“So this is why I say to you, train. Look after your body. Temper it with pain. And your body will amaze you; you will do things you thought impossible. That is why running matters. That is why Olympiads matter. Not for gold medals, those little worthless discs, but for their inner meaning, what they stand for. The Olympic flame is sacred, because it is the flame of human aspiration.”
– Brian Glanville, The Olympian
On March 14 and 15, I raced the 3000 and 1 mile at the 2014 National Masters Indoor T&F Championships. On Friday, I had been as nervous as could be for the 3000. After running well and finishing third, I experienced immense relief, and I felt calm and confident going into Saturday’s mile. I thought it would be a tougher race, but it was the race I had prepared to run and I was looking forward to it.
One thing that surprised me then and surprises me still is the importance I attached to finishing in the top three and earning a medal. I’m frankly embarrassed to admit this, and am likely as not to joke about it with family and friend rather than let on that I care. It’s not that the medals are precious in and of themselves. Even in the M55 age group where there’s high participation across events, there was at least one event on Friday in which just “showing up” would have earned someone a medal.
But I couldn’t deny that to me, earning a medal would feel like a kind of validation — a validation, if any were needed, of the time and attention I had given to preparing for the race. I’ve had moments when it seemed a little foolish and more than a little self-indulgent to spend so much time on something so trivial as running in an age-group meet. But at the same time I suspected that the only thing that would make it NOT foolish was to see it through to the end, give it my best shot, and accept the results.
When I put on my spikes and stepped onto the track on Saturday afternoon, I did a short pickup to stretch my legs, and almost immediately felt a burning pain in my right calf muscle. What had seemed like a minor tightness during my warmup, was clearly aggravated by running in the ultra-light spikes I was wearing, spikes that provided no heel support, forcing me to put my weight on the ball of my foot. It was hard to tell whether the pain would get worse or better when I started racing, and it was far too late to do anything about it one way or the other, but for the first time that morning I felt a little bit less than confident.
Thankfully, there was no time to dwell on this. We were called to the start, and my mind went completely, blissfully blank as we were lined up, and then given the command to walk up to the curved line.
The gun set us in motion, and the top seed, Carlstrom, took the lead. I dropped in behind him, and was immediately boxed in by a runner on my right shoulder. Right away, it was obvious that the pace was really slow, and runners were jockeying for position in the second lane, and also behind me. Wood, the silver medalist from the 3k the day before, went to the front and hung there on Carlstrom’s shoulder. I took all of this in, but if I had some thought or reaction to it, I have no memory of that.
My calf hurt quite a bit, but I could run. That was a relief. There was always the possibility that it would cramp up badly later in the race, but I didn’t think that was likely. I found it easy to relegate the pain to the category of a car dashboard light that can be ignored for tens or hundreds of miles. In my case, I only had to ignore it for another 3/4 mile or so. It was no longer an issue.
The first two laps passed by, and I was mildly surprised to see just how slow they had been. We passed the finish line (409 meters) in about 79-80 seconds. It would have been very comfortable, except for the fact that I had someone practically leaning on me the entire time. I tried to stay calm as our shoulders brushed more than once. Overall, I was very conscious of the fact that I couldn’t allow space to open up in front of me, because if I did, the guy on my outside would accelerate and drop into that spot, and I’d be stuck.
The situation resolved itself on the next lap. Wood didn’t like the slow pace, and surged into the lead. Carlstrom covered the move easily, and Wigglesworth and at least one other guys swung around from behind me and on my outside to chase after the leaders. I increased my pace, too, but as smoothly and gradually as I could. I didn’t feel any sense of urgency or panic. Meanwhile, the guy who had been on my right shoulder slipped back. I don’t know what the leaders ran for the second 400, but I ran about 76-mid and hit the halfway mark at about 2:35-mid.
The next two laps I just tried to work my way up to be in position to kick for a podium finish. At the front, Carlstrom had hit the gas, and was pulling away. I think Wigglesworth was now in second, with Wood and another guy in third and fourth. I was in fifth, a second or two back, but still running within myself. At this point I had one very clear thought about the race: the leader was gone, but everyone else was within reach. I moved into fourth and with two laps to go had contact with Wood in third. The third quarter was 74-high.
For the most part, when I watch a professional running event, I don’t see much that has any applicability to the races I run. But a week earlier I had watched video of Chanelle Price winning the 800m at the World Indoor Championships, and I had been really struck by how she described her approach to the last lap. She had used the word “punch,” as in hitting a particular spot and pushing hard, and had said that she wanted to punch twice over the final 200m. For some reason, this resonated with me, and I had made up my mind that whatever else happened I would try to “punch” twice, once with 350 to go, and then again at 150 to go.
So when I hit the backstretch of the seventh lap, I punched. I went by Wood into third and tried to hold the pace around the far turn and into the homestretch. According to the splits that Stephen Peckiconis was taking, my seventh lap was 36.6. Wigglesworth was running hard, too, and had about 2-3 seconds on me as I swung into the backstretch for the last time.
I accelerated again, throwing myself into the final 150 meters, trying to open up my stride without flailing. For a few moments, I thought I would close the gap, but Wigglesworth had been saving something, too, and maintained most of his lead, hitting the finish about a second and a half before I did. According to Stephen’s splits, my last 800 was 2:26, my last 400 was ~71.8, and my last lap was ~35.2 for a final time of 5:02.22.
Carlstrom was the deserving champion, running 4:55.43 in spite of the slow early pace. Wiggleworth took silver in 5:00.76. Behind me, Thomas Sherwood closed fast to take fourth in 5:04, while Wood faded to fifth in 5:07 and Robert Liebers (4th in the 3k the day before) was 6th in 5:08.
With the race over, my right calf completely seized up. I hobbled back over to my stuff and changed out of my spikes and into my flats. After walking a little and concluding that jogging would be premature, I made my way to the infield where the medical staff provided me with a bag of ice, and I sat on the infield and watched the high jump while icing my calf. Later I would try to jog again, but give it up after about a quarter mile. It didn’t seem like a very triumphant finish to the day, but I was satisfied. Maybe I could have run better, but I’d shown up, followed my plan, and I was ready to accept the results.
As for my calf muscle, I was a little annoyed at it, but only because it was a beautiful afternoon, and I would have enjoyed cooling down outside, and maybe the next day going for a long, easy run with no worries or expectations.
I knew my calf would be fine in a few days. And when it had healed, it would be time to go back to the roads for a while. And somewhere in the indeterminate future, maybe I’d start thinking about track again — maybe dreaming of a different colored medal.