being dropped from the team for the last two races of the season. The indoor and outdoor track seasons showed signs of improvement and I had something to prove this time around in cross country.

The summer

In my opinion, there is a common theme amongst successful NCAA cross country runners – they train consistently during the summer months away from their university environment and arrive at campus in mid-August fit and healthy. The NCAA cross country season is short, so if you’re not ready to go from day 1, you’re probably going to struggle.

With this in mind, I raced just once at home during the British track season, before taking a short break. By July 1st, I was training for cross country. This was very unusual for me and it was incredibly frustrating watching my contemporaries running fast times throughout July and August. But I was desperate to make amends for my woeful performances last autumn.

My summer training was partly conducted whilst on a road trip across Southwest America, which led to some pretty spectacular runs, for instance a steady run along the rim of the Grand Canyon and a tempo run along the Pacific coast, taking in the weird and wonderful sights of Muscle Beach.

In general, I ran around 60 miles per week, mostly steady running with a very occasional harder run/session, for 6 weeks between July 1st – August 15th. Summer training concluded with the preseason 2-mile time-trial in which non-scholarship runners get to try out for a spot on the team. So nothing spectacular at all, but consistent mileage by my own, very moderate, standards.

The Opener

On September 6th I ran at the Lobo invitational, our home race, and ended up finishing 3rd behind two Kenyans from UTEP. It must have been about 30 degrees C, and bone dry – the dust being blown into our faces from the lead cart was an unfamiliar problem for those of us more used to worrying about whether to use 12mm and 15mm spikes. Although this was a very low key race, I actually took a lot of confidence from it, because it was the first half-decent race longer than 1500m/mile that I’d had in the USA and showed me that I was fairly fit. The less pleasant part of the day was doing a 4 mile tempo run immediately after the race, by which time it was even hotter and I was even more dehydrated!

 

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Cross country in the sun! Photo Credit – Ted Castillo

 

Notre Dame Invitational

Throughout September, the whole team trained hard and did some good longer sessions on the grass and long tempo runs. Then we were off to Indiana for the Notre Dame Invitational, which is one of the traditional curtain-raisers for the cross country season, and typically brings together a few top ten nationally ranked teams for their first serious races. I’ve always really enjoyed trips away with the team, getting to hang out with everyone and travel to different parts of America. But for some reason I was really nervous for this race, which seems ridiculous looking back now. I was desperate to prove myself as a cross country runner, but I just got really tense and I think that contributed to what turned out to be a below par performance for me. I got out well on the narrow course and was feeling fairly good in the lead pack until halfway, but then I got a stitch, something I’d struggled with regularly in longer races for the last year, and started going backwards pretty badly. I ended up finishing 71st, and 5th on the team. Very disappointing having led the team just three weeks earlier. Back to the drawing board.

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Notre Dame was very painful! Photo Credit – Nicola Hood

Wisconsin Invitational

We were now in the season proper, and racing every two weeks all the way until the NCAA championships, so I knew that I had to get this recurring stitch problem sorted out, and ASAP. This is where the resources associated with being a scholarship athlete in America really show their worth. I saw our excellent massage lady and she noticed that muscles around my rib cage on the right hand side were much tighter than those on my left, maybe explaining why I kept getting stitches on my right side.

Then on the Tuesday before the Friday race, we did our standard pre-race session of 7 x 1000m with short recoveries at a fairly comfortable pace. But then after the 4th rep our coach, Joe Franklin, pulled me aside and set me off before the others and told me to pick up the pace. I got over-excited, ran the first lap in 64 and ended with 2:45 for that rep. Then Joe cut my recovery again to 40 secs, and told me to be controlled but maintain a slightly faster pace. So that rep I did in 2:47 and now it was getting hard in the thin air of Albuquerque! I was protesting and saying that I couldn’t carry on, but Joe set me off again, after just 30 secs recovery, and I ran the last rep in 2:49. The point of this experiment was for Joe to prove to me that I could run faster than race pace without the stitch slowing me down. And I had to admit to him that it hadn’t bothered me too much. One more visit to the masseuse for more work on the ribs, and I felt ready to well prepared.

Wisconsin is a BIG race. The majority of the top teams show up and are allowed to field 9 runners, rather than the standard 7 of the championship races, so the depth is actually comparable to the NCAA championships. I paced myself well and maintained my position throughout the 8km race. It got really hard at around 6km and I didn’t have much of a kick at the end but the really positive thing for me was that I never had my normal mid-race implosion where people start passing me by the dozen. I finished 77th and 3rd on the team, and the team picked up good points in the quest to qualify us for Nationals.

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In the home straight at Wisconsin, everybody’s hurting

 

Mountain West Conference championships

The University of New Mexico cross country team is a powerhouse within the mountain west conference, having won the men’s team title 6 consecutive times, and the women’s for 7 years in a row. Every year, the biggest goal of the season for the teams from Air Force, Colorado State, Boise State, Wyoming etc is to beat us at Conference. Between the Wisconsin Invitational and Conference, our top runner, Adam Bitchell, had sustained a hip injury, ruling him out for the season. As Joe went to scratch out his name from the list of competing runners, there was a visible sense that other teams now felt we were vulnerable. Adam is my housemate and one of my best friends and I was fired up to give it everything, knowing how badly he would want to be racing back at home.

The race started off fairly slowly and for 6km I was running fairly comfortably just off the lead. When the big move was made to split up the pack, I found that I could go with it, and raced up the last hill in the lead group of three. With about 600m to go, I made a move for the front, but was quickly matched by the eventual winner from Boise and then I really hit the treacle and was passed again for a finishing position of 3rd. I turned around to see my New Mexico teammates filling 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th spots. We had won again, with the lowest points total in conference history. A great feeling.


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Mountain West champions again! Photo Credit – Nicola Hood

 

Mountain Regional Championships

31 university teams from a pool of over 300 qualify for the NCAA national championships each year. The country is split into 9 regions for the regional championships, which take place a week before nationals, with the top 2 teams from each region qualifying automatically. The remaining 13 spots are generally filled by the 3rd, 4th and sometimes 5th placed teams from the stronger regions, based upon each of those teams records from earlier in the season.

So when it was announced after the race that we had finished 7th, we were very worried and thought that we’d all blown our chance to race at nationals.

I think we were all a bit complacent and approached the race with more of a mentality of “let’s just get through this” rather than with our usual pre-race excitement/anticipation. The race was held on our home course, and I struggled round again, not dealing well with the heat or hills, eventually finishing 33rd.

Eventually, once all the results from the other regions had filtered in, we were announced as the 29th out of 31 teams to qualify for nationals, and the only team to be going having finished 7th in their region. It may not have been done with style, but we were going to Terre Haute.

NCAA championships

I’d heard and read a lot about the NCAA cross country championships. I’d watched it for the last several years even before coming out to America and was aware of recent memorable races, such as Galen Rupp out kicking Sam Chelanga, or Lawi Lalang striding far ahead of the likes of Cam Levins, Leonard Korir and Chris Derrick. But I wasn’t worrying about any of that – my teammate and regular roommate on trips, Elmar Engholm, and I had discussed how we both felt we ran better when we didn’t think too much or worry at all about the competition. So I instead had to put up with his truly terrible English impression all week, although he did at least mix it up occasionally with his slightly better seal impersonation.

Before the race, Joe had instructed us to run together as a group in the 100th-130th range, before moving through on the second half. At halfway, I was 115th and then I really started telling myself that this was where the fate of my season would be decided. At that stage, I knew that I was feeling OK and would be able to move up, but it was just a question of how far I could move up. At 7km I was up to 77th.  Then I saw the two Australians from Villanova who’ve both run 3:36 for 1500m up ahead, and it gave me a boost as I went past them. Joe was then telling me that I needed to pass about ten more runners to get into the top 40 for an All-American spot. In the end I couldn’t do it, and ended up finishing in 50th. We redeemed ourselves as a team from the previous week by finishing 14th. Overall, I’d had one of my better races in the most important race and I was pleased about that, even if I still felt that both me and the team could have finished a little higher. But if we didn’t always think we could do better then I guess we wouldn’t be runners

So given that I finished 46th at Conference in 2013 and that there are 32 conferences in total, you could say that I’d improved from being the 1472nd to the 50th best cross country runner in the NCAA in a year. And I had a great time along the way.

 

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NCAA Cross Country Championships at the 9km mark

NB A big congratulations to the New Mexico women’s team who finished the season as 3rd team at Nationals, the first podium finish for them in school history. Couldn’t have happened to a better group of girls! And another well done to the Lobos past and present who ran at the European Cross, including 4th and 29th in the seniors for Ross Millington and Luke Caldwell, 6th for Elmar Engholm in the under 23s and 9th and 26th for Alice Wright and Heleene Tambet, again in the under 23s.

 

 

 

 

 

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