I like to run. I've learned that it really isn't about where you're going, it's about the getting there - the how, the why, the who with. This blog is just a little repository for my thoughts along the way; the setbacks, the lessons learned, and the occasional triumph.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Track

It’s not like I’ve done everything there is to do as a runner. Not hardly. But totally new experiences with running don’t happen to me very often anymore.

In February, one did: I ran in a track meet.

I didn’t come to running until after college. It was an inexpensive way to get some exercise. I was even older when I finally started running races. That didn’t happen until I was a couple of trips around the sun from 30. So, I never ran track. Oh, I suffered through my share of Presidential Fitness Tests, and I recall slogging through 4 laps on a track riddled with side stitches and scuffling heels (my own on both counts), but a “track race” was a foreign concept.

When I finally did start pinning a number to my shirt almost 10 years ago, it was never for an event shorter than a 5K, and always on the paved roads through a city neighborhood. My muddy life as a trail runner came still later when I discovered marathons and ultras. It wasn’t that I was opposed to racing around a track, it’s just that events like that seemed unavailable to me. Track meets were where the professional runners went; where the “fast” people ran.


At the end of last year, I joined the New York Road Runners and discovered a series of “Open” track meets on the calendar for January and February. On four Thursday nights every winter, at the Armory indoor track on the far upper west side of Manhattan, an “all-comers” meet is held. Each night there are a selection of distances offered, including some relays, and $20 gets you in to run as many of the events as you feel like. It was something so different for me that I had to try it.

On February 9th, I rode the subway all the way up to 168th street, found my way to the Armory, and upstairs to the arena. There were four events scheduled for the night and I was there to run the Mile. If that went well, I would try the 800 Meters, too. (800m is just shy of a half-mile.) I found the registration table, paid my $20 and was given a neon orange wrist band to wear for the night to show that I was signed in and official. (There were no bib numbers.)

I had no idea what to expect, either from the event or from the competition, though one look around the arena confirmed a suspicion: the vast majority of the runners present were from local clubs and college track teams. These were the “fast” folks; people who ran fast and had always run fast; men and women alike, of all ages.

Not only that, but in the hour before the meet, the track was still being used by the professional runners who were in town for the Millrose Games, a national track meet to be held at the Armory that weekend. LaShawn Merritt, the world champion and 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the 400 Meters, was actually on the track, 30 feet away from me, doing easy laps and working out some kinks with his coach. (I scurried to get my shoes on and get into the outer lanes for a warm-up jog just so I could say I’d run on the same track with him – a personal obligation I believe I have now fulfilled.) All of this was pretty cool, but also a bit intimidating.

After my little warm-up, I spied a couple of older guys who were talking with each other and seemed a little bit more like me – meaning “average”. I walked over, said hello, and immediately outed myself as a track novice. I wondered if they might have any advice. They both laughed and said, “Just run down the track and turn left,” but their friendly demeanor put me more at ease. I settled in to an empty spot on a set of bleachers and waited for my friends Melissa and Lynn to arrive – my walking, smiling, four-legged comfort zone.

Thursday Nights at the Armory is not an “official” race. They don’t declare winners, no prizes are given and there are no “finals”. During each event, everyone gets to run a single heat. Runners are expected to seed themselves according to their expected finishing times and the “fastest” heats run first. Afterwards, everyone simply gets a recorded time. I knew before I got there that I would be one of the slowest runners on the track, but I really expected to see a few more regular, average, mid-pack types, like myself. I worried that my stated goal of “not finishing last,” might be seriously threatened.
Melissa and Lynn appeared in the upper level seating area above the track and I escaped upstairs to collect a few hugs and deposit my bag of stuff. I know both women because they are great friends of my girlfriend, Jen. Lynn is a runner, too, and in the last couple of years she’s started to get a lot more serious about it. Back in November, I helped pace her to a finish in her first marathon (a trail race in the Bronx). She was eager to check out the meet and happy to come support me, but emphatically declared her intention NOT to run in it. An event like this one was still too much for her to think about. Looking around at all the speedy, track-savvy runners in the arena, I understood very well what she was thinking.

Melissa was along for moral support, and also to do me a great favor: to video me running both my races. I’ve never really seen myself run before. I’ve seen lots of photographs, of course, but the only video I’d watched was of me running past a stationary camera for a few seconds on a large marathon course. Nice as a keepsake, but not a good way to review how I move.

The women’s mile was the first event of the evening, to be followed by the men’s mile. While the women ran their heats, a crowd of more than 100 men formed in the infield in the middle of the track. A grizzled, older man in a while polo shirt, with a head of short-cropped, wiry, white hair was orchestrating the heat assignments. In his hands and pockets was a supply of different colored popsicle sticks, each hue bundled with a rubber band.

This Little Sergeant wore a look of short-tempered exasperation, and his expression rarely changed. He would take a look around at us and then declare what the estimated finish times for the next heat should be. Then the runners expecting to run at that pace were to line up at the front of the group and the Little Sergeant would dole out roughly a dozen matching-color popsicle sticks, first come, first served. No popsicle stick and you were not allowed to join the heat. I couldn’t help but be amused by this character as I watched him bark sharp instructions and handle the press of tense, eager runners. His answers to questions were often earlier statements that he repeated word for word, but slower and with slightly more bark.

The problem was, the arena was blaring British pop/rock music from all its speakers and though the Little Sergeant had been given a little megaphone, he had decided not to bother with that annoying little contraption. Most of the group of 100+ men gathered around for their heat assignments were having a difficult time hearing anything he had to say.

This resulted in a bit a kerfuffle before the 1st men’s heat could be run. There was one man in particular who apparently had missed out on a popsicle for the that 1st (fastest) heat, but, angry that he had not been given a spot and insistent that he deserved one, he tried to line up with the men in the 1st heat anyway. When the starter judge collected popsicles and this fellow was found without one, the runner, and, I assume, his coach, made quite a stink about it and the heat had to be held up for over a minute while the Head Judge and the Little Sergeant were summoned for an official decision. Result? The ruffled runner was told he would not be allowed in the first heat and would have to wait for the second. I really didn’t understand why any of this mattered so much, and I found it ironic when the pouty runner also failed to win the 2nd, slower heat even though he was so determined that he belonged with the first, fastest group.

As for myself, I didn’t really know what finish time to expect. I just knew that it would be slower than nearly everyone else present, and so I just needed to wait until the very last heat was assigned and jump in with those guys. My best-ever 5K race pace was 6:55 per mile, but that was almost 2 years ago. I once ran a 6:40 mile to start off a 5K and a 6:30 mile on a steep downhill to lead off another. I hadn’t done any kind of speed work in months and my legs hadn’t really started to feel spry again after last fall’s marathon season. What kind of mile time would I run? I really had no idea. I figured I’d cover the first lap, see how I felt, see what the time clock told me, and then race it out from there.

My heat – the last heat, the slowest heat – was the 8th of the night. The Little Sergeant didn’t even have popsicle sticks left over for us (though no one was starting any kerfuffles about deserving to be in our heat, anyway). There were 18 of us in the group and by the time we got to toe the line we’d been milling about and waiting for more than 45 minutes. There were so many of us in the heat that there didn’t seem to be enough room on the actual start line. I politely gathered in behind the first row of men, but the Start Judge noticed that there were several us in back and directed the men in front to squeeze in and allow all of us to, literally, toe the line.

Then the judge gave us an, “On your marks,” and blew the starter pistol.

I mostly wanted to stay out of everyone else’s way in those early laps. I didn’t want to be the cause of a pile-up. So, I wound up running in the 2nd lane for much of those first few loops. The Armory track is a 200m lap and we had to make 8 circuits, plus a little extra, to measure a full mile. I covered the first 200 in 45 seconds, decided that felt pretty good, and tried to settle in. On the second lap, those of us in the back of the pack had distinguished ourselves from the men in the front and we began to find out places amongst each other.
It turned out I was running right with one of the two men I had introduced myself to before the meet. He was in a bright yellow shirt that covered a stomach quite a bit rounder than mine, and his hair was a whole lot more salt than pepper. I guessed he was at least 50. I felt like I might be a bit faster than he, but when I tried to go by, he stayed along side me and after another half lap, I just settled in right behind him to see how long I’d stay.

I sat there until the 5th lap when t
wo things happened. Most importantly, my legs finally started to get loose and feel the blood flowing in with oxygen. I run marathons; I’m used to having a couple of miles just to get loose! At about the same time, one of the runners who had been behind me got a head of steam of his own and moved around and past me on the back stretch. I mentally hooked onto him and let him “pull” me around past my friend in the yellow shirt. From there until the finish, I was out and running on my own, tucked behind no one, pushing myself along.

It was on my 6th loop that the leaders in the heat began to lap me. This did not surprise or discourage me. I had expected it. I did my best on the straight-aways to move over to the 2nd lane to let them go by inside, but I was getting too tired to give up that inside lane on the turns. If those guys were so speedy, then they could handle passing on the outside. It wasn’t my fault they fell into the last heat with us snails.

I didn’t hear the bell ringing to note that the leaders were beginning their final lap, but one of the judges was standing in an outside lane at the finish line counting off each runner’s laps. As I came through for the end of my sixth lap, (yes, after the leaders got the bell at the end of their 7th) he looked at me and put down two fingers. I flashed him two of my own so he’d know I knew where I was. I was still overly polite on my 7th lap, clearing to the 2nd lane to let faster runners go by on their bell lap. But for my final lap, I finally had the track to myself, and I was feeling better and better, so I opened it up a little and tried to give a good kick on my last loop. Lynn and Melissa both said they could see me moving faster. The race clock clicked over to “6:20” as I crossed the line. That was 74 seconds behind the winner of my heat, but still, easily, the fastest mile I have ever run.

And – AND – I beat four other men in my heat, including my friend in the yellow shirt and the guy who’d gone past me back in that 5th lap. I also recorded a faster time than two of the men in the previous heat. I had the 100th best time out of 106 runners. I’m sure you mathematicians out there have already figured out: I Did Not Finish Last!

I was also extremely pleased to have run a nice, even pace throughout the race. My lap splits looked like this:
Lap 1 – 45.7
Lap 2 – 46.5
Lap 3 – 48.4
Lap 4 – 49.0
Lap 5 – 48.9
Lap 6 – 48.5
Lap 7 – 48.6
Lap 8 – 44.2

I went upstairs to catch my breath


and collect a little love from Lynn and Melissa, but I didn’t have long to bask as there wer
e only two short events before they summoned the men back down to prepare for the 800. Now that I had established a pace, I felt like I could set a specific goal for my second race. I
wanted to break 3 minutes. I just needed to run 45 seconds per lap. I was very optimistic.
Stepping up for our heat assignments was a similar bit of chaos yet again, but there were also, notably, fewer men gathered on the infield this time. I still couldn’t hear the Little Sergeant very well, but I was more relaxed while I waited for the numbers to dwindle down to the last, slowest heat.

To my surprise, while the Li
ttle Sergeant was trying to fill only the 6th heat, he ran out of runners. He had only 7 runners and he needed more, but no one was stepping up to take a slot. There were still a group of men standing around, but I thought, maybe there were all prepping for another event. The Little Sergeant looked right at me and said, “are you gonna run with this group?” I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I guess I am.” He was still handing out popsicle sticks to the heat groups and I got a skinny yellow one to hang onto.

The shorter race meant the heats were running more quickly, and by the time I got my stick, it was nearly time to line up in the waiting area beside the track. It was then when I turned around and saw that there were two more heats filling up behind me. What had I gotten myself into? Who was I going to be running with? I signaled up to Lynn & Melissa that I was not going to be in the last heat after all
and to look for me in the 6th. And then the officials were calling us to line up on the track.

Thanks to my amazing (yes, “amazing”) friend, Melissa, I can show you the video of the race (don’t worry, it’s only about 3 minutes – Oh, and you can see the Little Sergeant in the white polo with the white hair at the start line before my heat begins):


video

After the gun, I quickly and efficiently fell to the back of the pack, but I wasn’t bothered by it. I was more focused on hitting my splits. I completed the first lap in 42 seconds and knew I was in business. I locked in and pushed on the second lap and came by the clock again as it clicked over to 1:27. Then I noticed the next guy ahead of me on the track, who once had put 20 or 30 meters on me, had started to come back. It was like he’d burned out on the first 400m and had run out of gas. I was careful not to try and speed up to chase him down, but instead focused on maintaining my own pace. I was really just out there to run against the clock. He came back to me anyway and as I came around the 2nd turn, on my 3rd lap, I passed him easily. I thought this was kind of exciting.

I tried to kick it out for my final lap like I had in the Mile, but my legs never started to feel loose like they had in that first event and I couldn’t summon much. I didn’t slow down, though, either. As I entered the back stretch, I peeked over my should at the runner I had passed and could see that he’d started to gain on me again. Now I really wanted to be able to blast it out to the finish line, but I couldn’t find any more speed in my legs. In his last 100 meters he turned on the jets and sprinted past me with about 40 meters to go and beat me to the line by one second. But when I looked at the clock for my own finish, I saw that it read “2:58”, just under my 3 minute goal. It was a little bit crappy for that kid to totally phone in the second half of his race only to burn me right before the finish – what kind of race was he running, exactly? – but once again, my splits were nice and steady, and I did hit my time goal.

I scurried back up to the balcony to sit with Lynn & Melissa, and to watch the last two heats – I needed to see the finish times for the rest of the runners. All the runners in the 7th heat were faster than 2:40, but there were 2 men in the final heat who failed to crack 3 minutes. So, even though I was last in my heat, I was not the slowest man in my event. Once again, I Did Not Finish Last! (It’s a silly goal, perhaps, but itwas a very important moral victory.)

Watching myself in the video, I’m mostly struck by how slow I look. I have to say again, I ran both of those events faster than any race I’ve ever run in my whole life. Out on the track, during each race, it felt to me like the arena was streaking past. I felt my hair blowing back even in the indoor stadium. But in the video I look like a bicycle among motorbikes.

There are things I’
m happy to see: my gait is smooth, my leg turnover is nice and quick, my posture is relaxed and perfectly erect. It’s my stride length that doesn’t compare to most of the other people on the track. It’s a little short, but then again, so are my legs (by comparison). But I can flatter myself as say that Michael Johnson ran with a similar posture and succeeded with an incredible turnover rate and impressively consistent splits. (Right?)

After the 800, Lynn and Melissa and I hung out in the balcony and watched the last two events, the women’s and men’s 3000m. I could have run one more race, but decided it was wise to quit while I was ahead. Lynn and I debated if she might have been able to keep up with the slowest women in the 3000. She thought no, and I thought maybe yes, but I was brimming with optimism by that point in the night. As I headed home, after sharing one more round of hugs with my friends, I decided I’d have to try one of these little track meets again sometime.  Maybe I'd even tran for one.

Oh, and I’d be lying if I said it was less than a week before I finally pulled that neon orange wrist band off my arm. I just didn’t get tired of feeling it under my shirt sleeves.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Pretty cool experience. I've never run anything under 5K. Wish we had more short race options in Champaign area. There must be something at U of I or a local high school.