Sunday, September 17, 2017

Moving On Up

A few hours after the Ed Murphey Mile in Memphis, Tennessee I shifted balance on the wall I was perched on outside a bar filled to capacity. My track season had just ended. As I craned my neck to see inside through big glass windows, huge versions of Floyd Mayweather and Connor McGregor danced, projected onto the bar wall during round eight of their much anticipated fight. Out there in the Memphis night there was barely room to get an unobstructed view of a TV inside.

Earlier in the evening, eight of us took up our own stage on a high school track on the outskirts of Memphis.  Standing on the makeshift mile start line, thousands of fans clamored at our periphery in the outside lanes and the infield. We felt something like Mayweather and McGregor must have felt in the ring. All athletes do. Knowing that was pain was about to come. Feeling the proximity of human bodies, leaning in, anticipation palpable in eyes.

Just eight men and seven women comprised the mile/1500m fields in Memphis, including pacers. Crowded, physical races are part of running, but this very small field was refreshing after a spring and summer of jockeying for position in US, Irish, and Belgian track races. Minutes before our race, the women put on a great 1500 meter show, and the crowd was still buzzing. The entire track was lined with people. 

Their roar abruptly crescendoed at the start as if torn from the starter's gun, its wave rippling around the oval, preceding and following us as we covered four laps for the mile. I never remember much detail from a race, but I do recall hearing "USA! USA! USA!" on each run of the backstretch. The pace was good and fast early as we passed 800m in one minute and fifty six seconds. 

Pacer Jesse Garn (a great guy) takes us through three laps in the inaugural Ed Murphey Mile in Memphis, TN.

You never truly settle in a mile. It's too short a race, and even the smallest gap to the guy or girl ahead can lose you the race. You enter into a state of strained relaxation at the intersection of conscious thought and subconscious action. The world collapses down into a few blurry objects seen through a pinhole, the wind in your ears, and the notion of how much you have left in your legs versus how far it is to the finish.

With six hundred meters to go I was in second place behind Craig Engels, one of those young guns right out of college. He had just cut his magic mullet off a few weeks earlier, so I thought maybe my old man strength could prevail over him. We were cutting the fastest pace I'd personally been on for a mile or 1500 in the past several seasons, so the letters P and R started floating around in my head on the second bend of the third lap.

But seconds later, coming around into the bell lap, Craig, in the lead, slowed down considerably. It was then that I made the mistake of not maintaining our roll and going around him. Instead, Eric Avila shot out of third past us into the lead. By then there were 400 meters left, I was in third place, and the kick was on.

It is here that we come to the point of, or at least part of the thrust behind, this blog you are reading.

Sticking to a strategy that isn't paying off, but still has a chance to, can be scary. In most endeavors, (except for like, trying to hit a piñata blindfolded)  you'll never find success unless you pursue a given strategy for a long, long, (long) time, wringing it of its potential. We have a word for that: committing. Running is one of those endeavors (you should still commit to the piñata because there's candy in it.)

After finding success in them, I've been committed to running shorter distance races (1500m, mile, 5,000m) since college, and I've been consistent. But pretty much just that: consistent. Running up to and just barely kissing personal bests each year, racking up many 5k performances in the thirteen-thirties and miles with one or two seconds of four minutes. Good performances, but not ones in line with my desire to continue improving.

So imagine my mingled dismay and disbelief when, after that last lap in Memphis, after cushioning ourselves by a full four seconds below four minute mile and P.R. pace through halfway, and seeing the door open to the lead heading into the bell, I finished fourth and the clock read 4:00.3 next to my name in the end. We’d slowed down too much on the third lap and it cost us. Btw, I had ran 4:00.7 three weeks earlier in Raleigh. I told you I was consistent.

(I'm not asking for your phalanges to ply the world's smallest fiddle for me here. Everyone's running career is a big series of experiments, and results are results, especially when they're less than "stellar". [Let me also say that disappointment very quickly gave way to joy at being part of such a great event in Memphis. The top three got under four, so it was a historic race. Having barely finished, I turned around and jogged down the line of spectators for a round of high fives.  My legs experienced a second round of numbing lactic buildup even at ten minute pace {how the hell do people do victory laps or post-race dances <Ezekiel Kemboi> looking so good?!}, but my spirit was quickly repaired. That's the beauty of events that get the fans close, physically, to the athletes. Like Memphis, Sir Walter Miler in Raleigh, the Long Island Mile, and others have been popping up. Like boxing. {In fact I started writing so much on the topic of making running more popular through format and presentation that I had to fork it over to a  separate, forthcoming blog. Stay tuned.}])

Getting fans close to athletes is the future of this sport. Sir Walter Miler in Raleigh, NC.

Memphis ended as somewhat of a paraphrase of my entire season: healthy, running pretty fast, but performing time and time again on the same plane. Our strength coach at Texas once told us that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That’s not really what it says in the dictionary, but I’ve been feeling a bit insane in that sense lately. 

So it’s finally time to try a new strategy. I’m selling my car and moving to Saskatchewan!

Just kidding. I’m not going anywhere. Luckily running offers more than one surface to gallop upon, and plenty of distances to gallop over.  It's time for me to move up in distance. 

No, not to the marathon. Yet. I’m not ready to relinquish all my fast twitch muscle fibers. Just half of them. I’ll be running the Houston Half Marathon in January. Race weekend in Houston will likely have a healing and inspiring effect on the city after Hurricane Harvey, and I’m excited to run and be part of the race. The remainder of 2018 will include more racing on the roads than on the track, although I’ll run a track 10,000m or two in the spring, and will probably hate myself afterwards.

Training will change, too. I’ve never trained like a true miler, but in parallel with the shorter distances I’ve targeted in the past few years, things like volume (mileage over time) and intensity of workouts have always been closer to a shorter, faster, trackier motif while at Princeton, Texas, and Zap Fitness. That’s going to change.

Basically my running pedigree boils down to a battle between my mom and dad’s sides of the family. Dad, with his shorter, stockier stature lends speed and power (and my big butt) to the equation. But then mom comes in and lets me run really far, with her thin, tall dad and willowy ancestors. I’ve been giving them both a chance up until now by focusing on the classic speed/distance combo that is the 5,000m event.  So sorry, dad. Time to give mom and the longer, strength oriented side some more love with things like triple digit mile weeks, longer threshold workouts and tempo runs, and farther long runs.

Squad. Andrew, Aaron, Brandon, and I line up for the Morton Games 5,000m in Dublin this summer.

Absolutely the most important thing for a runner (or anyone, with any passion) is to be excited about running and to keep having fun doing it. When you’ve reached a stale point or a bit of a plateau/mesa type thing, it’s time to make a change. Running in a few new events and getting a novel race calendar is exciting. Even more so is the renewed prospect of finding my true strength and reigniting my belief that I can make a world championship or olympic team. With new goals and a plan to reach them, it feels as if I’ve retired from one job and taken up a new one, where the water cooler is twice as far away, I work late on weekends, and have a brand new stapler.

I took a two week active break after the Memphis Ed Murphey Mile, and am now in the second week of building up mileage. My first race back actually makes this whole blog look like a lie, since it’s a 5k - the USATF Championship / Dash to the Finish Line race in New York City. Last time I ran that race, in 2013, I first met and shared a hotel room with the late runner David Torrence, who tragically died last month at way too young an age. It being one of my first races on the pro circuit, DT made an impression on me. He was eager to hand down seasoned wisdom on training and traveling and racing to a young pro just getting started (though he kept the room way too cold). I was always very impressed with his racing savvy and ability to run everything from the 800m to the 5,000m and beyond at a super high level, and his ability to pump up crowds and make people love him. He will be missed.

After New York it’s a few more road races in November and the Club Cross Country Championships in December. The fall/winter cycle builds to the Houston half marathon in January, after which we’ll start looking at that 25 lap track race and road races around the country.

For those of you who’ve somehow managed to read all the way to here, I reward you with an update on the Zap Fitness vegetable garden. This year has seen by far our most abundant harvest. The tomatoes did decently, though many get caterpillarized if you don’t pick them soon enough. Our real windfall was in jalapeños. They are the spiciest, tastiest ‘peños I’ve ever indulged in. Going in and coming out. And we have more basil than we know what to do with. Make a lot of pesto I guess.

That's it for now. Thanks for reading.

Upcoming race schedule:
DateRace NameLocationVenue / Distance
November 4US 5k Road Champs/Abbott Dash to the FinishNew York, NYRoad 5k
November 11VCU Health 8kRichmond, VARoad 8K
November 23Manchester Road RaceManchester, CTRoad 4.748 miles
December 9Club Cross Country ChampionshipsLexington, KYCross country 10k
January 14Aramco Houston Half MarathonHouston, TXHalf Marathon

1 comment:

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