Stanford University, The Ivy of the West. I've always loved coming to this sprawling land grant campus with its palm trees, spanish colonial architecture, open spaces, and proximity to some of the coolest tech companies in the world (Google, Facebook, Lockheed Martin). This weekend, runners from all over the country and world are descending on the Angel Cobb track stadium for the dependably consistent weather and great fields at the Payton Jordan Invitational.
The 5000 is Sunday night at dusk. I land at San Francisco International Airport around noon on Friday, giving myself plenty of time to relax and adjust before the race. The BART train takes me to Millbrae for a transfer onto Caltrain, which takes me on nice ride down to Palo Alto. Californians love to talk about their mundane travel arrangements so I thought I'd throw that in there.
I'm staying with a buddy on campus, which turns out to be an enormous asset. I can jog to the track in about five minutes, eat at the dining hall, and pretend to be a Stanford student for the weekend. I even have a bike to ride. On Friday night my friend and I went with some of his buddies to see Michael Bay's new flick Pain and Gain with Mark Wahlberg and the Rock. What a ridiculous movie. It provided some inspiration for my race though - Marky Mark has some good lines. "My name is Daniel Lugo, and I believe in fitness." "be a doer, not a don't er." It was a hilarious movie that you should see if you don't mind losing a few IQ points.
All this was a nice break from the typical experience I'm used to at meets. Hotels make me mildly anxious because I can't help but associate them with races. Being on a campus around libraries and sunbathing chicks makes me feel at home and coming into Sunday I'm feeling pretty good.
Usually when I wake up on race day, the coming experience flashes though my thoughts, followed by an acute surge of nervousness and excitement. I lay there on the air mattress on the floor of my friend's apartment, feeling the adrenaline course through my veins until it ebbs away. There's no falling back asleep after that. Now the body knows something big's about to hit it. It's part of my preparation.
The 5000 entries for tonight are so deep that my 13:38 seed did not make the fast heat. The Schumacher clan, Oregon Track club crew, World Cross Country sixth place finisher Ben True, and collegians Diego Estrada, Eric Jenkins and Maverick Darling headline a 5000 field that surely every American distance running fan is drooling over thanks to Flotrack's coverage. Hanging around on the grass before my warm up I'm surrounded by the who's who of American distance running. (Derek Rubis, if you're reading this, I know you'd love being there)
I'm confident going into this race. Workouts have been going very well, I've been healthy for a long time, and eight days ago I soloed a 3:44.1 1500 back in Austin. I haven't raced much lately, especially over longer distances and I'm wondering what going past 3k will feel like. But I push any questions I have out of my mind and get to the line focused.
Two laps in the pace has settled at 65 seconds per lap, right at 13:32 rhythm. There's a rabbit leading Nouredine Smail of France and Mitch Goose of Iona. I'm sitting third. At the beginning of a 5k, tiny changes in pace are very obvious when the body is still fresh and perceptive. Even a one second per lap change feels like a lot. Over the third and fourth laps I feel the tempo slack ever so slightly, prompting Smail to drop a 63 after we pass one mile in 4:21 and the rabbit steps off. Goose lets a gap form and I quickly go around and get in Smail's wake as we pull away from the rest of the field. Going with him is a gamble, but it's the only way of giving myself a chance to run fast. On the homestretch Smail gestures for me to go around him and lead. I decide to do so, partially since it's polite, and partially because I might be putting money in the bank for later when I'll need him.
I lead for about 800 and with a look over my shoulder, Smail re-passes me. This time I won't be starting another round of lead exchanges because as we approach the 3k, I'm starting to feel the hurt. I come though in 8:07 and pass two miles in 8:40 (technically a 3200 PR) slightly off of Smail, and from there I begin to slowly fade. I'm quickly in no man's land (Luckily it's no man's land in front of the race and not behind it) and all I can think about is finishing. In situations like this, runners either grind it out or they die really hard. I say to myself, "you didn't come here for the first two miles, you came here for the last one." I'm running 67 second laps, not on pace but not terrible. You think about the weirdest things in that situation. Whole wheat pancakes, volleyball nets, spanish class in 6th grade. You don't hear anything. The pain tries to suck your thoughts towards it like a tractor beam. You go through pulses of focus and loss of focus. I think about my form as it erodes, trying to switch backup systems on, finding anything I can in my legs and body.
Finally the bell is ringing and it's supper time. I gather myself, consciously relaxing my face and hands, and take a few quick steps as I head into the final 400. People told me I 'closed hard' after the race, but any kind of kick must have looked fast compared to my strugglefest coming into the bell. The final 100 I'm hoping to God the rest of the field that I haven't seen for 2 miles isn't running me down as my elbows are flying everywhere, knees are knocking, and face is grimacing. I cross the line in 13:40.04, the second fastest 5k time of my life, having run a 61 second final lap.
Back on Earth as I cool down, I sort out how I feel about the race and decide I'm pretty happy. 1. I'm very close to my PR 2. I'm proud of how hard I fought 3. It feels SO good to race again. I realize that I absolutely want to race the five again this season. The original plan was to switch focus to the 1500 if this race didn't produce 13:30, but I know that next time that last 2k will get done the way it needs to be done. A hard race effort like this works wonders mentally and physically for the next go. There's a rule I think every runner should follow: if you absolutely have a desire to race, race. You never know when the next time you'll be able to comes around. So next up it's the 5k at Oxy High Performance in L.A. in 17 days.
After the meet John Simons, an old high school rival who now runs for Minnesota and I hit up Pizza My Heart in downtown Palo Alto. We had the right idea because as we sat eating some nice greasy pizza, what seemed like the whole meet patronized the place. (again Rubis, you would have loved it) People asking each other how their races went, coaches bullshitting with each other, and the kids working the Sunday night late shift wondering why their place was suddenly so full - it just makes me love the running community. It also remands me that I probably take the whole thing too seriously. Nah.