Distance Diaries

The UC Davis women's cross country team returns with a reigning Big West Conference individual champion and new motivations for 2010. Follow along as the Aggies look to reach new heights and accomplish more firsts for the program and UC Davis Athletics.

Abbey Gallaher previews the team's feelings and anticipation leading up the Big West Conference Championships.

Abbey Gallaher

The last days of October usually mean festivities of orange and black and costume parties. But for my fellow cross country teammates and me, the end of October means the conference championships and nothing else. While children dream of dashing from house to house in a frenzied quest for candy, we dream of outlasting our competition in the Big West Championships to prove that the work we have done has truly paid off. Every hour spent toiling together out on the Davis levees or straining in the weight room builds up to this final month of our season. And conference championships is where we kick it all off.

It will all begin with a Friday morning departure. If we are lucky, we will not see the sun until after we have made it a few miles on the road. There is an underlying excitement buzzing in the air. No one is jumping up and down in giddy anticipation, but the calm and collected appearance an onlooker perceives may very well be just a façade. For the following day, just a few hours from our exact departure time, this group of nine women will step up to that chalk-drawn line, fearless and ready to battle.

The race itself will be the most unique of the season. While the field of runners is not as vast as that of the invitationals in which we have previously competed, it will be a much faster field overall and a great deal more team-based. It is true that every race is run as a team, but in Riverside, the success of one group over another comes directly from the ability of your team to finish as close together and as far ahead as possible. The course allows for one to pick out every person that runs in front of her, whether that is an Aggie runner or an opponent.

In just over a week, I will step onto that dirt runway and take a few warm-up strides for the third time in my college career. I have gained much experience over the past years and now know what to expect for this year's conference championship. I will not fear the six kilometers that lie ahead of me, for I have run well over that distance in the months since the final days of June, in preparation for today. I have been here before. I can run fast.

My teammates stand beside me, a mixture of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. Again, we portray an attitude of composed eagerness; all we see is the dirt path stretched out before us. We are confident, ready and hungry. The redcoat raises his gun-bearing arm into the blue, crisp sky. We will run fast.

Freshman Alycia Cridebring opens up about embarking on the new journey of college life and becoming a Division I cross country student-athlete.

Freshman Alycia Cridebring is from Pleasant Hill, Calif.

Ever since I was young, college had always seemed so far away. Since I may be one of the least confident people you'll probably meet, all through high school I saw every college athlete as being ten times smarter, ten times stronger, and a million times faster. So when I came to UC Davis I expected to see a team of incredibly fast robotic runners with no sense of humor and who spoke in monotone. Obviously, to my surprise, I was wrong. Incredibly wrong. I came to Davis wary of what was to come when actually I was wholeheartedly welcomed by not only a group of incredible athletes, but by a new family, each with their own unique personalities and talents. Some tell stories, some are leaders, some make you laugh, one has a British accent, and some became instant best friends. I finally realized that this was where I belonged. I had never been on a team where everyone wanted to be there. And not just most of them - all of them. Through their dedication to the sport, I have found my own spirit and passion for running that I never knew I had.

Yes, I admit, this sport is hard. You run when you want to, you run when you don't want to, and you even run when you think some of your limbs might fall off. As I wander campus in my overly large UC Davis Cross Country t-shirt, people always ask me, "Why do you run cross country? It seems so hard." I have found my inspiration: my team. They are there for you when times get tough, both on the track and off.

I felt really unprepared when I showed up in Davis, despite the 50 pounds of extra luggage that I didn't even need when I first stood awkwardly at Caitlin Fitzgerald's door. Everything was different: the city, the people, even the running. We trained more than I ever had before and it felt like I had just tripled my mileage. Of course I'm just exaggerating. Luckily, I had six other freshman girls who knew exactly what I was going through. Despite all my doubts, slowly but surely, I went from struggling in the back to actually being able to keep up with these amazing college runners that I always thought were way out of my league. Every step of the way - literally every step - I received encouragement and through their positivity I have been able to boost my own self confidence.

What I'm basically trying to say is that my team became my new family. But will I ever know what made being a member of the UC Davis cross country team so great? Was it the new friendships or the leaders to look up to? Perhaps it was going to prom in Point Reyes in newspaper dresses, hysterically laughing at pathetic looking pull-out couches, or dancing in cars on the way back from long runs. It could have been listening to Sam Kearney's stories or having sleepovers. Whatever the case may be, the transition from being a senior in high school to a freshman athlete in college has been more fun and more inspirational than I ever thought it could be. I can honestly say I am proud to be a UC Davis Aggie.

"This is where the girls turn into women, and the boys go runnin' home to their mommies." -Anonymous

Senior Caitlin Fitzgerald reflects on her last season with the Aggies and how the team has begun to gel during the preseason.

Caitlin Fitzgerald

Well this is it. My final year as an Aggie runner. I was under the impression that it would feel different; that I would need to savor every moment spent with the team in order to appreciate the fact that it would be my last. But the truth is that most of the time I forget entirely. It's just as well I suppose. I don't want to be nostalgic that this was the last time I'd touch stinging nettle at camp! Yet, while I don't feel a looming sense of the passage of time, I do feel that this season has some incredible opportunities in store for us as the team comes together for what will be my last time.

Being the only woman from my class to stick with the team for all four years has given me a chance to observe the progression of the team. I see embedded in it a healthy blend of bygone rituals and collective traditions. In the formative weeks after the report date a group of talented individuals transforms into an actual team. The equal parts of fun and work that go into that process are outlined by steps that, though unique to our team, are backed by ideas that are probably pretty universal to distance teams everywhere. It's ultimately about creating friendships, meshing personalities, and building a network of trust that will outlast the critical moments after the gun goes off. Some of this is done by doing what we do best, such as with the Moonlight Run. Our first real workout as a team is a hard seven miles on the track under the light of the full moon...like a wolfpack. Even if the speakers blew out so we didn't have any music, the cheering section provided all the pep we needed to hang tough and get the job done. Gotta love that Aggie Nation, not to mention the glow sticks and post-workout watermelon feed.

Not every moment that blends this team has to do with running though. The first team activity involved rigging up a piñata and letting the freshmen have at it. That's actually how I know our team is going to be really tough this year. Those girls smashed two clubbing instruments to smithereens before the paper-mache creation succumbed. Shoot, how much strength and conditioning were they doing this summer?!?

The foundation isn't truly laid until camp though. It's those four days at the Pt. Reyes hostel where you find the worth of your teammates. Everything about that stay is about coming together; from testing your mettle on some monster of a hill to wincing as we all try to ice bath in the ocean. It's where you can discover strengths and weaknesses, motivations and pet peeves, and even who you would most like to be stranded on a desert island with. All very important considerations to take into account when forming new friendships. Personally my favorite moment was the first ever XC Prom. We all enjoyed being wooed with flowers and poems and songs by our dates. In an attempt to keep things classy we made dresses out of newspaper and posed for prom photos in front of the bright orange porta-potty. Epic. So interestingly enough, dance parties in a remote hostel are just as imperative to shaping team dynamics as working out together can be.

I think what I'm trying to get out of my brief recap of the highlights since we've reported for the 2010 cross country season is that I'm not constantly worried about the finality of every passing experience with the team because the system hasn't needed to be modified. It's comforting to know that the threshold of every season starts with the same motivations, new faces, and traditions. The goals and the people may be altered but the formula has always been the same. In a few short weeks one and all learn to work together and rely on one another. There is a lot of fire in these girls and I'm proud to be a part of the great things this team is going to accomplish this fall. GO AGS!

Assistant coach Kim Conley discusses embarking on her second season as a member of the coaching staff while simultaneously working towards her own professional racing goals.

As a soon-to-be second year coach here at UC Davis, where I also pursued my own running dreams as a collegiate student-athlete, many people ask me if part of my job is to continue to train with the women on the team. Others simply assume that training with the women's team is the reason that I elected to stay in Davis while pursuing my own professional running career. The truth is while many of the basic components of competitive running remain constant throughout the course of a career, the rhythms of running at the post-collegiate level are completely different from what most athletes grow accustomed during the eight or nine years that comprise their high school and college running careers.

As I recovered from an injury last summer my initial sentiment was one of dread that I was not going to be "race ready" when September rolled around and the traditional cross country season began. Even as I watched our Aggie men's and women's teams race and work out with a goal of peak performance during the month of November, I had to keep telling myself that delaying my own training progression and consciously abandoning the model which I had followed for close to a decade was the soundest practice. Finally, last December I was running my first post-collegiate race at the USATF National Club Cross Country Championships. From there my season continued to build as I aimed to get my racing legs back under me: first an indoor 3000m race, then the USATF Winter Cross Country Championship, then a full track season, after which I finally ended my first post-collegiate year at the US 7 Mile Road Championships in Davenport, Iowa.

Racing first in December and concluding my season at the end of July was a challenge and represents the longest uninterrupted period that I have sustained training and competing at a high level. In that time our collegiate athletes have built up base winter mileage, competed a track season, taken time off after the track season, and again built up to peak summer miles. It is a little strange for me to just now be taking some down time from running, while all the other athletes around me are extremely fit and ready to embark upon the cross country season. However, the plan that my coach and I have laid out required me to extend my season later into the summer than I had ever run before in order to mimic the European racing circuit that lasts the entire summer. Within the next year or two, as I continue to develop my own professional running objectives, I hope to be able to spend part of my track seasons abroad, gaining the valuable experience that such an undertaking involves.

I plan to continue joining the Aggie runners on an occasional run, as I did during this past year, but for the most part my training has been completely separate from theirs, which is the way my own schedule has been designed. While occasionally their company on a run proves refreshing, this plan allows me to fully focus on being a coach while I'm at UC Davis practice and an athlete while I'm at my own practice, a blend that for now keeps me as busy as I could ever hope to be.