TWO WEEKS BEFORE THE TRIALS: Be Careful When You Wish For A Running Goal
My mind was spinning as I left the National Championship venue in Seattle, heading South toward Eugene OR where I would compete in the Olympic Trials 10K and the marathon. This was my last chance to get a 10K qualifier and I needed a personal record by a minute and a half. I ran 2 minutes faster than my all-time best.
As I drove, I was on an emotional high. I had achieved my dream as a teenager which was, at the time, totally unrealistic. But after serving my 3 years in the US Navy and working harder than ever for 2 years—I DID IT!
The struggle, the setbacks, the giving up of a social life—was all worthwhile. I even laughed at the reality that this achievement would not help me make a living—because at that moment in time it didn’t matter. I had reached a level of mental consciousness that I had been striving for over 2 years: to focus on being the best athlete I could be.
While I was extremely proud of finishing 5th in the National Championship 10K, there were at least 5 other runners scheduled to run in the Olympic trials 10K who didn’t run in Seattle and had much better track performances than mine. My best opportunity to make the team was in the Marathon, one week after the 10K. Would a hard effort in the first race compromise my chance in the longer classic event? As I let my thoughts flow, I realized that for every positive there were questions with no clear answers.
My best friend, Geoff Hollister, was heavily involved in promotions out of the Nike store that he managed in Eugene. His house was like a hostel or dorm for Nike staff from HQ in Beaverton or other locations around the world. He apologized for not being able to give me my usual room at his house but it would have been too crazy there. His parents, who were my surrogate Mom and Dad on the West Coast, took me in, along with my friend Jack Bacheler. The location was usually less than a 10 minute drive to the Olympic Trials venue at Hayward Field, but away from the hyperactivity around the campus—where most athletes were housed.
Jack, Frank and I went to the track for a light workout, two days after Seattle. I was putting on my spikes for a set of acceleration-gliders when Pre came over (Steve Prefontaine, the Oregon prodigy). He congratulated me on my 10K race and qualification and asked if I had heard of an invitational track event in Gresham, a suburb of Portland, the next weekend. I talked this over with Jack and Frank as we did our warmups. Jack wanted to do this so I agreed and we had a mission for the weekend.
Originally I had planned to do my last long run before the marathon trials (30 miles) on that weekend, but could delay a few days after the 5K race in Gresham. This 5000 meter distance was like a sprint for me, and I had not run but 2 in my career. I looked on it as a “tune up” with no pressure. As a marathoner, everyone (including me) expected my finish to be near the back of the pack—due to the stellar field of athletes peaking for the Olympic Trials 5K.
I warmed up on the Gresham track with my teammate Jack Bacheler who was the only US qualifier for the 5K final in the Mexico City Olympics, 4 years earlier. I jokingly asked him how to run the 5K and he told me to put one foot in front of the other. Jack had heard that Pre was not running this race so all of us would be finishing one place higher than we would have.
I wanted a general concept of a time goal and luckily found a resource. In the athlete registration area was a copy of COMPUTERIZED RUNNING TRAINING TABLES co authored by a high school Atlanta friend Dr. Gerry Purdy. While waiting to pick up my number I found the metric table that gave equivalent performances between 5K and 10K. To my surprise, my new PR in the 10K of 28:30 was equivalent to a 13:36 time in the 5K. But because I did not have the type of speed needed to compete at the top in the 5K, I was sure that this was not a realistic time for me. I decided to jump into the back of the pack and do as Jack said: put one foot in front of the other.
The gun fired and I found my comfort zone, about 15th place out of about 20. At the mile, some of the runners around me were breathing heavily and I moved up a few places on the outside, holding for a lap and then passed two more. At two miles, I didn’t even focus on the time. I was surrounded by a mixture of world class runners in the 5K, steeplechase, and even the 1500 meter. I felt the stress of the effort but was surprised to find that I was holding my own and not breathing as hard as the runners around me. The leaders were only about 15 yards ahead. I would be elated to finish in that current position of 10th.
When there are a critical mass of world class athletes in a race, there are usually periods when no one wants to take the lead. This happened after the 2 mile mark. As the pace slipped just a second per lap, I began to feel like I had more bounce in my legs. With two laps to go, the pace picked up and I felt two contradictory reactions:
The pack was now down to 8 but as the pace picked up two more runners dropped back. The leaders were now about 5 yards ahead.
While my instincts were to hold back, and I had not been monitoring my pace, I didn’t care about anything but trying to manage my resources to stay in this elite group. Stride for stride I seemed to be holding my own and this was exhilarating!
That lap went by quickly and there was one lap to go–the traditional bell was ringing. There were 2 runners just ahead one along side and Johnny Halberstadt, a South African runner slightly behind. Johnny Halberstadt, who had won the NCAA 10K championship about 3 weeks before, Started to go by me as we entered the backstretch and I didn’t waiver—but went with him and we passed the other two runners. Stride for stride around the curve we went and I was running faster than I had ever run in a race. Neither of us let up as we drove to the finish tape where Johnny edged ahead of me.
Several of my friends came by to congratulate me—and console me for finishing second. I told them that I had no regrets about my finish.
My physical improvements had taken 2 years to build to this level and my brain was trying to catch up. That evening I tried to describe to friends the mental changes that had occurred in two weeks:
Fourteen days ago, I envisioned myself as a third level group who might make it into the Olympic trials but would run at the back of the pack.
Seven days ago I had moved my expectations to a second level group behind the Olympians, pushing them to better performances.
After this race, for the first time, I projected myself in the hunt for the Munich Olympic Team.
But I couldn’t enjoy my success—within the next few days I needed to run my most important marathon workout: a 30 miler. I got more than I bargained for.
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