I woke up Sunday morning in a surprisingly cheerful mood.
What was this all about? After all my complaining about February, what would account for this change of heart? Was it the sudden invasion of warm weather, the smell of waffles and coffee wafting up from downstairs, the sight of patches of earth in our front yard when I went out to get the paper?
Yes, it was probably some combination of all of those, plus one other thing: I was NOT heading out to Amherst to race the D.H. Jones 10-Miler against hundreds of the toughest runners in New England. Three of the last four years I have made the trek to my hometown to run in this race, which for some inexplicable reason has become a staple of the USATF-NE Grand Prix Championship Series. I mean, I love the town of Amherst, and I always enjoy seeing my Mom, who still lives there, but the race itself is brutal, featuring nasty hills, two miles of dirt road (which is either muddy or icy depending on the weather), and the usual fierce New England competition.
But while my teammates were toiling away earning valuable Grand Prix Series points out there in Western Mass., I had other plans. Specifically, I was planning to enjoy a leisurely morning before heading over to Harvard to compete in the USATF-NE Indoor Track Championships. This was the latest step in my “master” plan to prepare myself for the USATF Masters Indoor Championships in March. Sunday’s mission was to run two hard races within the span of two hours: first a Mile against open runners, and then an 800m against a field of only masters (over-40) athletes.
My legs had been feeling pretty good considering that I’d put in some hard work the over the previous 8 days. I had raced a mile on the 2/15, run an 11-miler with Kevin and Tom the next day, snuck into Harvard to do some legitimately fast speed work with Patrick on Tuesday, and then done a few very quick 200s on Thursday. It was starting to feel normal running faster than my mile pace, a good sign that something positive was happening down there in the muscles.
I got to the track with plenty of time to do a nice slow warm-up, which included twenty minutes of easy running outside, and about the same amount of time inside doing a full complement of dynamic drills on the infield of the track. I was in the slowest of five heats, so there was no rush taking care of all the stupid little things that you have to do to have the privilege of stepping to the starting line:
- Get your competitor’s number and pin it on
- Check in with the clerks to let them know you’re there
- Check in again a few minutes later to get your lane assignment and corresponding “hip numbers” to stick on your singlet and shorts.
- Remember that you left your spikes in your bag, so go retrieve them
- Do strides along the backstretch while trying to avoid interfering with the race that’s taking place
- Finally report to the starter
I also had lots of time to review my race plan. I was determined to go out slowly, in last place if I could manage it, and try to run negative splits. Supposedly, everyone in the mile had run a qualifying time of 5:00 or better, but I think some of those times must have been “aspirational.” I suspected that my heat would be full of runners who would start off quickly and then die. I didn’t care; I was planning to ignore them, if I could.
There were 17 runners in my heat, a little bit too crowded for a mile race on a 220-yard track, but not unusual for the “slow” sections. In line with my plan to run in last, I gave up my place on the starting line and chose to begin behind the runner in lane 1. When the gun went off, I waited a split second to avoid stepping on anyone’s heels, and then loped off after the field. It felt very comfortable to be in the back.
In each of my previous races this winter, I’d reached halfway feeling mentally and physically red-lined, wondering if I’d even be able to finish. On Sunday, I wanted to change the pattern: get to halfway feeling good and run negative splits if I could. The first two laps went according to plan as I ran them in 37 and 37.5 seconds, to come through the quarter at 74.5. I felt very comfortable and that it would be no problem to maintain this pace for a while. The next two laps went by very quickly, and I hit the half-mile at 2:30. By then, I had started passing other runners, but without making any special effort. I felt as though my mind was in some weird neutral state, where it wasn’t really absorbing or paying attention to the signals of impending oxygen debt that surely must be arriving somewhere in my brain. I had this strange sense of… play… and was actually looking forward to the next few laps.
As I reached the end of the fifth lap, my meditative state was interrupted by the arrival of a tactical problem. As I had foreseen, a number of runners had started too quickly, and now a crowd of them appeared in front on me, slowing down together, clogging up the inside two lanes of the track. It only took me a moment to recognize that I had to make a choice: keep to my plan of staying relaxed and kicking late, or spend the energy a little sooner than I had planned to make my way around the crowd. I chose to move, and accelerated around and past the crowd on the back straight of the sixth lap. Having kicked myself out of my steady rhythm and upped the pace, there was nothing to be done but try to hold it, so I kept pushing, hitting the three-quarter mile in just under 3:45.
My seventh lap was good, and it would have made a great final lap. Oh well. With a lap to go, the clock read 4:21, but I didn’t have another gear. I held it together pretty well down the back straight, tried to use my arms around the final turn, and got a little ugly at the end, but still crossed the line in 4:59.15, finishing 8th in my heat.
In my experience, the physiology and psychology of doubling are very peculiar and counter-intuitive. Although the body is tired, the muscles are also awash in the various enzymes to facilitate more running. And although the mind is tired, the terror that preceded the first race has completely evaporated, and has been replaced by a feeling of detachment, a relief after the earlier anxious anticipation.
I just finished a mile and now I’m going to race my first 800 in five years? Yeah. Whatever. No problem.
I had about two hours, so I changed out of my spikes and into my flats, and headed out for a cool down run. When I got back, I did a little light stretching. I drank some Gatorade to get my blood sugar back up (and also to fool my brain into thinking everything was fine). I elevated my legs. I hung out.
After an hour that felt like ten minutes, I realized it was time to start getting ready for the second race. I began warming up again, performing an abbreviated version of my morning routine. I did a few drills. I switched back into spikes. I did a few strides. Through all of this, I felt very, very calm. I had no worries at all. Who worries about an 800, anyway? Maybe if you’re really fast, you worry about tactics or something, but for me the race ahead seemed very simple and straightforward: run fast enough so that it would be over before I realized what was happening.
Because this was a masters race, there were a wide range of abilities thrown together into one heat. I was seeded third, so I was right there on the line this time, and when the gun went off, I got a good start, taking over second place. (Distance runners really should practice their starts more often.)
There was one guy in the race, some “young” master, who took it out very hard. He was already a couple of second ahead as we hit the far turn. I ignored him for the moment and concentrated on running fast while exerting minimum effort. I hit 200m in about 34 and felt fine. That is, I didn’t feel like stopping. Actually, I don’t even remember how I felt; there’s not enough time in an 800 to analyze these things.
Out front, our leader lengthened his lead. He was no concern of mine. If he could run that fast, it was none of my business. And if he had erred by running his first 400 in 64, well maybe I’d have a chance to reel him in, but there was nothing to do about it for the moment, so I just kept the rhythm, hitting 400 in 68-high. It occurred to me that I hadn’t run that fast for a 400m interval all winter.
Into the third lap, and I could sense that I was slowing a little, but I was also doing a good job staying relaxed and keeping my form together. I also realized that the leader was no longer pulling away, and might, in fact, be coming back a little. Into the final lap, I finally started feeling the effects of the fast pace. I held on down the backstretch, gaining, but not by enough, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to close the gap. With everything starting to lock up, I managed to keep my stride more or less intact across the line, finishing in 2:19.23, just a couple of seconds behind the winner.
I don’t know why I spend so much time thinking about these races, except that I learn something new every time. Or maybe I forget and re-learn the same things over and over. I don’t know.
I think that the mile was about learning how important it is to be able to accelerate in the latter stages of the race. I need to keep working on that, by being more relaxed early. I think that the 800 was about learning that speed comes more easily when the mind isn’t anxious. I’ve been working on that forever.