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Molly Seidel and Aliphine Tuliamuk in the final miles of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, February 29, 2020. Continue reading
Dateline: Thursday, March 26 – an undisclosed location in eastern Massachusetts
I’m jogging slowly along the trail, peering through the trees to find a likely path for cutting through the woods that separate me from a big, beautiful, empty 400m track. I know this is not the most direct route to take. However, it would not suit my purpose to go in by the main entrance where there is a barrier and a sign informing the public that the campus is closed. I don’t want any trouble. I don’t want to put anyone at risk. But on this particular March afternoon, I very much *do* want to get in a track workout, and when the urge to run 800s takes hold of me, I become a lawbreaker.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve tried to plan my runs to avoid people. Instead of running from my house, which would mean sharing sidewalks and roads with my neighbors, I’ve driven out of the city, parked in some remote lot, and run on roads with little traffic, vehicle or otherwise. But a track is almost by definition a gathering place, so it’s a little harder to find one where I can be alone. That’s why the track I’m stalking now is perfect; it’s never much in use in normal times, from my experience, and now the fact that it’s closed adds to its appeal.
Nevertheless, as I emerge from the woods and slip in at the back gate, I see that there is another human being on the track – a walker. It seems probable that, unlike me, he has a right to be there, but I find it easier to pretend that he’s a fellow bandit. Just in case, I retreat to a random runway that keeps me far from the oval itself and begin my elaborate routine of dynamic drills. I’m already thinking about how to avoid him if he’s still walking when I start running, but five minutes after I arrive, he departs, and I have the track to myself.
Drills finished, it’s time for strides, and as I accelerate into my first one, I see something that had escaped my notice during my drills. There is a police car parked on the access road about 100 yards away from the South entrance of the track. It’s near enough that anyone in the car will be able to look up and see me as I run the first turn and backstretch. In my head, I begin preparing my story if the cop drives up and asks me why I’m there.
I know what I WON’T say. I won’t say that I have a long history of trespassing, that I am, in fact, a repeat and unrepentant offender.
Yes, I have been doing this sort of thing for a long time.
As a teenager, I used to go with my friends to the Boyden Gym at UMass, hoping against hope that someone had left a door unlocked so that we could slip in and play basketball in the cavernous expanse (six full-length courts!) of the gym on the second floor. It was an early, guilty pleasure, and one that I have experienced many times over the years.
When I became serious about running after college, I found that winters in Boston made it imperative to find indoor track facilities. As an open (rather than a collegiate) athlete, the choices were few. Thus, began a long habit of sneaking into buildings where I had no right to be. I have at one time or another paid a visit to most of the college tracks in the area, returning to the ones that had lax security, or the ones that didn’t seem to care about a few runners so long as they didn’t show up during team practices.
On a few occasions when the usual haunts were closed over Christmas break, my friend Richard and I would sneak into the old Armory building on Commonwealth Ave on the weekends. The Armory had a funky but fast 200m banked track that would be assembled for the indoor season and then taken apart in the spring. The two of us would try to be as inconspicuous as possible as we made our way through the building to the hangar-like room that housed the track. I seem to remember that to avoid attracting attention, we’d leave the lights off and run our workouts by the meager light that filtered in from the skylights and high windows. Knowing that we were trespassing and in danger of being found out helped lend an urgency to our efforts. I think I ran some of my fastest workouts there, thinking every rep would be my last.
Why was it so hard to find a place to train, we would ask ourselves? Surely, the track was there to be run on, and that was all we were there to do. It wasn’t as though these facilities had any cause for concern from a couple of skinny distance runners just trying to knock out a dozen or so fast 400s. We would gladly have paid for the privilege, we told ourselves, but there was no way to pay dues. So we just kept sneaking in when we could.
It hasn’t been only indoor tracks. Almost anywhere I’ve traveled, I’ve always had to trespass on someone else’s track when the urge for intervals struck. For example, I’ve been to Atlanta twice in my life. On one of those trips I managed to get kicked off the track at Georgia Tech. (In retrospect this was not surprising, as I attempted to start a workout of repeat 800s at the same time that the football team was practicing. Whether the Georgia Tech coach thought I was a distraction, or possibly a spy scouting for a rival university, he wasted no time in bringing my attempted interval workout to a premature end.)
Three years ago, when I traveled with Tyler to Japan, he and I managed to sneak into the stadium where his Marathon would start and finish a few days later. We were fortunate that a local track club was there already, and Tyler was able to blend in (more or less) and manage a quiet set of 200s without alarming any of the polite but extremely rule-conscious officials who seem to be everywhere. While Tyler was running, I was practicing my excuses in Japanese, but fortunately for all concerned, I had no need to use them.
So why does a normally law-abiding person like me stoop to a life of crime when it comes to finding places to run? I think it’s because I look at tracks as public goods, as necessary to healthy society as open spaces and other natural resources. I believe, therefore, that no one — certainly no small-minded local institution — has the right to bar entry to a runner in search of a workout.
(I hear the objection that in these days of social distancing, there is a social good in keeping tracks closed for health reasons. We wouldn’t be well served by allowing runners to take to the tracks in thick crowds. But in my experience tracks are rarely crowded with runners in training; far more frequently tracks are overrun (pun intended) by walkers, or made uninhabitable by soccer teams practicing on the infield. In my own defense, almost every time I’ve trespassed, it has been on a near empty track.)
But all these reflections will have to wait. I am here, at liberty for the moment, and I still have a workout to do. Time, as they say, is of the essence.
I complete my strides with no interruption from the local constabulary. It’s a little cooler than when I arrived a half hour ago, but that suits me fine. I’m fully warmed up and comfortable, my body and brain alert. I’m in my element now, alone with six beautiful and empty lanes.
I start my watch and attack the first turn. It’s probably a bit too fast but I can’t help it; I’ll have to correct for this pace soon, but not just yet. It’s funny; even now I wonder if I’ll be allowed to finish, or whether someone will show up suddenly and start yelling at me to clear off. Instead of discouraging me, this idea encourages me to savor each quick step.
Is it possible, I wonder, before the effort forces me to focus entirely on the workout, that the reason I take such pleasure in what is about to be a hard twenty minutes of running, is the adolescent thrill of stealing these moments?
Stacked cushioning arrangement for shoe sole structure, from US patent application US20190365034A1.
“…Things move on, and innovation is normal. But when the innovation is so large and sudden, what happens is that it distorts the contribution made by the runner to performance. It leaves us unable to assess whether we are seeing a human advance, and a great human athletic feat, or one where the winner of the race might not even be the best runner in the race. So we celebrate Kipchoge, deservedly (I love watching him run, irrespective of any questions or doubts over anything), but in order to do so, we need to engage a degree of cognitive dissonance, because whatever he is doing is not comparable to what runners were doing even 4 years ago, at the time HE HIMSELF was running. We can’t even compare Kipchoge to Kipchoge. And if you’re an Olympic hopeful, running to qualify, for example, and you lose a race by 45 seconds and the technology stands to be worth 2:20, then I think this compromises the integrity of the sport and its fairness.” – Ross Tucker, “Evaluating Eliud“
“Tokyo Kokusai University’s Vincent Yegon […] busted the greatest performance in Hakone history, a 59:25 course record for the 21.4 km Third Stage, 2:01 off the old record set just last year and equivalent to a 58:35 half marathon. Announcers’ minds went blank, wondering out loud if the clocks were malfunctioning.” – Brett Larner, “Coming Down from Hakone” (Japan Running News)
“It becomes a problem only when it becomes too obvious, but it’s not too obvious until it’s too late!” – Ross Tucker, “Ban the Nike Vaporfly and Other Carbon Fiber Devices“ Continue reading
Running is repetitive, and it can become tedious, especially in winter when you seem to run the same roads over and over again.
If you are training seriously – perhaps for a spring marathon or a season of indoor track — perhaps you don’t need any further novelty to motivate you to get out the door. But if you find yourself wearied by doing the same thing over and over again, maybe you entertain the idea of a running stunt to add a little creativity to your daily slog. Continue reading
Newton North Varsity XC at Franklin Park, November 10, 2001
“Once thinking I was destined to be mediocre at pretty much everything, the fact that [Coach Blackburn] believed in me made me more confident and driven than I’d ever been on the track and off it. From two and three-lappers in the SOA to that ridiculous hill across from school, we always had it every time he yelled ‘You Got It!.’ I learned so much about hard work, self-belief, and motivation from coach. Thanks for always teaching, coaching, and believing that we could win it all.” – Noah Jampol, Newton North Class ’06
It began to snow on Saturday afternoon, almost imperceptibly at first, and then with increasing intensity as the wind picked up and more and more flecks of white materialized out of the gray sky. I was six miles into an eight-mile run when the first tiny darts started hitting me in the face. As I pulled up in front of my house fifteen minutes later, snow was dancing and swirling in the air, and I wondered, along with everyone else in the city, what the storm had in store for us, and how it would disrupt what had been a fairly mild winter to that point. Continue reading
“If the nearnesse of our last necessity, brought a nearer conformity unto it, there were a happinesse in hoary hairs, and no calamity in half senses. But the long habit of living indisposeth us for dying…” – Sir Thomas Browne
It seems to me that anyone claiming that running is an addiction needs to explain why it’s so hard, sometimes, to even get out the door. What self-respecting addiction makes withdrawal as easy as lingering over a morning cup of coffee, rather than venturing out into sub-freezing weather with aching muscles and brittle bones? Continue reading
As I stood near the start of the 2018 New England Prep School Athletic Conference Div III Cross Country Championship a few weeks ago, it struck me that — for the first time in about 12 weeks — I really had nothing much more to do. Around me there was constant movement of athletes, coaches, teammates, and supporters, but I felt no need to move. I pretended to make myself useful by “guarding” the small rectangle of muddy real estate that would soon be occupied by seven nervous Concord Academy runners, while taking in the scene around me and wondering if I had, perhaps, missed some important detail.
As I was considering this question, one of my assistant coaches came over and observed that different teams had very different ways of choosing to spend their final pre-race minutes. He pointed to a very fit-looking adult in running apparel who was barking precise instructions to his varsity athletes, directing them through a series of warm-up efforts, including what appeared to be a 400m run at threshold pace. His team looked impressive, certainly more impressive than our team, at the moment finishing a modest set of dynamic drills.
Thinking aloud, I mused on the theory of warming up, and about why runners might do the different things they do prior to racing 5K – jog for 15-20 minutes, perform dynamic drills, stride out, or run 400s at threshold pace. “Whatever the warm-up,” I concluded, “I think runners need to be able to do it properly, without any adult supervision. The last thing I want to be doing is coaching the warm-up and correcting the kids when they’re trying to get ready to race.”
There is a spectrum of coaching styles that represents a wide variety of attitudes about how much a coach should take control of a team’s actions. Those attitudes range from the most laissez faire to the most authoritarian. On that spectrum, I believe I am solidly in the vast, vacillating middle.
I do think details matter, and so I did insist at the start of the season on taking practice time to teach everyone how to tie shoes properly. Before we ran our first meet, we practiced pre-meet routine. I talked about how sleep and diet are the most under-rated factors in training, and how they and all the other little, overlooked things make the difference between improving and plateauing. Once the season was underway, I made sure we studied every course using maps and elevation profiles. We lectured the kids on taking course walks seriously. I think most coaches do the same things with their teams.
For the final meet, we made a special study of the Championship course at the Canterbury School in New Milford, CT. Two days before the race, we laid out a 300m stretch that mimicked the start of the actual course, and practiced that start, discussing how to get off the line smartly, and then quickly settle into the flow of the race before the adrenaline sucked you into an over-ambitious first 400m.
I worried about the unexpected, so we talked about what to do in case of a fall during the race. We even staged a simulated false start to prepare our top runners for the possibility of an actual false start happening and not being called back. And on the day before the race, I told the team exactly where I wanted each runner to be positioned in the starting box, and why. That was a new one for me, and maybe a little too far in the “control freak” direction. Truly, there wasn’t much more to be done other than make sure everyone got on the bus bright and early Saturday morning for the three-hour trip to Connecticut.
And when we were finally underway with all runners accounted for, I left the control freak at home. As the bus sped down the highway, an eerie calm descended on me like an early November mist. I had stopped worrying and merely wondered how it would all turn out.
In my own experience of racing, I’ve found that nervousness comes and goes, without any obvious correlation between the importance of a race and my anxiety level. I’ve been very calm before races where there was a lot at stake, and I’ve been very anxious for fun runs where there was absolutely nothing on the line except my own private expectations. When I do feel nerves, I try not to amplify those feelings by thinking too much about them. I trust that butterflies are ephemeral, and won’t affect me one way or the other once the racing starts. I’ve never once been nervous after having survived the first 30 seconds of a race.
I try to share that perspective with the runners that I coach, but strangely, coaching brings out a very different pattern of nervousness for me. When I’m coaching, the state of my emotions is closely correlated with my assessment of my athletes’ readiness to compete. If I feel we’ve been ragged in our preparations, then I’ll likely be very nervous. Not only that, I’ll feel compelled to adopt a pretense of confidence, to avoid spreading my nervousness to my athletes.
If, on the other hand, I feel our preparations have been good, I’m generally not nervous at all, no matter how big the meet.
On the day of the New England Championships, I felt quite calm. Our preparations had gone well, I thought, and everyone was healthy. Had they gotten enough sleep the past few days? Had they eaten well? Had they remembered their spikes? If not, it was too late to worry about them. Having these things out of my control was a relief and a reminder that, ultimately, it was their race to run, not mine.
Of course, I would be present, and I might even do some by reminding them in our final huddle out on that muddy field that they were ready to do well, not because of the fast times that they brought to the race, but because of the focus, preparation, and commitment that they had shown demonstrated since the first day of practice.
But I wouldn’t worry about giving last-minute instructions, no matter how brilliant, because I judged that saying more, or expecting athletes to do more, is usually the exact opposite of what runners need in their final, anxious moments of mental torment before the starting gun releases them to run their race.
A few minutes before the start, I walked away from the throng of runners lined up along the sweeping arc of the starting line, and away from the throng of spectators in their warm winter clothes, all ready to yell out encouragement as the starter’s gun fired. I staked out a spot on a small hill about 200m from the start where I would have a good view of the early stages of the race.
The boys varsity race was the first of four races, and I knew that our girls would start their warm-up five minutes after the boys began running. I was confident that they, too, knew how to manage the next half hour without me, but I made a mental not to meet them at their starting box right after the boys race finished.
And then I watched the first race.
Our top runner made me seem like a fortune-teller by falling about 250m into the race, and then calmly picked himself up and proceeded to make his way gradually and without panic back to the front of the pack. He would end up finishing second overall.
Our second runner, a freshman, went out aggressively at the start, but then settled in to defend his position, avoiding the mistake of running the first mile too hard. would finish ninth overall.
Our third runner began well, but then began to labor about a mile into the race. I’d learn later that he had been hit with a bad side stitch, which stayed with him for the rest of the race. He suffered, especially on the big hill in the final mile, but managed not to lose too much ground, and out-kicked four guys in the final 100m to finish 26th.
Our fourth runner ran a personal best to finish 31st. Our fifth runner finished 35th, and then revealed that he had run the last mile with his right foot hurting so badly that he couldn’t walk in the finishing chute.
Our sixth and seventh runners ran personal bests, our sixth wearing spikes he had borrowed from a JV teammate after finding that he had forgotten to pack them in his travel bag that morning.
We had run well, and I was proud of them. We took some quick photos, and then I was off to the start of the girls varsity race. After that, there were two JV races. After that, there was another hour for refreshments and napping. It was well after dark when the host school coach finally began the awards ceremony.
We had five runners in the top 20 of the JV race, and cheered as they went up to receive their ribbons. We had two varsity boys and one varsity girl in the top 20 of their respective races, earning them All-New England honors. We cheered again.
Finally, the team awards, and four hours after they had run the race, our team got to hear how they did. It’s a funny thing (to me) that they keep this information secret for so long, but that’s another thing that I can’t control. I suspected that we had done well, but whenever anyone asked, I said that I didn’t know the scores, but I thought we had done enough, and was proud of how we had run.
Then the top 10 boys team places were announced, beginning with the 10th place team. With every school’s name that wasn’t ours, we got a little more excited. Finally, the second place team was announced, and it wasn’t Concord Academy. A few moments later, our varsity seven were heading up to the front of the gym to accept the NEPSAC Div III Championship plaque and pose for more pictures.
Someone took a picture of me, too, as I stood at the back of the crowd. It looks like I’m staring at my phone (I was actually texting the news to my Athletic Director back at CA). I look pre-occupied and not particularly happy. Actually, I WAS happy, but mainly because winning seemed to me to be a nice way of sharing something special with each other, and also with the rest of the school – something that memorialized a season of working and dreaming together.
Like butterflies, the elation of winning proves ephemeral. Soon, it’s on to the next season and the next race. In the future, we might run better and be beaten by a stronger team. Or we might field our strongest team ever, as we did three years ago, and then have our top runners sick or injured, and finish off the podium. There are things I can control, and many things I can’t.
And I think it’s essential for my coaching that I be OK with that.