On Friday, the last full day of running camp, bleary-eyed campers and staff gathered in the auditorium for morning announcements. After nearly a week in which the kids ran twice a day, sat in break-out sessions, played spike ball/dodgeball/volleyball, went on scavenger hunts, and spent every evening being entertained by the tireless recreation staff, you might have expected their energy to be low, fatigued bodies slumped in their seats, half asleep.
Instead, they were on the edge of those seats, cheering lap after lap of the Olympic women’s 10000m, which the camp directors had decided to project onto the big screen hanging above the stage.
The change of programming from the typical morning might have backfired. The continuous stream of a long race on the track might have tested the attention span of an audience of teenagers (even teenagers who are distance runners) addicted — so we’re told — to the instant gratification of their smartphones. Had they been watching NBC’s network programming, they certainly never would have seen such a long race uninterrupted. (NBC now routinely breaks for commercials in every race longer than 1500m, leading to some of the saddest words in the English language: “We’ll return for the conclusion of the 3000 meter steeplechase after these messages.”)
But any fears that the kids would become bored disappeared almost immediately. It helped that the pace was fast from the start, but what really helped was the shared knowledge in the room, the knowledge of what it meant to be running 72-second quarters, especially for American Molly Huddle who gamely held on to the front pack as she hit splits that were perilously close to her American record for 5000m, knowing she would have to continue for another 5000m after that.
Unlike a race experienced only through the “highlights” of the start and finish, this race built tension from the first lap to the last. The excitement was already high when the leaders went through 5K in 14:46, and then Almaz Ayana defied all reason by unleashing the fastest kilometer of the race, a mind-blowing 2:50 (28:20 pace!) that smashed the pack of runners who had held on until then, and string the race out into a series of solo runs or one-on-one battles far from the front. Had Ayana gone too early? Was it possible that she’d take down the two-decades old and PED-tainted world record from the era of the Chinese women’s doping scandal? And what of Huddle and the others who had tried to follow? Would they hang on or blow up in the South American winter evening?
Sitting in that auditorium, we were all going crazy, all cheering at the figures on the screen, imploring them to hang on, and erupting in delight as Ayana sprinted down the home stretch to cross the line with a new world record, followed by three other women under 30 minutes, and not long after by Huddle, who set a new American Record. Instantly, we all knew we had seen something special, the fastest women’s 10K in history by a huge margin. We would learn later that the race produced not only a world record, but 8 national records, and 18 personal bests.
In the days that have followed, our natural skepticism has led us to ask whether what we saw was “real.” Was Ayana’s performance achieved via artificial means? Was the performance “too good” to be believed? But then what of all the other records and personal bests? Considering how many runners ran personal bests, was the track out of the ordinary in some way? Was it short? (Similar questions arose about the Chinese venues where so many records were set in the early 1990s.) These were all, perhaps, inevitable speculations.
It may turn out that one or more runners in that amazing 10K will turn out to have cheated. I hope that’s not the case, but to deny the possibility in this day and age is no longer an option. Yet, the race felt “right” in the sense that the podium finishers were pretty much the ones we expected, and the large number of national records were achieved by legit runners who found themselves, unexpectedly, in an Olympic final that was all about running fast from the first lap.
For me, the most important thing about the race was that I was able to experience it in a crowded auditorium with nearly 300 kids, coaches, and junior camp counselors, all of us screaming by the end, as if our far-away cheers could help the runners hold on through the final meters of such an audacious race. Where were YOU for the greatest women’s 10K of all time?