On Sunday, I raced for the first time in five months, competing in the geezer (40+) heat of the 800m at the USATF New England Indoor T&F Championships at Harvard. In some respects, the race was an odd choice. I’m no 800m specialist, have no particular affection for the event, and haven’t done specific training for it. Like every other runner I know, I’ve just been trying to get through the winter with some kind of mileage base intact, either by slogging away on the roads bundled up like an Eskimo, or resorting to treadmill running when the plows are out in force. Once a week, I head indoors for a track workout, but even then, the paces we run are intended to prepare us for 5ks and longer, not four-lap sprints around 200m ovals.
Nevertheless, there I was, taking my place at the starting line on the Harvard track, feeling a familiar sense of urgency and blind fear, hoping that I would not get the pace so wrong that I would run myself to a standstill before the finish line arrived to put an end to the experiment. Earlier that day, I had told one of the kids from the school where I coach that the cure for that awful pre-race anxiety was a simple one: run the race. The pain of the race is never as bad as the mental torment that precedes it.
In truth, I had an idea of what was about to happen. My complaint about the 800m is that it’s an austere race that accommodates few subtleties. From the start, the pace always feels too fast, one’s body sensing that at this rate, it will be facing complete bankruptcy within a couple of minutes. There’s little room for fancy tactics or mid-race surges. I’ve generally observed that an 800m runner can tolerate exactly one acceleration, and wherever it occurs, early or late, it will be the last time that runner looks or feels good.
So my goal was to start at the right pace, hoping my instincts would help me find it, and then simply maintain that pace, staying as relaxed as possible. Ideally, I would reach the finish before my body panicked and started to shut things down.
At this same meet last year, I had doubled, running the open mile in the early afternoon and then the masters 800m two hours later. I had managed to finish second in the masters race, although the field had been fairly thin, and I’m not referring to the body types of the participants. I was pretty sure it was a much deeper field this year. Of course, I had also been in much better shape last year and in the middle of a full-fledged indoor season. Trying not to dwell on this, I imagined that in a perfect race, I might be in the top three. In a more realistic scenario, I hoped to finish on my feet.
At the gun, I got a good start. I took advantage of the fact that most distance runners are really, really horrible at starts. Instead of patiently pushing hard up and out the way sprinters do, they immediately stand up and try to start shuffling their legs quickly the way marathoners do. I was happy to take advantage, gain position on the runners to my right and left, and within several strides secure second place and the rail, as the leader roared away like a locomotive. My happy position in second was short-lived. Coming out of the first curve, I was just settling into what felt like a sustainable pace when a whole pack of runners came flying around me. Never mind them, I thought.
~35 seconds (35.0 lap)
Entering the second lap, I realized I had a problem. I have been in boxed in before, but never so completely and never in such a short race. What had happened was this: one of the runners who had passed so aggressively a half lap earlier was now slowing down directly in front of me. Meanwhile, another guy had moved up from behind me and was now inches away on my right shoulder and slightly ahead. I was trapped. I couldn’t move forward because the inside lane was blocked, and I couldn’t move out because the guy on my shoulder was there. I didn’t immediately panic, because the goal was just to stay relaxed and cover ground. Unfortunately down the backstretch of the second lap, I could feel the pace slowing with no change of our relative positions.
I knew I had to make a decision, but I also knew I had to avoid sudden moves. So over the next 40 meters of so, I let myself drift backwards out of the box, pulled into the second lane, and picked up the pace again. As I said, your body will only tolerate one surge in an 800, and I knew I was making it now, over 400 meters away from home.
~71.2 (36.2 lap)
Running hard now, I passed the two guys who had recently held me in check, and now set off in hopes of catching the next man ahead. Although I felt reasonably good, I knew there was a long way to go, yet, so I tried not to get too excited. Down the backstretch of the third lap I closed on another guy, and coming out of the final turn, passed him as well. There was a pretty good gap to the next runner, but maybe someone else would die and I’d pick up another place or two. In any case, I felt I couldn’t go any faster and still finish, so in some sense, it was out of my hands.
~1:46 (34.8 lap)
One of the things I find mysterious about jumping into an 800 (or any race, really) without training for it, is how one’s body figures out what it needs to do. I had that sensation going into the final lap. For 11 months, I had not run a 400 in under 72 seconds, nor had I run a 200 in under 35 seconds. Now, I had just run the one followed by the other, consecutively, and still had another 200m to go. What was my body going to make of all this?
Around the near turn and down the backstretch, I started tying up a little bit. A runner passed me looking really strong. I had the sense that we were closing on the runners ahead, but I was completely focused on my own problems at that moment. My legs were turning to jelly and I felt my stride starting to shorten. Around the final turn, I tried to focus on keeping my hands and shoulders relaxed and my arm swing as powerful as I could make it. Mostly I didn’t think about my legs, except to fight the urge to overstride. I saw the clock turn over to 2:20 as I crossed the line, still on my feet.
2:20.93 (34.9 final lap)
Once I had recovered enough to think about it, I was quite happy with this effort. The time was OK, and even a little faster than I expected given my rust and lack of specific preparation. Mostly, I was glad to have gotten back on a starting line again and to have survived the experience. It was a little disappointing to see that I had finished SEVENTH, but that had more to do with the depth of the field, compared with the previous year.
1. Titus Mutinda Greater Bost 2:09.29
2. Andrew Darien Eliot Track 2:16.59
3. Mark Capparella Mass Velocit 2:19.23
4. Timothy Hoff Mass Velocit 2:19.25
5. Mark Reeder Greater Lowe 2:19.56
6. Scott Steeves Mass Velocit 2:20.12
7. Jon Waldron Cambridge Sp 2:20.93
8. Bill Newsham Greater Bost 2:21.53
9. Dan Grimes Mass Velocit 2:23.09
10. Ben Sommer Mass Velocit 2:26.23
11. Dave Menard Boston Athle 2:37.40
12. Wayne Dwyer Mass Velocit 2:39.91
13. Jon Berit Greater Bost 2:43.09
14. Robert Bowser Sr Mass Velocit 2:46.43
15. Richard Galgano Mass Velocit 2:55.98
I spoke with my friend Mark, who had finished fifth in 2:19.56. He made a comment about how we had been “neck and neck” at the end, but I corrected him. In an 800m, half a second is a long time, and 1.4 seconds is not a close race. Mark had been one of the guys who had passed me early on, and I had never seen him again. He might as well have been in a different heat.
Cooling down outside, we had the unusual experience of mild temperatures and a warm sun. It was a good day and, I thought, a harbinger of spring, even if there were three more weeks of winter to endure. Before the race, I hadn’t even noticed the pleasant weather. Now everything looked more promising.