I was thinking this morning about one of the crazy differences between cross country and track (besides the obvious difference in running surface). In cross country, to advance to nationals you have to finish in a certain place - either as part of a team or as an individual - at the regional meet. You can win every single race all season in blazing fast times; but if something happens on that one day, you get food poisoning or your bus breaks down on the way to the meet, you're stuck watching nationals either from the sidelines or on the online streaming video. To get to NCAAs in cross country, you really have to bring your A-game on the day of regionals, and there's a very "us vs. them" mentality when it comes to other teams since finishing places (and team score) determine who moves on.
Track is a different beast. Obviously at our conference meet, scoring points for the team in hopes of winning a conference title is a major focus. But in terms of getting to run at the National meet, time is more important than finishing place. If I win the conference and DIII New England Championships but don't hit the qualifying standard, I won't be toeing the line at Nationals. Because they limit the field size at NCAAs, you obviously want to get yourself as high up the performance list as you can. But I feel like, for me, I have a much more friendly and cooperative relationship with my competition during track season. It's not so much a feeling of "I need to beat you" as much as it's "I need to hit this particular time, and you're trying to hit it too. If we work hard and push each other, we'll both have a better chance of achieving our goal."
I realize this can sound like a lack of competitive spirit, but I don't think that's what it is. I'm a fiercely competitive person. I want to win. Off the track, the girls I race against are actually some of my closest friends. During most of a race, I work well with teammates and competitors alike because I know we're all giving a piece of ourselves in the pursuit of something greater. I'm not saying that I would run slower than I felt I was capable of just to keep someone company, because that's definitely not the case. What I mean is that even something as simple as saying "Keep it up!" to the girl who went out too hard can really help her keep moving and even turn her race around. I know. I've been there many times. I'm willing to help another runner out when she's struggling because I know in the next race I may be the one just hanging on and I would hope someone would give me the same encouragement. But, in about the last 400 meters of a race, I have no friends. I found a youtube video yesterday with the caption: "Don't F with a steeplechaser when death is on the line." For lack of a better explanation of my mindset in the last 400, I would say that sums it up pretty well. :-P
Why did I bring all this up? I looked at the entry list for my 5k tomorrow night and saw that my friend Rav (a recent Wesleyan University grad who now runs for the BAA) will most likely be in my heat. I met her during the conference XC race my freshman year. We've raced together a few times, but it's been a while and I'm really excited to work with her again tomorrow. Usually, she comes out on top, but I'm not going to just hand her the victory yet. She's gonna have to work pretty hard for it because I'm ready to run FAST! :-)