It had been six years since my last appearance at the USATF National Masters Indoor Track and Field Championships. In 2008 I had just turned 50 and was looking forward eagerly to competing in my new age group. Unfortunately, in my eagerness to prepare, I had done some stupid things in training and developed a hip flexor injury that ruined my stride and would hamper my running for months. Nevertheless, I ran in the national meet that spring, struggling through the 3000m in 10:01, finishing a discouraging eighth.
When I decided to make the 2014 National Masters Indoor meet the focus of my winter training, it was with the idea of running the mile, which I consider my strongest event. But when the time came to enter, I decided to double, adding the 3000m on Friday afternoon to the mile on Saturday afternoon. I had my reasons, but chief among them was the distant memory of the 2003 meet, when I did the same double and ran my best mile of the season — maybe my best competitive mile ever — just 18 hours after running a fast 3k. One thing I knew about myself is that I would be super nervous for the first race and more relaxed and focused for the second one.
I arrived at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury a little after 2 p.m. on Friday afternoon. The track was bustling with activity, with a number of events underway. I knew I had plenty of time (my race was scheduled for 4:08), so I took my time picking up my number, putting down my stuff, and trying to stay relaxed before it would be time to start warming up. I took a moment to take in the scene and think about the strange world of Masters track and field.
Meets like these are a unique mixture of world-class athleticism and the ethos of an all-comers meet at your local high school. Because many of the same athletes show up year after year, the meet feels like a big family reunion. The indoor championships are much smaller than the outdoor championships, and maybe that contributes to the intimate atmosphere (I’ve never been to the outdoor championships).
I take the meet very seriously as one of the few chances I have to experience the intensity of racing in close quarters against actual people, and not against the clock. But not everyone approaches the meet with the same somber determination. There is a lot of fun, and a lot of try-something-for-the-hell-of-it goofiness going on, too. Some of the races in some of the age groups are very competitive, and some are so thin that showing up and finishing guarantees you a medal. It’s all good, though, and only goes to prove that the older you get, the more important just “showing up” becomes.
I had already passed the first and most important test; I had managed to show up, healthy and uninjured.
The entry list for the 3000 Friday afternoon suggested that it might be a lonely experience for me. The top two seeds in the race were Whirlaway’s Craig Fram, who still holds the American Record for the M45 3000m and was seeded at 9:39, and Los Alamos TC’s Blake Wood, who won this event at the 2011 National meet and was seeded at 9:40. I was seeded a distant third with a time of 10:03, and behind me, there was no one under 10:20.
What I really wanted, and what I set my mind to, was to run 40-second laps for the first 2k and then close the last 1000 meters fast enough to go sub-10:00. What I really DIDN’T want to do was go out hard and die, so I figured if Fram and Wood pushed the pace early, I would let them go and run my own race.
When the gun went off, Fram took the lead and — to my surprise — settled into a pace that was exactly what I was hoping for. Later he would tell me that he hadn’t been anywhere near a track for many weeks, and that the moderate pace actually felt fast to him. In any case, he was running 40-point laps like clockwork and I was happy to follow, with Wood on my outside, and 3-4 other runners nipping at our heels. In this arrangement, we went through the first 1k in 3:21.
The pace didn’t vary over the next three laps as Wood took over pacing duties, but the steady tempo did manage to thin the pack, and it was down to four of us as we hit 1600m in 5:21. Seeing the split, or perhaps following his pre-race strategy, Wood began to push the pace, with Fram covering the move immediately. I thought, “here we go,” and prepared to watch them pull away. Then a strange thing happened. They didn’t pull away. The gap that had opened briefly between me and the two leaders closed again. There were only the three of us now, and although we were running 39-second laps, the pace felt manageable as we hit 2k in 6:40 (2nd k in 3:19).
I almost never think that a 3000m race is fun, but that last 1k was pretty close — hard, but completely absorbing. It felt like every one of the last five laps was a little faster, a little more intense, and as much as anyone else watching the race, I was curious to find out how it would end. After another two laps at 39s, we were at 7:58 with 600m to go, and I could start to sense the finish line. Down the backstretch of the next lap, and without deliberation, I suddenly decided it was time to stretch my legs. That’s not just a figure of speech; for the entire race, I felt like I’d been chopping my stride to run so close behind the others, and with 550m left, I had an unbearable urge to stretch out my stride. So I swung out around Fram, and passed him. It felt good. And then I passed Wood, and that felt good, too.
In hindsight, I don’t know whether it was the right thing to do. Stephen Peckiconis, who was watching the race and taking splits, said that he was hoping I would bide my time to the very end since he felt I had better closing speed than the other two. He might be right. But closing speed in a 3k when you have been running for 9+ minutes and closing speed in a mile when you have been running for 4+ minutes are not the same. Both Fram and Wood were distance guys with much better endurance. The pace we were running was not hurting them nearly as much as it was hurting me. I don’t think I “kicked too soon,” because I don’t think I really had much of a kick left. Still, it’s intriguing to wonder what would have happened if the pace had stayed right where it was until the final 200m. I don’t think the result would have been different, but it would have been a different race.
I held the lead for a little over a lap, and then on the final turn of the penultimate lap, Fram roared by, with Wood in hot pursuit. As they charged through the final lap with all the speed they had been saving, I was trying to hold my form together and finish as strongly as I could. Fram would hold his lead to win in 9:49.23, with Wood a half second back in 9:49.79. Although they had blown me away in the last 200, I still felt pretty good about my finish and my race. I ended up running the last 400 in about 76 and the last kilometer in about 3:13 to finish in 9:53.56, a season’s best by more than 10 seconds.
Ten minutes after the race, I was stretching and rehydrating and thinking about the mile.