MileSplit XC Journal: Zach Hebda- North Hills PA (Foot Locker 2010)

     As I reflect upon the past season, I happily wish to share a few parts of my journey while I acknowledge the unique accomplishments of my teammates and me.

     A few years ago, or even last year I would never have dreamed that I would be associated with great  North Hills runners like Mike Flynn, Tom Tobin, Steve Brown, Eric DeMario, Josh Eddy, and Ian Fitzgerald - all WPIAL (District 7) champions. When my teammates and I took an unprecedented 1st, 2nd, and 3rd at the WPIAL championship, I was rather satisfied. (photo at left by Doug Michaels) The season could have ended with that meet and it would have been enough, as we far exceeded our expectations. Far from being over however, it was only the beginning of quite the season. Let us begin post state meet.

Post State Meet:

     After the state meet I was pleased with my finish and truly was not even sure if I wanted to participate in Foot Locker. Juris, however, being his sly self, convinced Joe and myself to sign up. To put an end to Juris’ constant nagging, I registered at the last minute. I would unquestionably not have done this meet alone.

The Training Leading To Regionals:

    When we returned from Hershey Park, it was straight back to work for my teammates and me. The day after the state meet we embarked on a 12.2 mile run to shake the fatigue from our legs. Juris ran 6:14 pace, Joe ran 6:17 pace and I moseyed in at an embarrassing 6:33 pace. The following two weeks involved the most difficult training we had ever done. We grew utterly exhausted. Some of the key training sessions were:

Tuesday, 11-9: 10 miles at 5:48 pace, including two 4-mile cut-downs starting at 5:50 pace and getting 10 seconds faster each mile

On Wednesday, a simple easy fifty minutes was quite possibly the hardest recovery day of the year for me. When running for time in the trails I even layed down and took a brief nap.

Thursday, 11-11: a 10.8 mile run at 6:12 pace, incorporating a fast 3-mile cut-down, three fast 4-minute bursts, and a brutal series of hills near the end.

Saturday, 11-13: an hour and 46 minute run on the Penn State CC course with Juris where we ran into Wade <3

Tuesday, 11-16: 10 miles at 6:00 pace, incorporating two fast 5-minute bursts, and five fast 4-minute bursts (Probably the toughest workout I’ve ever run).

Thursday was the filming of “Sir Gwain and the Green Knight”, which included a feast. I ignorantly took part in the feast, a big mistake, and soon thereafter I was off to practice expecting an easy day. However we had a workout, which was a brutal 10.8 miler, including a lot of fast segments and some killer hills. Both Joe and Juris absolutely pounded me, never had I been so embarrassed!

This was followed by another hard week of similar training, leading to Regionals.


    The big day was rapidly approaching as we journeyed to Long Island, New York. I slept in the back seat of the Astro van and played pocket tanks with Juris and Joe while my mother and father rode in the front. Three in an Astro van, three in a room, three in a bed.

     Race day was extremely cold and windy and soon the skies began to darken and the clouds descended. As usual, I became notably nervous about the race, yet sooner than I had hoped it was time to go. I gave my teammates a final embrace which was followed by a last stride to the line. The race got underway extremely quick with a Bostonian out front leading the pack. I tried to get up to the front and get in position to qualify immediately, but I could not get my legs moving and was struggling to breathe. About a mile in I realized that I was nowhere near qualifying and concluded that my chances were shot. I attempted to hang with my teammates and held the same place, however (about 15-20th), until I reached Cardiac Hill. At the top of the hill I remembered that it was all flat to the finish and it was there that I knew I had a chance at qualifying. I realized I had to pick it up and I made some significant moves on the men in front of me, moving to 9th, and was fortunate enough to hold everyone else off to the finish.

Training for Nationals:

     The single most troubling thing about moving on was the training up to nationals and how it was done. Sure my teammates are often annoying, and when around them much of the time is spent bickering (Juris). Especially Juris when he decides to push the pace (especially up the police hills), and on days when we don’t even have to go that fast. However, in their sudden absence, it hit me just how lucky I am to have them. To run with and to push alongside of these fine men made me better and I have them to thank them for my success. Often while running in a race and struggling, I envision the guy in front of me as a teammate in a workout who I have no choice but to hang with.

The Sunday following the race I ran a 12.2 miler at 6:28 pace.

Tuesday and Thursday were both tough workouts in excess of 10 miles, with Monday, Wednesday and Friday being 50 minute recovery days.        
Saturday was my final long run of the season, a 13.8 miler. 6:09 pace felt surprisingly easy, and I knew I was ready.

The last true workout of the year was on Monday which was a 10 miler including a 4-mile cut down averaging 5:33. Wednesday was simply a three mile tempo run and some fast one minute bursts to get my legs moving quick.

The Trip:

     Finally on Thursday of week two I was on a plane to San Diego. Little did I know I was on the same plane as my girl Angel Piccirillo. When I arrived in San Diego I met with some of the other Northeast runners at Quiznos Subs and we journeyed to the famed Hotel Del. There were Palm trees everywhere in sight! When we arrived at the “game room” where Foot Locker was stationed, I was amazed to see many of the same runners whose pictures I had seen on the internet. Seeing Lukas Verzbicas for the first time was like opening that perfect present on Christmas morning which you have been waiting for months to receive. It was in this room where we received our keys to our gorgeous rooms and our bag of solid materials including stunning shoes and our team uniforms. The rest of the day included a wonderful dinner, photobooth with Chris Campbell, and team tattoos. Friday we jogged the beautiful Balboa Park course and had another lovely feast. As I spent time and talked with the other runners I grew increasingly nervous about the race before me. I am close to certain that I had one of the slowest two mile PRs of anyone there and it seemed as if everyone was a state champion in something. Friday night my roommate Blake Williams  and I drifted off to sleep to Yo Gabba Gabba around 9, so as to get plenty of sleep. I had a dream that Juris was in the race and crushed me.

     It seemed to be just minutes later that we were boarding the busses after an exceptionally silent breakfast and were on our way to the course. Fortunately, the girls ran first and the guys were able to relax under the tents out of the gorgeous San Diego sun. On the warm-up with Chris Campbell and John Murray, we expressed our feelings of anxiety and talked strategy. We all knew that the race would go out very fast, thus I planned to go out towards the back and work my way up.

     The time came and we were introduced impressively on the JumboTron and completed our last strides. After our “Beasts from the East” team chant we were off. I knew the race would go out swiftly, but I had not expected a 60 second 400. I was stuck near the very back and had trouble passing anyone and that's the way it remained. After a mile I was still close to last. Another half mile and I was in the same position. I told myself “I just have to beat someone, just don’t get 40th and that’s pretty solid.” Soon thereafter I was able to pass some runners, and the longer the race went on, the more I found myself overtaking.  I was exhausted, but the finish line finally came into sight. I was no longer fearful of getting last, thus I finished feeling good about the race. I was told I was 16th and was especially surprised that I was so close to All-American, but it turned out I was 18th. After the race, the pressure was finally off and I enjoyed myself the rest of the time at the park. I had an enjoyable cool-down with Chris Campbell and met Meb and some other famous runners and most importantly, Coach Engle from West Point. We were then sent back to the hotel with several hours free time until the banquet.

     In this period of time I played football on the beach, swam in the Pacific, ate a burger and fries, and was soon acquainted with many great kids from all parts of the country. I took pictures with the renowned. I had a pleasant talk with (my high school) coach Wilkie, too.

    Foot Locker did an incredible job of setting up the banquet which was quite an entertaining event. Many famous athletes including Olympic medalists and NCAA champions spoke to us about their experiences and gave out the awards. A pleasurable, satisfying dance ended the event and slowly but surely the whole adventure was over.

     The trip to San Diego was undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my life. I am thankful to Foot Locker for their hospitality and generosity and for producing such an amazing experience. Also, I couldn’t be more thankful for one in particular who has done much for me; I have coach Wilkie to thank for this entire season and for the success of my teammates and myself. Without him, Juris, Joe and I would certainly not be where we are today. Speaking of such, I also have to thank Juris and Joe for training alongside of me and pushing me every day. Finally, I extend my gratitude to Penn Track for letting me share my memorable and rewarding experience. Hopefully track season will bring further success.