Last weekend, a golf course in Palo Alto got a whole lot more than it bargained for. Yellow and orange flags, stakes, and powdered chalk covered the grass, along with hundreds of pairs of Nike and Adidas rubber-soled racing flats—but Pomona-Pitzer standout Annie Lydens PO ’13 prefers her red and white Asics on race days. At 5:30 last Saturday morning, Lydens threw those shoes into her gym bag, with Stanford’s golf course as her final destination.
Every year around this time, Stanford hosts its annual Stanford Invitational Cross Country meet. Runners from around the country make a pilgrimage to northern California for a chance to run alongside spirited athletes in a highly competitive race. Cross country hopefuls size up the competition at Stanford, looking forward to Regionals, “Pre-Natties,” and this year’s National Championship Meet in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Thousands of runners show up, and some lucky high school students run before the field opens up to collegiate runners in the 5k and 6k categories, each one anticipating their own challenges throughout the race from some fast-paced competition.
Annie Lydens and Pomona-Pitzer women’s cross country coach Kirk Reynolds arrived at San Francisco International Airport with little time between the rent-a-car line and the shot of the gun at the race site. Dressed in matching Sagehen swag, Lydens and Reynolds grabbed their bags from the baggage claim and drove the short distance to Palo Alto. It was to be a quick trip, a fast run, and a 45-minute flight home that night.
“I went into the race with a clear head. It was nice to be traveling with Kirk [Reynolds] again, dressed in uniform,” Lydens said. “It took me back to Natties [NCAA National Championship meet], and got me into that competitive mindset.”
Lydens last traveled with Reynolds, known fondly by his team as Kirk, to this spring’s NCAA National Track and Field Championships in Ohio. Lydens competed in the 5,000-meter race, coming in second place.
“I felt focused,” Lydens said, “and getting into that mindset made me concentrate on my purpose for being at Stanford.”
The pair arrived at Stanford’s campus and reunited with Pomona alum and star Sagehen Alicia Freese PO ’10. Annie and Alicia ran together as teammates for one year, and then Freese returned to coach the Sagehen women for a season. She and Lydens traveled to Waverly, Iowa last fall to compete in the Cross Country National Championship meet, where Lydens ran a PR of 21:27, coming in 9th. The two women warmed up together and talked pre-race strategy. At 11:20, moments before the friends were to part as competitors, Alicia turned to Annie to give her one last shot of wisdom.
“Annie, just remember: you belong here,” she said.
Whistles were blown and runners huddled up for one last pep talk before 6 kilometers of equal parts physical and mental agony.
“It’s such a competitive crowd,” Lydens remarked. “When Alicia reminded me that I deserved to be there too, regardless of division or school, things just sort of clicked.”
The NCAA official held his flag hand in the air, and with one quick wave, 278 women jolted awake, going from a stationary stance to a run in the click of a stopwatch. “The beginning was really chaotic,” Freese said. “It was a pretty big field of runners so we both got a slower start than we should have.”
The course wove through manicured lawns, taking runners around one small loop and then two bigger loops. “There was lots of overlap, lots of little turns and bends,” Freese said. “We looked at the course map before starting, and it was impossible not to lose track when you were running the race, and then we couldn’t really see the mile markers.”
Lydens ran the first mile with a pack that was so tight, runners couldn’t find their feet beneath bobbing heads and elbow jabs. “The beginning of the race was tough, and in that case it’s hard to stay focused and run your own race,” Lydens said. “I just tried to relax into the pace of the race, but it was hard not to feel a little trapped.”
And run harder she did. Lydens ran a strong 6k, with a finish time of 21:39, giving her a second place in Division III, behind only Jennifer Tave SC ’12 of CMS. Out of all 278 women, she came in 32nd, and 27th out of the collegiate runners.
“Looking at the results,” Lydens said, “I was lucky to have been running with such a strong group. Alicia and I spent a lot of the race moving up in the field, and it was great to have her and other really competitive runners there to work off of. It was a fun and competitive race, and a strong reminder of what the Nationals race is going to be like in Wisconsin this year.”
Lydens returns to campus looking forward to the rest of the season. She and the rest of the Pomona-Pitzer cross-country team will compete in a 6k race at 8:30 this Saturday, October 1 at home for the annual Pomona-Pitzer Invitational.