Saturday, February 8, 2014

Can anyone in the nation beat the Southern California Champions? USA Masters 8 km Championships - 02/23/2014

Southern California is quite possibly home to more nationally ranked Masters runners than any other USATF association. Which leads to the question, “Can anyone in the nation beat the Southern California Champions?” Read on for a profile of the varied masters runners who are members of USATF Southern California and their plans for competing at the USA Masters 8km National Championships on February 23, 2014, at Brea CA. – Wayne Joness

The Triumvirate: Christian Cushing-Murray, David Olds, Peter Magill – (Cal Coast Track Club)
Left to Right - Christian Cushing-Murray, Peter Magill, and David Olds
The fearsome trio of Christian Cushing-Murray, David Olds, and Pete Magill represent the vanguard of what may currently be the mightiest force in masters racing in the United States: the Cal Coast Track Club. Local runners are quite familiar with these athletes, as they routinely best runners half their age. Not surprisingly, these runners bring both skill and considerable experience as national competitors to the 2014 USA Masters 8 km Championships.

What is their strategy for winning on February 23? Olds: “Our best strategy for winning the 8km championship is to put three healthy guys on the start line. Fortunately, especially in the 50+ division, we have an embarrassment of riches on the club, with at least 6 guys who have won individual national masters titles either in cross country or on the roads.” Cushing-Murray takes a simpler approach: “Running faster than the guy in second place.” The thoughtful Pete Magill responded to the question of strategy this way: “At this age (52), race strategy no longer revolves so much around beating your opponents as it does around maximizing your own performance. So my focus is on preparing for the race with the kind of whole-body training that lessens the possibility of injury while making sure that my race fitness is high. And then, once the gun goes off and we launch ourselves from the start line, my plan will be to run smart--to run my own race--and let others make the kinds of race mistakes that leave them vulnerable.”

As for race day competition, Cushing-Murray set the bar high, saying he was “Hoping for overweight and out-of-shape competition; unfortunately, I expect to be disappointed...” For Pete Magill, he noted that “Competition in these masters events comes from four different sources: the team championship, the age-graded championship, the age group championship, and the overall championship--and they rank in importance in that order. If there's one thing I've learned over the past 12 years--during which my masters clubs have won 17 national championships in cross country and road racing--it's that you can't predict who's going to be tough on race day simply by looking at names on the entry list or faces on the start line.”

The training for the Cal Coast runners has been challenging, as most of them will also be competing a week before in Boulder, Colorado, at the 2014 USA Cross Country Championships. Taking the long view, Magill noted, “This race is both a focus and a part of the training process. Again, at this age it's a mistake to single out one race and try to peak for it.” Cushing-Murray, proving that he runs without a GPS or on a route of any known distance said: “To keep the math and training simple, I assume that every run I do is at 4 minute mile pace.  Since I run around an hour a day, I assume I'm covering 15 miles/day and about a 105 miles/week.  I doubt anyone else can run an 8k in 20 minutes, so I think I'll be ready for anybody...”

When it comes to the team competition for Brea, Magill takes nothing for granted: “There are some outrageously strong masters squads in the country these days--the Atlanta Track Club, the Bowerman boys from up in Oregon, and others--and we'll have to prepare as if they're all going to be toeing the line alongside us. We run national competition to compete against our peers in the sport--and, of course, to share a meal or a beer afterward. After all, after decades of competition, these guys and gals are some of our best friends!” A confident David Olds remarked “I expect Cal Coast teams to do extremely well in the team competition at Brea. Our 50+ A team will be tough to beat, and I think that our B team will be right at the top of the standings. I expect the same to be true for our 40+ teams, and I think that we will surprise a lot of people in the 60+ division as well. Coach Sumner will need to clear some space on his trophy shelf for this event.”

The Power of One: Rosalva Bonilla

The mighty Rosalva Bonilla is one of the most consistent competitors in the USATF Southern California Association. If there is a championship race, expect Rosalva Bonilla to be there at the starting line, ready to bring her “A” game. While most runners tend to reach a point of specialization, Bonilla still fearlessly races everything from marathons to track and field events, bringing home medals every time. In 2013 Bonilla earned a number one USATF National Masters ranking for women 50+ in both the 10 km and 5 km competitions. A dual Mexican-US citizen, Bonilla ran in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 1992 and 1996. Her marathon PR is 2:43.42 from 1992. When asked about her strategy for winning the USA Masters 8 km competition, the modest Bonilla replied “Probably I will not be the front runner but I will be doing my best to run close.” With her experience on the national level, Bonilla fully expects some of the best runners to compete at Brea, and at this time of the year she is focusing on training for the track season to prepare her for the 8 km course. Living in Big Bear, and doing training runs at altitude, Bonilla has a routine adapted by many elite runners living in Southern California: train at altitude, then crush the competition at sea level.

First in Southern California – Michael Jay Berger, Five Time USATF Phidippides Award Winner (Track Club LA)
In 2013 USA Track and Field recognized Michael Jay Berger (Track Club LA) as the first member of USATF Southern California to win the Phidippides award for five years in a row. The award recognizes “Outstanding performance and endurance in long distance running.” And Berger has certainly earned it: his first (and so far only) USATF national competition was the 2012 USATF 100K Trail National Championships in Bandera, Texas.  Twenty-eight percent of the starters dropped out before reaching the finish line, including many runners that Berger honestly admits were faster than him. Berger knows that he brings value to the National 8 km Championships not as a super star, but as a team member. Berger’s strategy for the Brea race is to “Recruit as many of my faster TCLA teammates as possible to join me. Then show up, have fun, and run as fast as I can.” Asked about the 8 km team competition, Berger remarked “I am proud to say that I will be competing once again for Track Club LA – the winners of the inaugural USATF So Cal Grand Prix in 2009.” In fact, it was Berger’s consistent participation in the 2009 Road Running Grand Prix that made the TCLA victory possible, with Berger coming in first overall in the men’s 50-54 division. It remains to be seen if Berger can take first in his division on February 23, but you can be certain he will be contributing as a member of his USATF Southern California team, Track Club LA.

Southern California Elites - Tania Fischer, Kirsten Leetch, and Ingrid Walters (The Janes Elite Racing)
Left to Right - Kirsten Leetch, Tania Fischer, and Ingrid Walters
The 2014 USA National 8 km Championships will provide the racing team of The Janes something they really need: competition! Except for the occasional one-off appearance of a women’s team at a SoCal cross country championships event, The Janes have handily run down the competition to take top honors, year after year. Team coach and founder Fischer took first place in the 2010, 2011 and 2012 USATF Southern California Road Running Grand Prix, and Fischer has already led her team to two national victories. Matching Fischer step for step is Leetch, a University of California Berkeley Hall of Famer. New to the mix is long distance running specialist, and 2012 USATF Southern California Marathon Masters Champion Walters. When asked about race day strategy, for Fischer it is all about moderating her pace. Fischer is a 5 km specialist, and so for her the race is about control in the first half. The tough-as-nails Leetch looks at race day strategy differently: “I plan on getting out with the leaders, hanging throughout the race and seeing what I have left near the end of the race.” The Janes know they will be facing some real competition on race day, and Leetch noted “We have plenty of great masters runners in the Southern California area and I am prepared every time I step on any line here in the area. I am hoping that we get a nice national draw to come out here from all over to come and race and I expect the best masters women to be on that line come race day.”

Leetch remarked on the quality of the USATF national competitions saying “USATF Club Nationals masters division stands out to me as the most competitive masters event in the nation. Those women are tough out there and they race hard like any youngster half their age. It's always humbling to go and race at that event.” Like many runners, Fischer and Leetch have been focusing their training for the upcoming spring track and field competition. Fischer finds the 8 km distance a nice fit for her training, while Leetch has been adding distance to her workouts. While the Janes show the modesty of honest athletes who know that training is the key to success, and that there are no short cuts to a first place gold medal, they also have earned a confidence in their ability to do well on race day, with a team made up of so many talented, nationally ranked runners.

The Dynamic Duo: Cindy and John Abrami (Santa Barbara Running and Racing)
Representing the Santa Barbara Running and Racing club is the formidable husband-and-wife duo of Cindy and John Abrami. Like many other USATF Southern California members, the Abramis are kicking off 2014 with the one-two punch of competing at National Cross Country Championships in Boulder, then coming right back the next week to take on the competition in Brea. While John Abrami finished 6th in his division at the 2012 Southern California Association Cross Country Championships, he is modest in his expectations for Brea, saying  the best he is hoping for is a finish in “maybe the top 10%, or if my whole life comes together at that moment a top ten finish in my age group.” While the results will show if John’s whole life comes together at Brea, Cindy’s strategy is remarkably similar to Pete Magill’s: “Keeping myself in top racing form is the best thing I can do to be prepared for the best race possible!  Since there are different ways to win (age group, age grade, overall), my best strategy is to focus on having the best race I am capable of and not worry about who I want to beat.  I love the age-graded system because it rewards runners who have good races within the context of their age and gender.  I will just want to have an excellent race for me!  It is typically best that I try to run my own race and not be pulled into a pace which is too fast for me, and then from there run a negative split and finish very strong.  It's common for competitors to go out too quickly, many of whom fade later in the race.  I run best when I'm consistent and run within myself, and of course gut it out at the end.” Well said Cindy!

Both Cindy and John are anticipating tough competition on race day, with both top Southern California and national runners attending. Cindy commented, “Who's to say how the race will play out for each of us and who will end up being the best on the day, but I fully expect a fast and tough race.” The Boulder competition will be the Abramis’ first national USATF event, and while they have plans for more high-level running, the Brea race, their second national event, will be a much shorter drive!

Ready to Rumble - Dona McBride (Team Runners High)
The ever competitive Dona McBride is just part of a women’s 50+ masters team from Team Runners High, ready to take on the competition. McBride’s teammates include the talented Suzi Morris, Kathleen Phair, Madson Buchbinder and Laura Sohaskey. Like Michael Berger, McBride has proven credentials as a masters long distance runner, taking home the USATF Phidippides award for several years as well. Asked about her strategy for winning the national 8 km championships, McBride joked, “The element of surprise! No one will imagine that I could win, so they won’t realize I am really competing until it is over (even me, honestly I just hope I am not last).”

McBride is a consistent participant in the Southern California Road Running Grand Prix, finishing first overall in the 2012 in the women’s 60-64 division. She also has previous national USATF experience, competing in the national half marathon championships, where she enjoyed the “excitement that a championship race brings out the best effort you have.” McBride competes in wide variety of races, preferring the longer distances. When asked about her 8 km training routine, she replied only “Track workouts once a week and long tempo runs, exact details are top secret.” In any case, it is no secret that McBride possesses that passion for running so prevalent among USATF masters runners, a burning desire to continue participating in the sport you love, no matter what your age!