MileSplit After Dark: Behind The Scenes At RunningLane

Thursday, December 2, 2021.

It was 6:16 a.m. on Thursday morning.

My alarm wasn’t set to go off for another 44 minutes, but I was awake.

Ironically, or perhaps not-so-ironically-enough, this would be the theme over the coming days.

Waking up well-before alarms, sleep-deprived, and fueled by coffee.

The life of a journalist.

I had a flight to Huntsville, Ala. leaving Denver at 11:40 a.m., and I needed to get to the airport before things got to chaotic.

Wait.

Let’s backtrack.

I mean, I had a flight from Denver to Detroit, where I would have a two-hour layover, then a flight to Huntsville on a regional plane small enough that I couldn’t stand upright anywhere.

It would be a days-worth of traveling.

And in 2021 (and 2020), that meant about eight or so consecutive hours of wearing a mask. And that’s just the trip to Huntsville, it was more along the lines of 8-9 hours on the way back…

Note: I fully understand that there are workers and entire industries out there who wear the mask for this amount of time or more every day. But for a writer who spends most of his time at home mask-less and in sweatpants and sweaters, it’s uncomfortable. And I won’t even mention (but am now) the beard.

On another note: I am pro-mask, and fully vaccinated.

I digress…

My mind was up racing over the variables of the day, which is normal for me when I’ve got something big looming in front of me. Like a cross country meet. Or a track meet. Or a state meet. Or the largest high school national cross country meet ever.

For a moment I took solace in knowing that I was already checked in, and got an aisle seat.

It’s the little things for tall people.

If you’re wonder why on earth I’d be flying to Alabama, it was because I was part of the MileSplit coverage team for the 2021 Garmin RunningLane Cross Country Championships.

It’s a mouth-full.

After a quick, traffic-less ride to the airport – compliments of my dad – the day was fully in motion.

When you’re anxious about what’s ahead, the only time you feel somewhat-ok is when you’re moving.

On the topic of moving – quick shoutout to Delta, who clearly have stepped up their game. Not only was I pumped to have an entire row to myself, but those sleek blue lights, leg-space, and power-outlets for my iPhone were on point for the two-hour, 40-minute flight to Detroit.

A whole row to myself? Apparently no one wanted to fly to Detroit…

With anxiety levels bubbling I couldn’t sleep, so I passed the time playing chess on my phone and listening to Something Corporate.

I might have lost the first few matches, but I beat that damn computer a few times to even the score.

By the time I landed in Detroit the sun was already dipping below the horizon to the west, and I hadn’t even eaten lunch yet.

It was in Detroit that I noticed another theme of the coming days – athletes and backpacks.

Runners.

All headed to Huntsville for the big show.

Little did they know, this guy (me), with this backpack, was also going.

But to cover it all.

Which consisted of slugging several pounds worth of camera equipment in my bag from one airport terminal to another.

It got a little heavy after a while.

I hoped my MileSplit backpack wouldn’t give it away just yet — sometimes it’s easier to absorb a story with more of a fly-on-the-wall existence.

People change when they know you’re watching.

The flight to Huntsville was packed on a tight regional plane. We were like sardines in a metal tube.

#BathRoomSelfie

And when I write “tight,” I don’t mean like “cool.” I mean it literally.

Elbows touching the on armrest. Bumping into bodies when you’re stowing your bag filled with cameras and lenses overhead.

Did I mention I get claustrophobic pretty easily?

The headphones came back on, only this time I moved forward in time to Jack’s Mannequin, and I went back to beating the computer at chess.

Eat my rook.

By 6:45 central time the flight touched down in Huntsville.

I sent the crew the above photo so they could see where to pick me up.

It’s on.

Cory, Olivia, Will, and Nancy, AKA Team MileSplit, rolled up in a while minivan that any soccer-mom would’ve been proud to show off in the parking lot after the game.

The only thing missing were proud-parent stickers on the back.

Proud Parents Of An Honor-Roll Student. Proud Parents Of A Cross Country State Champion. Proud Parents Of A Son Who Got A GED.

Dinner was next at a place Cory, AKA The Cory Mull, AKA Mr. MileSplit, AKA Cory With MileSplit, thought had great chips and salsa.

The reality was the chips and salsa were, ok…

Cory, if you’re reading this, come on man, you live in Texas… Also, Happy Be-Lated Birthday!

On another note, Cory was a shoe-in New York City-style taxi-driver over the weekend. If he ever wanted to trade in the pen for a wheel…

By 8:30 p.m. I was able to stop moving for the first time in about 11 hours.

I was worn from travel, but still anxious for the days ahead. Sleep came in short spurts.

Friday, December 3, 2021.

We fueled up Friday morning at a diner that looked like they had some legit discounts for anyone over 70.

I would’ve fit in more if I packed my cardigan, but I left it at home.

Cory’s shorts that sat just above his knee got some real snowy-haired lookers every time he got up. I had to remind him that showing knee was probably a bit risqué in their day.

After several cups of coffee, eggs, bacon, and toast, it was time to get rolling.

Several decades ago the day before the race was spent loosening up on the course, and visually preparing for race day.

In some ways, things haven’t changed.

Friday was spent at the course.

Only, it was spent on pre-race interviews, rocking up the social media presence, and something personal on my end – previewing the course.

I like to see the hills, and sometimes run them. I imagine how I’d run the course, where I’d surge, where I’d relax, and where I’d thrown down the hammer.

This way, I can get into the mind of the competitor.

It makes writing recaps a little easier when you have a better understanding of how the course affects the runners.

Just after lunch Cory and Olivia did their Live Pre-Race Show that American Mile record holder – The Alan Webb – jumped in on. 

Side note: Behold the stare-off between the two in the photo above. On that note, someone please caption it…

My high school coach — Andy Christie — briefly made a cameo in the back when he was wheeling the course.

We caught up for a bit — off camera.

The hours passed like minutes. The sun drifted across the blue sky, eventually setting to the west.

Somewhere along the way we learned that Huntsville was the largest city in Alabama. No one believed it at first. Then a quick google search confirmed it. 

It was a long day.

But it wasn’t over, yet.

Technical difficulties ravaged the live-stream that would be the bread and butter Saturday. And much of Friday afternoon and evening were spent trying to work out the kinks.

This is where the anxiety levels spike.

When a live stream goes down, prepare for the hate-mail, even if it isn’t your fault (it rarely is…) There so much that goes into it on a technical level, but all the audience sees is you in a red MileSplit t-shirt. The face.

So it must be your fault.

We couldn’t leave the course until we were somewhat comfortable that the stream would stick throughout the duration of Saturday’s races.

Friday Night Lights

Night fell, and Brandon used his car’s headlights to illuminate our production area, which was an array of computers, batteries, wires, cameras, and backpacks.

By 7 p.m. we were close enough to figuring it all out to finally head back to the hotel for dinner. Though, there was still that lingering doubt that something wouldn’t work in the morning.

In this line of work, there’s always another variable.

At the hotel bar Olivia was recognized and complimented on the leopard-print sweater she wore on On The Line several days earlier.

That’s gotta be extra…

Exhausted from the day behind us, and for the day ahead of us, we called it a night before 9 p.m.

The general consensus was that we needed to get to the course before 6 a.m. to set everything back up, and make sure it worked.

So, Cory set his alarm for 5 a.m.

Somehow I knew I wouldn’t make it to the alarm. Somehow I knew I’d be up well before it.

Per the usual.

I just didn’t know how early.

Sleep-deprivation is a real thing for writers. And it’s not usually because you have somewhere to be really early, it’s because your mind wakes up. If the body doesn’t follow to capture everything, it’s lost. And knowing that is haunting.

Saturday, December 4, 2021.

By 1:30 a.m. my mind woke up.

I tried to drift back to sleep, but it wouldn’t happen.

By 3 a.m. I told myself I’d get up within an hour if I couldn’t fall back asleep.

And that’s what happened.

After wrestling within the sheets for several hours I threw in the towel. I could hear Cory across the room tossing and turning in his bed, likely enduring the same sort of fretting.

I got up around 4:15 a.m. and heard him mumbling with the same frustration.

“Screw it, I’m getting up,” I said in the dark.

“Ugh, me too,” he responded.

Neither of us could sleep.

The life of a journalist.

The mind rules the body, and when the mind wants to get up, the body has to listen.

Getting up early did provide me with a enough time to keep my writing streak alive, however. 

Side note: I write every morning. It’s the first thing I do. I have to at least fill a page before I can go about my day. It’s a meditation of sorts. A grounding exercise.

So hey, there was that.

By 5:15 a.m. we made our way downstairs. Team MileSplit was ready to roll.

We arrived at the course well before the sun had begun its ascent into the sky. It was dark, just like it was 10 hours earlier when we left the day before.

Soon our anxieties spiked again.

It became clear pretty early on that our initial setup of having two cameras on two separate gators — one in front, and one on the side — would not work. Along with the two stagnate cameras — one around halfway, and one on the finish. They had worked the day before. But — variables are variables…

We still had the beef of the livestream — one main camera on the front gator, however.

But expectations were high. And with expectations came frustration when it was obvious that it wouldn’t work out the way it was planned.

But one of the things MileSplit does best is pivot.

We have to find a way.

We still had to cover the event to the best of our abilities, with what we had.

So we did.

There was Cory and Olivia running the live-commentary. There was Brandon producing the live stream. There was Will filming the live stream from the back of the gator. There was Nancy capturing all the energy of the event for social media. And there was me, taking photos and getting post-race interviews.

We all had our thing.

And mine consisted of a ton of running.

Fortunately I had some help from Ryan — former high school teammate, coach, and current MileSplit Georgia editor.

A back-story first…

Last week I was in Centennial, Colo. gathering information for a feature on the Arapahoe girl’s cross country team.

I was asked by one of the coaches if I still ran.

This is usually a two-response answer from me. One — Yes. I still run. B — Not the way I used to (I don’t “train…”)

My actual response was something more along the lines of: I run enough to be able to get around the course on Saturdays…

Case in point: RunningLane.

Saturday my workout was simple, but somewhat difficult over the duration of the morning: hill repeats.

I ran my way up the course from the 2k to the 2-mile, and up to the highest point of the course, which was right around the 4k marker. Then I’d sprint to the finish.

Catching runners at the 4k provided some challenges on its own — it meant that there wouldn’t be a lot of time to get to the finish.

I’d take as many photos as I could while Ryan would cue me in every 30-seconds. He eyed his watch and counted down until we’d sprint back down the hill like deer leaping across the highway, hoping to clear the road without a collusion.

Anyone who was there noticed the masses sprinting around the course. It was wild.

We had timed the earlier races and figured it took just over a minute to get from the 4k marker down the hill and into the finishing shoot to take photos and get interviews.

So, this meant that after the leaders ran by the 4k marker, I’d have a little over minute to take photos before darting back down the hill, hoping not to get slammed by someone else running another direction.

A solid reason to be in somewhat ok-shape.

We ran this like clockwork.

I’d get to the finish, attempt to catch my breath, then take photos and get interviews of exhausted athletes. I might not have run a 5k like them, but it felt that way after running the hill several times…

With each race the energy rose. And it culminated with the Gold Races — which were the National Championships.

True to form, they were historic.

It was exciting to be one the sidelines watching it all happen, capturing it with my camera, and my eyes. I absorbed it like a sponge, knowing that this doesn’t happen often.

There was so much noise, so much energy on the sides of the race, it had to be experienced first-hand to fully understand how awesome it was. There were thousands of spectators on the course Saturday.

Side note: the official estimation was 8,500.

Additionally, it was great to see athletes from Colorado perform. After covering them throughout the season, it was exciting to see them race on the biggest stage in the country. 

I’m no coach. I’m no parent. But I am a fan.

There were the Niwot girls, who won the RunningLane National title. There was the Cheyenne Mountain boys, who were runner-ups to the greatest team in history (Newbury Park.)

And both the Niwot girls and the Cheyenne Mountain boys could claim to be best-ever Colorado teams.

There was Zane Bergen, who ran 14:09 to dip under the Dathan Ritznehein‘s national record of 14:10 to finish fourth in the boys gold race. There was Riley Stewart who ran 16:28 to finish third in the girls gold race.

If there was ever a day or a place to be a cross country runner or a fan, it was Saturday at RunningLane.

The morning was a sheer celebration of the sport, and I was beyond grateful to have been a part of it.

Even if I was running on fumes.

Fumes as in a few cups of coffee, and some peanuts.

Side note: If you watch the above video carefully, (my cover photo by the way…) you can catch me on the sidelines twice — at 9:12, and 10:45 (race clock) in. Left side of the screen, dark blue vest with a light-red t-shirt. Hat with red and blue stripes. Right before the sprint down the hill…

I loaded photos to MileSplit from underneath the tent while connected to the hot-spot on my phone, eager to get them up as quickly as possible.

Speed is a thing.

Following the crescendo of the final race — which saw four boys break the national record and the best team ever assembled — my energy levels began to crash.

If the meet itself was a cell-phone hot-spot, I had been borrowing off the energy for hours. But now I began to feel the efforts of the day.

Charged for overage data.

I was aided by a shot of adrenaline when a unique experience presented itself to me — the Arapahoe girls team, of which I wrote a feature on days earlier — asked me to autograph their MileSplit t-shirts.

This was a first for me.

I’ve spent years focusing on writing stories and taking photos as best as I could.

I’ll be honest, I don’t like to really know if it’s working or not. Success creates expectations. And with expectations comes the stress of having to live up to your past successes.

As strange as this sounds, I prefer not to have a finish line. I want to keep racing as if I haven’t won, or lost. I almost don’t want to know how I’m doing, that way I’ll keep striving to perfect my craft. 

But Saturday, with a black sharpie in my hand, I couldn’t avoid it.

It was surreal, as strange as it was to be autographing t-shirts. I tend to write small, so I had to stretch my name across the backs with effort.

Seeing their smiles at the acceptance of this task was a moment I’ll forever be grateful for, because it told me that something I’m doing is working. I’m creating something positive for the world, and it’s being noticed.

That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.

I’ll admit, as socially awkward as I can be at times, it was a moment I’m glad I didn’t shy away from, which is my usual response when the big bright spotlight turns to me.

Hungry, and beyond exhausted, the moment of feeling the positive impact lifted me. For a few more hours, at least.

We ate lunch sometime around 3 p.m. — our first meal since dinner the night before, and got back to the hotel after 4 p.m. without any plans to meet back up until 8 p.m.

And this is the side of the life of a journalist not seen.

Now, with all this content — photos, video interviews, and a ton to write about —  it was time to produce.

There’s absorbing all the content, then there’s producing it.

Back in our hotel room, Cory went to work writing up recaps of the meet while I loaded all my interviews (a time-consuming task…), and began piecing together a Colorado-centric recap of my own.

Fatigue aside, there was work to be done. And no time for naps. Even if my eyes were heavy and my mind was beginning to fog over. 

By 7 p.m. I was crashing creatively. The well had dried up.

We had been awake for nearly 15 hours already, so we decided to throw in the towel on the day, and reward our survival with some adult beverages at the hotel bar.

The rest of the crew came down at 8 p.m., and we headed downtown to a burger joint where we met up with the RunningLane meet directors.

Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint was a tight spot with a strict No-Standing-Around policy.

We spotted the RunningLane crew lingering in the back with a few Colorado runners and their parents. Among them was the bashful Colorado-star Bethany Michalak, fresh off her 16:49, 10th-place finish.

Olivia, if you’re reading this, it’s pronounced Meh-hall-lick. Also Olivia, I’m just kidding. A for effort.

Side note: Bethany would’ve beaten the high school sophomore version of me by 10-seconds.

Side side note: We were probably about the same height then too.

Fortunately it was Alabama in December, so it was warm enough to feel comfortable sitting outside, since the inside was packed.

Shifting gears, or tones, hey you — the reader… Somewhere along the way I realized that this blog got really, really long. For that, I thank you for still reading. I’m impressed actually. Most people don’t like reading beyond 800 or so words. 1,000 at best.

This is already triple that.

So, thank YOU.

You deserve a break…

Ok. Shifting gears back to this behind-the-scenes blog…

It was insightful and exciting to chat with the RunningLane crew, who are clearly fans of the sport, and want to create an event that focuses on the athlete experience. I’m excited for what they’ve got in store over the coming years.

Genuine is the word I’d use to describe their intentions.

Won me over.

With burgers in the mouth, and beer in the belly, the night capped early. The previous two days had done their number on us all.

For the first night since leaving Colorado, I slept hard. Insanely hard. So hard that I once woke up, completely lost as to where I was.

Worth it.

Sunday, December 5, 2021.

The next morning we let ourselves “sleep in,” which in journalist terms, means about 8 a.m. Still, I was awake before the alarm. But not by much.

I dove into my Colorado recap, trying not to miss any last performance worth noting, which is hard to do on a fatigued mind.

But it must be done.

We walked to a coffee shop for a late breakfast and recapped the chaos of the previous days like battle-worn soldiers.

We had survived.

The MileSplit MiniVan dropped me off at the airport just before 3 p.m. And for once there was no security line. Or maybe I’ve just grown accustomed to Denver.

But when you’re tan, have long hair, and a beard, there’s always the potential to be “randomly selected” for additional bag checking…

Side note: That glass container with white substance in it is powdered magnesium. For sleeping. (Little help it did two out of three nights…)

After another tight sardine-packed flight to Houston the day turned into the night. I spent three hours in the Houston airport, a time of which I spent mostly playing chess on my phone and reading through tired eyes.

By 10 p.m. my flight to Denver took off, and I was beyond exhausted. I yearned for my bed. And to not have to think about moving.

Five chess games and two hours later the wheels touched down just after midnight mountain time. I had spent about eight hours in the confines of recycled air of airplanes and terminals.

The cold, crisp Colorado air hit my cheeks once I stepped outside. I breathed in the air — a clear 40-degree drop from where I came from.  

It felt good to be home.

Liz picked me up well beyond the time we usually turn out the lights, and we got home around 1 a.m. I devoured some chicken soup while my mind tried to slow down from the previous days. Remnants of days-upon-days of rolling down a hill. It’s hard to slow that momentum, even when your exhausted and it’s 1 a.m.

Excluding the five-plus pounds worth of camera equipment, computer, and various t-shirts and jeans, there was a lot to unpack.

Content-wise.

But one thing was for certain.

I wouldn’t be waking up before my alarm Monday morning.

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