Distance Diaries

The UC Davis women's cross country team is off to a running start in 2009 and every week we'll follow along as a member of the team highlights the Aggies' achivements.

Junior Caitlin Fitzgerald discusses overcoming her inner obstacles and how her Aggie teammates empower her to be the best she can be against all odds.

Running has been an interesting journey for me. Past pitfalls aside I want to revisit the points of the past couple of months that have shaped this season into the best one I've had since I became a part of the UC Davis team.

It began in the summer of '09 when I moved to Truckee with my teammate Alicia (Ivanhoe) and some other runners from Brown and Chico. This was step one in my "Plan to Overcome Weakness". Weakness #1? Getting out the door. For the first couple of weeks, the scenery and trails were incredible enough on their own to keep me going. Then it took new daily playlists. And finally it took my friend waiting on the porch so that when I got home from work I could be thrown in the car and driven to some mountain to get my run in. It came to that some days: either run down a deer and bareback ride to the house or finish the 8 mile loop back to the car because it was the last link to civilization. Then on days when I wasn't racing in either the dark, lightning, or both back to the house to make me feel hardcore, I was thinking about the work my teammates were putting in. I was picturing Abbey (Gallaher) who lived alone on a farm in Missouri all summer. If she could survive having only her faithful dogs as companions and solitary runs that were in 100% humidity (barefoot and uphill both ways I presume?) then by golly I needed to march out the door and run around in the wilderness some more. Not only that, but she came out on the other side of summer vacation as one of our top runners and with an award for "Pulling a Fast One on the Farmer's Tan with the Most EPIC Sports Bra Tan" in Davis distance history. Clearly I had some stepping up to do.

The next step in the process, though it sounds trivial, was remembering that running was fun. Thankfully Kristin (Arkin)'s happy chatter and huge grin obliterate all negative thoughts as soon as you step onto the track. And who doesn't want to start off their day by acting five years old and making funny faces at each other during core?

When I'm around my teammates I look for the positives. First thing that comes to mind: holding random conversations on long runs at last year's tempo pace. If that isn't an awesome indicator of our fitness then I don't know what else to look for. I show up to practice and get to PR every run we have in Davis all while hearing about Sam's strange and slightly awkward dreams. I can spend my time pondering whether or not Jenna does in fact have a cat. We can discuss how much cooler races would be if they somehow incorporated giant games of laser tag. And when a fence rips off Ali's shirt we get to laugh until there doesn't seem to be enough oxygen left to run. Don't get me wrong though, our team works hard every day because they're consciously paving the way towards our goals. The main course will always be sweat and hard work but an entertaining side is always welcome.

Caitlin Fitzgerald

Following this realization, I came to understand that by emulating my teammates I could learn to take risks. I'll come clean; I find risks uncomfortable. Which is ironic considering which sport I've chosen to pour my heart into. I needed to look outside my limited character profile and find someone who completely contradicted my own mindset. Someone who was so unerringly focused on her goals that boundaries such as pain and fast girls in other jerseys ceased to be an issue. It came to me at the Stanford Invite, right about the 5k mark when Sarah (Sumpter) peeled past me like I was walking. At the crop circle when Ali (Stoakley) barreled down the last stretch of a six-mile tempo like she was shredding green jerseys even though we didn't have to go past the second-to-last turn. When (Sarah) Tusting put her head down and ground out loop after loop in the greenbelt with the front pack all while in her trainers. And again when rapid fire texts spread through the team about Sam (Kearney) running as fast as a leopard at the Bronco Invite like she'd anxiously been poised to do.

Everywhere I looked around me, every single day, I was bombarded with examples of what it took to be a contender in cross country. These women are tough. They gut it out because they are driven foremost by the urge to compete. That fire is what sparked the idea that risk-taking is merely the reluctant partner to belief. Believing that you are prepared, capable, and ready to deliver. Believing that you can still finish strong even if you try surging past a big pack halfway through the race. Believing that if you can just pass the woman in front of you, and the one after that and after that in a chain all the way to the finish that Nationals will be within your reach. With my teammates' strengths as a model I understand what it will take to accomplish my goals. The clock ticking and the numbers flashing as I cross the line are etched forever as a blaring testament to my effort.

I have to dig deeper where once I would have shied away. When I toe the line at Regionals the sole thought in my head should be that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I will not back down and my teammates will do the same. We built the dream of going to Nationals and now, for less than twenty-two minutes, we need to have the courage to live it. So I'll begin with a quirky risk....say wearing buns at Regionals? If I can't outrun my opponents then I will resort to blinding them. GO AGS!

Redshirt freshman Sarah Sumpter relives her first Pre-Nationals meet and the chaos of emotions that ran through her body throughout the meet.

"Sarah's lost again" - go figure. Having a notorious lack of any sense of direction, I've always found myself wandering confusedly at some point in life, and that's essentially how I started my freshman year on the UCD cross country team. It's been a little more than a year since then that I sat perched on Coach Dee's mountain bike, mid-sob on a sandy hiking trail at Point Reyes. I'd been injured and unable to run for nearly two months, and had just been dumped into the lap of a coach I knew nothing about and a group of eight other freshmen who seemed liable to leave me in their dust. As I sat wondering what on earth I was going to do with myself that first day of training, let alone for the next few months, all I could think was, "God, I really am alone this time." Lost doesn't even begin to describe the feeling.

Now a sophomore about to kick-off my first Pre-National college meet, I am anything but alone. I crouch with six other Aggie women, heads bowed and arms linked in a perfect human circle against the frigid Indiana morning. Kristina (Taylor) peps the group with a quick but heartfelt prayer for our focus and protection, and in the anxious hush I take a moment to look up and around at each athlete. Fitz (Caitlin Fitzgerald), cheeks flushed and periwinkle eyes wide with anticipation; Ali (Stoakley), ever the pillar of calm and grinning assurance; Sarah, doe-eyed but strong for all her modesty; Kristina, our fearless speaker; Abbey (Gallaher), a level-headed fighter I've looked up to since I'd met her; and Krista (Drechsler), my separated-at-birth (though notably taller) running twin. These are more than merely women that I train and compete with - they are my sisters in arms. Whatever happens after the gun goes off, it is a shared fight for us all.

Finally an official bellows for more than 200 jittery athletes to approach the starting line and we file into our assigned box. The otherworldly hush that sweeps the line as we wait is only made more eerie by the slate-grey cast of the sky, but the crack of the gun takes with it all prior thought or impulse except a unanimous "GET OUT - NOW."

Sarah Sumpter

The first kilometer is a flash of angry feet and singlets blaring the colors of their proud alma-maters: red, yellow, purple, blue -who was orange again? - No time to think of that, just go for everyone and anyone you see. Somewhere in the chaos I find a few of my familiars; Ali, Fitz, and then Abbey as we attempt to slice our way through the human tidal wave.

Not long after, I find myself running alone ahead of my team, occasionally calling back but with no reply, or at least none than I can hear. I don't see a single timer and barely make out a mile-split over the roar of screaming coaches and spectators. Occasionally I will catch a glimpse of Drew or Kimmy (Conley) along the sidelines assuring me that I'm looking strong and that I need only to move up, but this is a grinder of a race. The grass is thick and bloated with mud and water, making small uphill slopes into setbacks if you don't have the muscle for it. But I remember what Kimmy said to me, eye-to-eye before the start of the race, "Stump, if anyone can tough through a race like this, you can."

Miles, kilometers, time, space, whatever - fly by and I'm surging around the bend of the final kilometer towards the fore-warned lengthy finish of the race. Somewhere Kim's voice comes up again, "Stump, only 6 MORE GIRLS!!" 6 more jerseys and I could grab a place in the top thirty finishers. It's the singular thought in my head as I pummel, lungs, abs, arms and legs blazing, with everything I have through to the finish line, ultimately turning in at 34th place.

Regrouping after a race is, in short, something like reuniting with relatives at an airport (though considerably dirtier and smellier). Familiar faces are scouted, pursued, and then one suddenly becomes part of a tangle of sweaty limbs and tears as embraces are made or a human crutch is provided to support the other dazed comrade. Our own reassembly is less than celebratory today - many are disappointed, exhausted, or confused by their own performances, but they all share a look that I know all too well - that unmistakable "I'm lost."

It's a hard thing to swallow when you want to stake in your own accomplishment in the midst of the gloom of those you care for. We all quickly agree as we move into our cool down, however, that each one of us, whether at our best or not on the given day, must move on to the next goal and the next opportunity to show the running world that the Aggies are true contenders of the sport. I know that this team is strong - I have seen it in the tooth-and-nail diligence that so many of us have put into our training, and I have seen it in the remarkable emotional strength with which myself and others have made a setback, be it an injury, a slump, or some other personal battle, into a comeback. And above all else, I know for the first time that to be a part of a team like this, means that none of us is ever really lost.

Freshman Sarah Tusting reveals some first-day jitters as she prepared for her first collegiate meet, the Stanford Invitational.

Coming in as a first year to the UC Davis Cross Country team and program, I was the definition, the epitome, of freshmen naivety. Having run previously for Benicia High as one of the few, and in some years THE sole girl on the varsity squad, I had limited experience in running with other girls on a team. Aside from this, coming up to Davis for that first month of training, I felt completely over my head. I had no idea what to expect, let alone what to bring or how much; I didn't know who I was staying with or what I'd be sleeping on; I was completely unaware of who the other freshmen were on the team, or for that matter, who anyone else on the team was. I came ready for any and every situation I could come up with, resulting in the packing of my rain jacket, high heels, ear muffs, scarves, gloves, air mattress accompanied with the electric pump, unnecessary amounts of lotion and sunblock, a multitude of books, and an array of other random objects, all fitting into 3 large storage bins and an equally large duffle bag. By the time I showed up on my hostesses' doorway, it looked as though I was about to embark on a yearlong expedition.

That first week in Davis went by quickly, and before I knew it we were heading off to Point Reyes for our fall training team-building week. We arrived, and little did I know I had begun what I now consider to be one of the highlights of my summer, if not THE highlight. During our stay there, Point Reyes became one of my favorite locations to run. Everyday we ran a new trail, some which hugged the coastline and others that zig-zagged through regions in the forest resembling Jurassic Park. The training aspect of camp couldn't have been more perfect.

The beautiful running scenery only augmented the stay, as my most vivid memories are those of time spent with the team. Simple activities, such as playing Catchphrase, scrabble, and Jenga, were some of the most memorable from camp, as these were the times when you got to know people outside of their running personas. While it was before camp that I was dubbed with the nickname Jill (don't ask me how or why), it was during camp that I learned of the tradition of nickname-giving. Almost everyone on the team had a nickname, and it was at camp that I came to know what they were, along with the nicknames of retired UCD runners. I realized that I could have it a lot worse. It felt like we had only just arrived when it was time to pack our bags once again and head back to Davis. Leaving camp was a bittersweet experience, for running there was unbelievable, but I felt like we left as a team.

The next two weeks went by in a blur, and before I knew it, school had started. In addition to this, I was also scheduled to run in my first collegiate meet (to my distress) at Stanford. It certainly was not my first choice to open my season at a meet as large as Stanford, as I had to opt out the meet I was originally supposed to open with due to a lower calf strain.

Upon leaving for Stanford, I definitely had to pull the newbie card. I had misread our departure time, mistaking it to be an hour later than it actually was, resulting in a scramble to get ready which delayed us from leaving by a solid 15 minutes. In my hustle to get ready, I had forgotten to toss in my inhaler. This only added to my anxiety, and come race-day, I was pretty nervous.

Stepping onto the line is really the only concrete memory I have of that race. Everything else that followed the `bang' of the starting gun is a blur. Starting out, it was all elbows, and more than once I felt the hands of another runner pushing against my back. All I could think was, "Don't fall, don't fall", for I surely would have been trampled, and getting trampled in a college race holds an entirely new definition, for unlike high school races I competed in, spikes are completely legal (and might I add lethal).

Stepping across the finish line, I immediately bent over, hands on knees, trying to catch my breath. It didn't come, and I was assisted over to the med tent. During my physical checkout at one of the tables with a medic, I witnessed one girl collapse to the ground, another girl hallucinate, yelling the same phrase over and over, and yet another screaming and writhing in abdominal pain. I took this all in with wide-eyes, my mouth nearly dropped open; I had never before seen such a spectacle after any of my races in high school.

Before racing at Stanford, I had absolutely no idea what expectations or goals I should set up for myself; now, with my first race under my belt, I feel much more conscious of what those expectations and goals should be, and can only look forward to meeting them in races to come. While I gained a lot of insight during that first race, I realize that I have so much more to learn. I'm on the steep slope of the learning curve for now, and I can't wait to see what experiences lie ahead for both me and the team.

Senior Allie Stoakley talks about the season so far and what's up next for women's cross country.

The warming, Davis summer sun was just enough to make the shade a welcome spot as we congregated for our first meeting as the 2009 cross country squad. It was still summer, August 23rd to be exact, but that Sunday afternoon brought the moment that we had long been anticipating as we gathered after a summer of running on our own in anticipation of the fall season.

Unfortunately no one was willing to steal Jon Peterson's `Embarrassing First Impression Throne' and the meeting passed without any new `I'm a Jon' moments during the introductions. After a small amount of controlled chaos - mostly consisting of me running around and confusing which parents were connected to which new athletes- the freshmen were settled into the homes of the upperclassmen, set free to establish the living room forts they would be calling home for the next month.

The week of settling into the groove of Davis life was composed of barbeques, trips to the fruit stand and competitive foosball tournaments. Now that nearly every team house has a foosball table front and center in the living room we've found that challenges from teammates will never go unanswered. And as Sarah Tusting, now aka `Jill,' proved over and over, the women can't ever be underestimated!

A couple of hefty workouts and post-run picnics later, the team was headed for the rolling mountains and vast beaches of Pt. Reyes. Animal crackers in tow, we arrived at the very eco-friendly hostel (they're also just very friendly in general) and quickly claimed beds. I have been the proud occupant of the lower bunk closest to the door for four years running and will now, with a heavy heart, announce it's availability for next year's camp.

In between challenging but beautiful runs we made some very important discoveries:
1. girls are able to conduct a very long team meeting if you let them loose
2. Jesse (Arellano) may think he is Catch Phrase champion but we all know the real master is Kindu (Ejigu).

In defense of the epic length of the ladies goal-setting meeting I must insist that it was incredibly inspiring and worth every minute. Hearing the plans for the season and listening to individual ambitions being unveiled made me realize just how motivated this team is. This group is simmering, just waiting for the moment to take off the chains and put on the jet pack. It was exciting to look around the room and see how strongly people believed in the high goals being set and the ability of our ladies to achieve them.

Despite the numerous naps at camp, the ride home was considerably quieter and consisted of many more nodding heads. One thing that hasn't changed after four years is the fact that camp is tiring! Those who ran at the USF meet capped off a tough week of training with an impressive race on a difficult course. The Aggie Nation, currently holding trials for number one fan of the year, made its first appearance of the 2009 season and was even stronger the following weekend at the Hornet Jamboree over at Sacramento State.

As classes begin this week I will quickly have to make the transition from complete running bum to student-athlete, but I'm sure the team game days and movie nights will continue despite the addition of homework. The first couple weeks back in Davis before school actually starts are always great, but this season there is so much to look forward to that the coming weeks are just as promising. The Aggie ladies are ready to roll and I can't wait to start checking off items on that goal sheet.