Road to Nationals
(by Sully Shelton)
The morning before one of the biggest races of my career, I loaded up the car and left my house in Georgia to head to Cary. It was very early.. Our hope was to beat the Black Friday/Day-after-Thanksgiving traffic. I was exhausted, so I did what I normally do in the car. I slept. For eight hours, I slept. I woke up about five minutes before we arrived at the course and ate a little snack to get me ready to go for my run. I waited around for my coaches to get there and helped them set up our team tent for the next day. Of course, I had to get myself an NXR T-shirt before I took my preview of the course. It had been two months since I raced that course last, and surprisingly, not much had changed. The course was in pristine condition and I knew that the times were going to be very fast.
After I finished my first 3.1 mile loop, my teammates had arrived. We went for another loop and I completed my six mile pre-race run. We then headed back to the hotel to take showers and get ready for dinner. We laid around and watched Charli D'amelio Tik Toks while we waited for dinner. I had my normal pasta with meatballs and added a bacon cheeseburger with it. After dinner, we went back to the hotel, had our pre-race meeting with our coach, and then went to our rooms to pack up and go to sleep.
Race day was here! I woke up around 9:20, got packed, ate my routine two blueberry Thomas's bagels and headed to the course. As we were leaving the hotel, it started to rain. Immediately, my thoughts went to the conditions of the course. I knew that times would be slower than normal, which I wasn't overly excited about. When I arrived at the course, I put on my headphones and got into my race mentality. (Listen to Lil Uzi Vert if you want pre-race hype.) It rained a little during our warm up, but I felt good and I was ready to go. As we made our way to the start line, I felt confident that this would be my year to make it to NXN. I wasn't going to let anything stand in my way.
The gun fired and all 297 of us were off! I got out strong and by the bottom of the hill, surprisingly, was somehow in the lead. I backed off and "settled in," (well, as much as you can "settle in"when you go out in a 2:03 800.) I found myself in fourth place with Graham Blanks, Carlos Schultz and another competitor ahead of me. I could hear people breathing close behind me, but I knew that I was right where I needed to be. A group of four came through the mile marker at 4:31-4:34, and I knew we were in for a strong, fast race. As we started the long 600m incline, I started to work and finally felt relaxed and smooth. I pushed up next to Graham and we came through the 2k at 5:47.
The group of four, including myself, Graham, Carlos and Ian Harrison threw in surges as we made our way down the big hill and up the two smaller ones as we neared the two mile mark. Graham made a decisive move right before the 2 mile marker that I could not match and he started to pull away. I came through the 2 mile at around 9:34, and knew I had some work to do. As we entered the third mile, I knew I had to hang on. With 1200 to go, I started to break down, the same place I had broken down a year before, falling from 7th to 19th at this very same race. I was determined not to let that happen again this year. I was in third place at this point with Sean Stuck of Virginia closing the gap fast. He finally reached me and we worked together to close the gap on Graham and Carlos. He passed me with about 650m to go and I thought I was finished. My legs were lactic, my form was sloppy and I had nothing left in the tank. But, as I reached the 600m spot, at the bottom of the hill, one of my coaches,Jason Scott, was full on screaming at me. I can't remember exactly what he said, but I can assure you I have never heard a louder noise come out of anyone before in my life.
I knew I only had one giant hill left to conquer and I would be off to Portland. I started working the hill and I kept my eyes up. I picked off Sean and started to focus on Carlos, who was in 2nd place. As we raced the long straight away on the hill, I really started moving. I passed Carlos and reached the top of the hill. I tried to kick but I had nothing left in me. I fought with every step to the line as Sean Stuck came back and passed me with only 30m to go. I took a couple of wobbly steps before dropping to the ground at the finish. My body was exhausted, but my mind was even more drained. All I could hear was "GET UP, GET UP, GET UP!" After my faceplant in the mud, I got up, congratulated my competitors, gagged over the trashcan and eventually made my way over to our team tent.
After hugging my mom and dad, my best friend and teammate, Noah Connelly, came over and gave me a big hug. He understood just how bad I wanted this, and we could finally celebrate together. While we were disappointed with our 15th place finish as a team, we were happy for another opportunity to run together and for the experience of running at NXR. On our last cool down of the season, I had time to reflect on what had just happened. I was really in shock with what I had just done.
I have gone over every detail of the race a thousand times in my mind. Was it my best race? Nope, not even close. However, my performance last Saturday got the job done and fingers crossed, hopefully this weekend will be the race of my life, thus far. For the last six years, all I have thought about was qualifying for NXN. In my mind, I knew that the work had been put in, the mileage run, and finally, the execution took place. Years of preparation had led me to that finishing moment and despite feeling completely out of it at the finish line, I was thrilled with the outcome.
As I sit here and write this, it still blows my mind that I am flying to Oregon in just a few days to race at the best national high school meet in the country. I am so blessed and thankful to be in this position and I could not have done it without the help of so many amazing people. I am beyond excited to represent Georgia at Nike Cross Nationals.