Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Rejected at the Paddock

I'm going to remember that moment for a very long time.  Sunday at the US Championships, minutes before the 5000 final started.  My heart racing and sweat dripping down my face in the Des Moines heat, waiting for the check in clerk to finish the phone call.  I was ready to run: burnt orange Texas uniform on, spiked up, everything.  Over the last hour I'd somehow managed to calm myself and prepare mentally to race, even after a long weekend of wondering and hoping.

She ended her call, looked at me and said, "sorry, no, you can't run"  It didn't fully hit me until I'd gotten barefoot and walked over to the stands to watch the race I'd visualized myself in over the past year during almost every workout and run.  When I saw nine men lined up, only one of which was a collegian, I couldn't believe it.  Nine.  Of the original 18 accepted into the meet, half scratched.  Four days before, when the words 'Not Accepted' appeared next to my provisional qualifying time of 13:33.13 on the online entries/declarations page, I still held hope.  But USATF didn't fill the field after scratches.  Not even for a 23 year old hopeful, there, warmed up and ready to race.

This weekend hurt me.  I saw and heard a lot of things I wish I hadn't.  I feel disillusioned by what I've cherished as the purest of all sports, the one that's defined my life for almost nine years now.  This episode is the tipping point in my gradual realization over the past two years that US track and field isn't what it seems on the surface.  There are politics like you wouldn't believe.  Better have a friend in a high place or you're not getting anywhere.

This weekend's meet shouldn't be solely about selecting three people to go to Moscow.  The name of the meet says it all - The United States Track and Field Championships - so why did the 5000 final include such an alarmingly small fraction of the talent in the country?  Why wasn't the second American in the NCAA indoor and outdoor championships for this event - Maverick Darling in the race?  The meet should help younger guys gain experience and exposure.  Instead, the race ended up being a jog fest for Nike's athletes in front of a small crowd.  How hard would it have been to add Maverick, myself, and Andy Bayer, among others, all of whom were at the meet and ready to run?  A little bending of the rules in place.  Apparently the resistance to change is strong.

I wasn't going to blog about this in favor of forgetting about it and moving on.  But over the past couple days I've thought about it more and couldn't let it go.  I can only hope that USATF starts itching its scratches in future years.  People need to know what's going on.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Take The Chance

I've migrated North from Austin to my hometown, Milwaukee in favor of cooler temperatures and proximity to my next few races.  Between mama's home cookin' and the familiar high school running routes it makes for a good training base camp.  The comfort of home isn't without its consequences: training alone changes the mental game up a bit.

Today I drove to Marquette University's track for the last hard workout before the US Championships.  The gate was closed so I hopped the fence, thinking how much it would suck to get kicked out halfway through a rep.  The track is blue, just like it will be in Des Moines - that's training specificity for you.

I'm assigned a set of six thousands at 5k pace with three minutes (generous) rest.  I'll follow that with some 200s at mile pace to turn the legs over.  The workout is starkly simple compared to others I've done this year with Texas - sessions I've come to call 'mixed workouts' that might hit a wide range of paces and recovery lengths.  But today it's no nonsense Jack Daniels taken straight, no chaser.

The disadvantages of training solo become apparent during a workout like this. Warming up I feel a bit negative.  'it's warmer this morning than it's been, it's windy, I don't feel that good.'  The usual distance runner whining.  This time of year, as championship season begins, we're especially on edge, believing everything should be feeling perfect.  Today I'm putting the workout on an undeservedly high pedestal; as I begin the first rep, I sort of feel like I'm climbing up to a gallows.

The guy mowing the grass around the track has flooded his engine and I smell gas every time I run the curve.  The first interval usually feels off because your body still needs to warm up.  I run it in 2:42.7, on the low end of the 2:42 - 2:45 range I should be in.  Most of the time I can execute a workout without too much mental agony - focusing on the current rep and not the rest of the workout.  But today I'm being negative.  On the second and third thousands I run 2:43 and 2:43, @StilinIt but not feeling good.  Usually the halfway point serves as a nice mental checkpoint but today the workout is half empty rather than half full.

Hubris attacks on the fourth interval.  Somewhere during the second lap I start letting up.  These thousands require sharp focus literally the entire time, and the slow down snowballs when I check my 800 split at 2:15, five seconds off.  I start thinking about ending the whole thing as I finish in 2:50.

If you go off to die, then take us, too,
to face all things with you; but if your past
still lets you put your hope in arms, which now
you have put on, then first protect this house.

Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 2, lines 914-7

For the next couple minutes I wage a mental war with myself.  Had my coach been there he would have pulled me off the track.  If I end the workout now, my confidence will be shattered leading into important races.  If I try to go on, I'll most likely continue dying and end up feeling worse.  But there's a chance I could sack up and salvage the thing.  I reach a compromise: I'll run 800 of the next rep, on pace, in spikes, and see how I feel.  I beat my chest, let out a war cry that echoes off the casino across the street, and go for it.

The internal soliloquy of recovery period four is for me the pinnacle of the workout and perhaps the entire season.  Reaching such a low mental and physical point and rebounding motivates me.  I'm a touch slow halfway through the fifth interval when I start feeling good again.  I decide to run all thousand of it as I come through 800, still slow, in 2:14.  I speed up and finish with 2:44.  Suddenly I'm almost there, just one rep separating me and the 200's which are just icing on the cake anyway.  I sense the end of the set and run the last one in 2:41, my fastest split.

Nothing changed in my body from that fourth agonizing interval to the last one.  The 2:50 outlier was a product of my mentality.  This isn't an isolated incident: two weeks ago I ran an outlying 2:10 on the fourth 800 of a set of six, the other five averaging 2:04.  And my last two races at Stanford and Oxy had slower fourth kilometers.  Anyone can open well and I'm able to close well, sensing the finish.  But it's that portion of the work - that third quarter - that seems to get me.  It's like traveling from far away, coming around the bend and finally seeing home and being reinvigorated.  Only the trees were in the way.

Today I was shown, by the workout, that it's in the tank.  No matter how hard it is, I have to take the chance and continue working during that third quarter phase.  In the form of a race it will mean going with the leaders after 3k, something I failed to do at Oxy.  I have to trust that instinct will take me home to the finish.  As I put the final preparations in for USA's I'm confident in my strength and toughness, and being aware of my ability to rally, no matter how hard it gets, is valuable knowledge.