THREE WEEKS TO GO TO THE TRIALS: After 8 Weeks Of Altitude Training I Was Injury-Free But Could I Run Fast Enough To Qualify
It was midnight, 36 hours before the most important race of my career. Due to nerves, I couldn’t sleep. So I threw my last travel bag into my 1963 Volvo and drove into the night toward Seattle.
My training to be the Navigation Officer on my ship off Vietnam in the Navy served me well in organizing my maps and staying on track. But long drives can allow the ancient “monkey brain” to react to the upcoming possible stress and secrete anxiety hormones.
When I started to feel nervous about the next day’s race—my last chance to qualify for the Olympic Trials 10K, I mentally did what my teammate Frank Shorter would do. Frank was a master at setting up cognitive thoughts and then plans to activate the human brain. So when I broke down the anticipated race into components and set a goal for each one. The human brain took control, overriding the “monkey” and the hormones went away.
By the time I reached Boise, I needed gas. Pulling off at the first station, I was really upset at the price–38 cents a gallon—when I was used to less than 30 cents/gallon. Before pumping I complained to the attendant, a student at Boise State, who recommended a station near the campus, where I topped off the tanks. Spotting a nice sidewalk next to the Boise River, I took a mentally and physically invigorating run. I’ve run on the current river trails there many times.
As I approached Seattle, I was excited about the chance to qualify, getting into my dorm room, taking a short run and sleeping! The question that kept circling in my brain was whether my “investment” in altitude training would pay off. I had not run a track race in almost 3 months. I had only run on a track once during that period. It didn’t matter that the research was inconclusive. Like many of my big life decisions, I believed that high altitude training would give me an edge.
It was late afternoon when I checked into the dorms at University of Washington, after waiting in line with fellow athletes. There was a very long wait for the slow elevator so I lugged my bag of clothes and shoes up 8 flights of stairs, put on my Nike Boston training flats and walked down the stairwell to run towards the track.
It was twilight and most of the events for that day had finished. There were some prelims in the field events still active, and random athletes like me doing their own “bonding with the track”, which was inside the giant Huskie Stadium. After such a long drive, I felt the need to “ find my legs again”, and pulled off the energy of the other athletes as I did my accelerations around the curve and down the straightaway.
I grabbed a quick meal at the dining hall and was ready for bed—after the 23 hour drive and no sleep the night before. Some athletes were talking and laughing a few doors down from my room so I introduced myself. I was invited to join their party for $5. There were 7 shot putters with several dozen empty beer cans and discarded pizza boxes on the floor. It was a “reverse celebration” among those who did not make the shot put final the next day. A sinking feeling hit me, as I fell on my bed, that sleep might be hard to come by.
After about an hour of very sound sleep I heard shouting and cheering in the hallway. Then there was a series of dull thuds, and some “clanking” sounds. I peeked out and there were 3-4 shot putters cheering one who was throwing his 16 pound ball into the cinderblock wall. Then another. I started to tell them that I had a big race the next day but the smell of beer was strong and a huge guy in the hallway just glared at me—so I went back and lay down, wide awake. I couldn’t believe that they kept going strong until after 4am.
My race was scheduled for early afternoon. So I got about 2-3 hours of sleep during the morning until the dorm cleanup crew came to find that the overnight competition had knocked out a 4 foot hole in the cinderblock wall between two rooms.
I got to the track about an hour before the start of the 10K. There were maybe 500 spectators in a stadium that could hold, maybe 50,000. Jack and Frank were at the check-in table where we picked up our race numbers and instructions. Warming up with my teammates was a calming experience. I listened to Frank break down his strategy. I just went through the warmup ritual with my teammates: jogging for about a mile and then some accelerations. Stretching was not part of the distance running culture.
During the last minute before the start—a very long minute—I realized that I would have to run a minute and a half faster in a 10K than I had ever run. I allowed my emotional brain to be in charge and started to feel the anxiety hormones that it releases under stress. Frank was standing near me and said how ideal the weather was for a record. I said to myself, over and over “I can do it”. The gun fired and we were off, with Frank and Jack moving toward the lead. I settled into a comfortable place in the middle of the pack—about 20 yards behind Jack. At 6’ 7” he was easy to pick out.
But as Jack and Frank moved into the lead pack, I settled into the pace that I needed to reach my qualifying standard: 70 sec/quarter mile lap (US tracks were not metric at that time). Over the past two years I had run countless workouts at that pace. I felt comfortable with the runners around me and just ahead. For the first time in a big race I did not sense that we were competing against one another—but that we were pulling one another along toward the time goal. It is so much easier to maintain a challenging pace when there are several runners running together.
At the 5K mark I was still comfortable, and I started alternating: 69 seconds one lap and 70 seconds the next. With 1.5 miles to go I noticed that Frank was in a small group at the front, but Jack had dropped back a few seconds. They were about 100 yards ahead. I felt the same stress that I usually felt at the end of a 10K—and about as tired—but was running 2-3 seconds faster on each lap and ahead of my goal time!
According to the best performances going into this national championship, I was ranked 19th at the start. So I was very pleased at this point in the race to have only 8 runners ahead—and gaining on others. With two laps to go I moved into 7th place with three Mexicans. (Our federation, the AAU, allowed Mexico to send athletes and they often used the US championships to select their Olympic team). I didn’t feel great but was running strong. With a lap and a half to go I tested myself—and the Mexicans—and passed them. Juan Martinez tried to stay with me but I edged ahead. We were both breathing fairly hard. About 200 yards to go, his breathing increased and I pulled ahead, maintaining my cadence to the finish.
I had finished 5th! Three of us from Florida Track Club were in the top 5. Even more important to me—I had run 30 seconds faster than I needed to qualify for the Olympic Trials! The investment in altitude had paid off. I was improving and my trials races were 3 weeks away.
RESULTS OF THE NATIONAL AAU CHAMPIONSHIP 10K
(special thanks to my archivist, J Jenkins)
It was actually a bit scary that I still had 3 weeks before my Olympic Trials. Was I “peaking” too soon? After such a performance, would I have a letdown?
One week later I would find out in an invitational 5K in Gresham OR.
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