Monday, May 20, 2013

One of Them

I lay on a mildewy, weather hardened pole vault pit as the breezeless evening air grows cool. The Los Angeles twilight gives way to stadium lights on tarnished steel girder stands, like Hollywood set lamps illuminating a movie scene.  The meet announcer's excited voice rises occasionally above the din of the crowd of several hundred assembled in the stands and along the track's edge, a very small gathering given the spectacle about to unfold.

On the other side of the pit lounge members of the Salazar and Schumacher Nike Oregon Project groups, their baby blue Nike warmups standing out.  The two factions sit apart, separated by almost ten feet.  Combined they have the best America has to offer in distance running (ever), together with Mo Farah, the British 10,000 and 5,000 London Olympic champion.  Eight bucks will get you into this seemingly small distance gala at Occidental College in the foothills of Hollywood, CA to see the best in the US and world run rabbited time trial style races.  I can guarantee you that the guy sitting on his porch across the street within earshot of the meet announcer has no idea what's going on.

2800 meters into the race, Puskedra leads.  I'm on the outside (far left) in the white singlet (showing off some luv handels)
Some of the best moments in American running- Sportscenter Top 10 Plays caliber moments  - happen unbeknownst to the uninitiated at small college tracks on pleasant spring evenings in California.  American Records.  World 'A' standards.  Down to the line, six man wide finishes.  Tonight at Oxy, the small crowd cheers occasionally when a well known runner is introduced.  The 1500 heats manage to bring them to their feet during the finish as the noise level rises to a subdued roar.  Where are the television cameras?  The food and merchandise vendors, athlete escorts, grandstands like at the big relay meets?  Our sport's finest wait to compete on a musty pole vault pit.  Across from them, I can't help but feel a little star struck.  But I'm going to have to get over that.  I'm about to race against them.

We pass the mile in 4:16.  During the warm up, my right knee had been flaring up and it hurt to walk.  Now, settled into about fifth place, adrenaline and focus take over and the last thing I'm thinking about is my knee.  Up front Belota Asmeron rabbits the field of 24, his sole mission to put us on World 'A' standard pace.  Somewhere behind me lurks the full might of both Oregon groups.  4:16 is the fastest I've opened a 5000 in, but I'm feeling nothing yet, only anticipation.  Those guys are coming up here soon.


I woke up suddenly one sultry morning in the summer of 2007 in a University of Wisconsin dorm room.  In the dim light, then Badger harrier Chris Solinsky, my high school cross country camp counselor yelled for me to get out of bed.  "Ready to go?  It's 7:05"  I trusted my watch alarm, now muffled under the bed sheets, to get me up.  Embarrassed, I sprung out of bed, already in my running shorts, and padded after him down the hallway for the morning run.  How could I screw that up?  Solinksy.  The fastest native Wisconsinite ever and my idol throughout high school and beyond.  He'd go on to be a fourteen time All American and five time individual NCAA champion for Wisconsin before following coach Jerry Schumacher to Oregon, where he set the American 10,000 record running for Nike.  I remember looking at his high school marks and being absolutely baffled at how someone could break fifteen minutes on the Ridges Golf Course, our state cross country meet venue.  The newspaper clipping covering the first sub four miles run on Wisconsin soil by Solinsky and team mate Matt Tegenkamp still hangs on my bedroom wall in Milwaukee.


Now, almost six years later, 2000 miles away, and five laps in, I'm racing him, and he's right behind me.

It's time.  First the Salazar group, their black kits with NOP winged skull insignias roll silently by.  Rupp, then Ritzenheim, then Farah, then Puskedra ambling after.  The Schumacher group, led by Solinski, follows a lap later. The black and blue wave reaches its crest at the front of the race, breaking and jostling as men fall back into position.  For a moment I let myself soak in this experience.  Then I latch on, recalling the pain of Payton Jordan two weeks ago and prepared to fight for it again.  We pass 3000 meters in 8:06, the same split as then.

Two more laps go by.  I can recall little of them.  In the late stages of a race, you experience something like tunnel vision.  It seems as if the brain ceases to lay memories down, so focused on the task of running through the discomfort.  A subtle windup of the pace begins as we near a kilometer to go, and I allow a small gap to form.  Psychologically, the two yards between myself and Puskedra seem like an eternity.  The gap slowly grows until I find myself trailing, bouncing around with others trying to hang on.  Perhaps I let up a little, for just a moment, collecting myself.  That's easy to admit in hindsight.

600 meters separate myself and the finish.  What did you come here for?  I think about my plain white singlet.  No name on my chest.  The money I don't have that I spent to get here.  I think about last year, missing the Olympic trials by two spots in the 5000 and one spot in the 1500.  I'm not representing anything or anyone but myself.  The US 'A' standard is 13:30.  The clock reads exactly twelve minutes.  I need some magic.

That magnetic mecca and its beautiful wafting fragrance that is the finish line finally slaps me awake.  Something deep inside me recalls the rhythm of four minute mile pace, and through the pain my foot strike moves forward to the toes and my head comes up.  I target Puskedra on the backstretch.  200, 150, 100 to go.  I'm slowly gaining.  On the homestretch, long after Mo Farah wins in 13:15, I hold even with Puskedra.  He's an American.  He'll be on the USA 5k list, and could potentially bump me from qualifying.  But unable to catch him, I cross the line in 13:33.13, a five second PR.

Video of the race by Flotrack. "They all became Mobots for a second there"

With this race I draw a little closer.  A little closer to the ability to run with men who before had been untouchable heros to me.  The best of them, talented enough to quickly progress through the levels I've spent many years working through, once would easily lap me in this race.  Now, I'm rounding the final turn as they finish, in sight.  It's time to stop being star struck, even when in Hollywood.  To stop letting gaps form because I'm afraid of their credentials.  It's time to realize with that just a couple more breakthroughs, I'll be one of them.

1 comment:

  1. Joe, as a 4:24/9:38 high school runner heading into my senior season, I'd like to thank you for your awesome blog posts. You've inspired me to keep grinding every day and never give up my dreams. Maybe one day I'll be able to call myself "one of them" as well.