It was my honor and joy to travel with the ARTC senior team to the USATF Junior Olympic National Championship competition in Sacramento, California. My role involved planning and preparing meals, and generally serving as a female chaperone. I never traveled for sports as a kid, and I ran a whopping total of one track meet in high school, so I had a lot to learn on this trip. Nonetheless, I had the time of my life with this group! I thought I would write a bit about what goes into the team travel experience, for those who might be wondering what it’s like. We will start with the three-day travel journey, since some may be impressed to know that we drove to California:
“It’s official drop-off time for athletes, and the runners are ready to go. Lateness is not “a thing” for this group.”
Day 1: 5:20 AM, Cave Springs, AR
I mix up UCAN energy+protein in my shaker bottle and check my most recent texts. Shawn has let me know he’s outside my house already, in the team Ford Transit van. He is early!! I open the garage door and we load up my duffel, several Sam’s club boxes of snacks, and a cooler of meat and cheese to make wraps on the road. Time to roll.
6:00 AM, Lowell, AR
By now, we have also picked up coach Nicholas Huisman, we pull up to the Workman’s travel stop. It’s official drop-off time for athletes, and the runners are ready to go. Lateness is not “a thing” for this group. Everyone piles into their pre-selected van seats with their backpacks. Snacks, supplies, and a few duffels are tucked under seats, in aisles, and under some feet. It’s tight but it’s cozy, and the kids are all asleep within minutes of the journey.
2:30 PM, Santa Rosa, NM
Just a few miles off of the highway is a beautiful spring known as Blue Hole. Blue Hole is well-known and loved by ARTC travel veterans! It’s 61 degrees, and felt a lot like an ice bath to me. After our 40-minute run in the blazing sun and heat, it was worth the chill, and revived us all for the last leg of the trek to our first overnight spot in Albuquerque.
6:30 PM, Albuquerque, NM
The entire van unloads at Home2Suites. In the rain! Everyone quickly lugged stuff inside, and loaded back up in the van for dinner. We found a local pizza restaurant that could seat our exceptionally large group! I think that eight 18-inch pizzas were consumed among 12 athletes. We all fell asleep pretty quickly after getting back to the hotel.
Day 2: 6:30 AM, Albuquerque, NM
All the luggage was back in the lobby of Home2, and our kids swarmed the hotel breakfast area before loading back up. Coach and I had attempted to stay on-track with workouts by getting a strength session in the fitness center. After using a wicker footrest and back wheel of an elliptical as benches, we kinda surrendered strength training for the coming week.
Day two’s drive was gorgeous as we passed through the red rocks of New Mexico, and watched the terrain change into mountains in Arizona. Personally, I had a great time on this leg of the trip. We listened to sports science podcasts to educate ourselves on sodium consumption and altitude training and swam in the Colorado River near Topak, Arizona, before completing our trek to Bakersfield, California.
7:00 PM, Bakersfield, CA
Van unloaded into Home2Suites. Clothes changed. Athletes outside for shakeout and strides. Athletes upstairs for quick showers. Van reloaded and off to Chipotle for dinner. Not sure if any of us realized how late it was by that point, but we all managed to make it through the line before they closed at 10 PM. We ate, ventured back to the hotel, and (at least the girls’ room) fell asleep fast.
9:30 AM, Bakersfield, CA
Coach and I managed to get 10 miles in (before our own running schedules really fell off-track), then joined the rest of the team in the Home2 dining room. Most everyone enjoyed a little extra sleep this morning. We loaded up for the final leg to Sacramento. If you are still reading these paragraphs, awesome! But I have probably bored people talking about driving so much. Just giving the true account of the story.
4:00 PM, Sacramento, CA
AirBnB is unlocked. Van unloads around the back, and the team systematically brings bags inside and disperses between the rooms. While this is happening, I run (I think literally, had to move fast) through the kitchen to survey cooking utensils and supplies, to decide what we need to buy. Once the van is empty, Nicholas and I hop back in and take off for Sam’s and Walmart.
Sam’s and Walmart are a little different in California. As in, not as posh as they are here in Northwest Arkansas. If you never thought Walmart was posh, you should go to a Walmart in another state. And by posh, I also mean well-stocked. Anyway. About two and a half hours later, we head back with a van full of food, new air mattresses, sheets, and blankets.
7:00 PM, Sacramento, CA
I planned to make pasta with chicken, alfredo, and marinara sauces for a relatively quick-prep dinner that could meet all dietary needs. Somehow, we were unable to find chicken at either store, so we improvised by picking a lean sausage, thinking it would cook quickly. I filled the huge stock pot we bought to make a large batch of pasta, and eventually realized it would not boil. The stove top required specific cookware for induction heating, so I filled all three of the house’s pots with water, and thought maybe we could still make pasta in a few batches. But still, I only got one pot to boil, and by about 8:15 PM we had one pound of pasta cooked for 17 people. Shawn asked me if I thought we should order pizza, and I swear I saw a halo over his head. It was 9:30 PM when we all ate.
“To see each one of these incredible kids stretch their own mental and physical limits moved me deeply”
Daily Life at Nationals
We fell into a rhythm of life at the AirBnB and daily trips to the track for races, living like a huge, goofy family. Since the competition is spread over the course of a week, only a few events happen each day, so we were never at the track very late in the afternoon. Evenings were recovery-focused, with shakeouts, stretching sessions, and ice baths before dinner. Shawn would quiz the athletes on human anatomy and exercise science to “earn” their spot in the dinner line, which was fun. Then we would eat, and watch a movie all together in the living room before bed.
My first night as ARTC head chef may have been a flop, but we got a system going by night two. I did end up boiling pasta one pound at a time (with the one good pot), and re-using some of the pasta water to save time. Probably not the way Ina Garten does it, but it worked out! We managed to find chicken at a Safeway, and the chicken alfredo ended up becoming a pre-race favorite towards the end of the week. I honestly had so much fun serving the athletes by making food, and I would go back to do it again in a heartbeat!
What really made the experience special, however, was watching our athletes race. I attend practice regularly, and I know how hard they work. Their performances at nationals were truly the culmination of that work, and it was beautiful to see. I got to learn more about the strategy involved in coaching, and how many seemingly small decisions impact each athlete in big ways. And I got to cheer each one of them on, alongside their parents and the teammates who were not racing. To see each one of these incredible kids stretch their own mental and physical limits moved me deeply, and I could only respond by screaming my heart out for them on the sidelines. It was pure joy.
We have something incredible in Arkansas Track Club. It’s the product of a great group of people: our coaches, our athletes, our families. Though I did not really fit any one of those categories as a chaperone on this trip, I felt so fortunate to be included in the experience. I would stand over that tiny pot to boil pasta all day, every day for these people! (But hopefully next time, we can boil more than one pound at a time.)