Twenty three years after my last track race - (the NJHS State Section Championships 400m Final - where I got 6th out of 8 and top 5 went to the State Finals) - I was headed back to the track to race against young men who were not yet born the last time I raced. The other little wrinkle was that my event, the 800m was a distance I had never raced in my life. Well, at the very least it should be interesting, I figured.
Things didn't look great leading up to the race in that I started to get a bit of a head cold on Thursday. By Saturday I felt pretty bad. I was taking Advil, Clariton (in case it was some form of allergies) and a lot of Vitamin-C. The cold did not come w/o benefits mind you - I did lose 3 pounds in the 4 days leading up to the race, and because I was pretty out of it Saturday night, I passed right out and got a good night's sleep pre-race which is unusual. I had decided Saturday that I was racing no matter what. I needed to get a race in - period. I was a little better Sunday morning so it was definitely a go. I took a few menthol cough drops w/ me in case I needed to clear the airways pre-race, but thankfully the adrenaline took care of that.
The race was close to San Francisco, and anyone who's familiar w/ the area knows that although it was 68 degrees and sunny at my house in Silicon Valley - conditions could be drastically different just 25-miles away. As we headed up the freeway we saw the typical "wall of clouds and fog" as we approached. Soon we were engulfed in thick dark cloud cover and I watched the car's outside temp reading drop from 68 to 48 in the span of 12-miles. Making things more "interesting", the track was laid out beautifully . . . on the edge of a cliff. Great if you were sitting in the stands (because of the setting, there were only stands on the one side of the track) as across the field you got a wonderful panoramic view of the valley below. However for he runners - what we got was a huge wind tunnel that was quite a force on the final 200m. How bad was the wind? Well, the top 3 seed times in the 100m were 10.39, 10.41, 10.43 . . . . and the winner came in in 10.85! My buddy Juan who ran 11.59 2-weeks ago could only clock a 12.24 yesterday due to the conditions. Running the 800m, I was going to have to contend w/ this wind twice.
None of this bothered me though - I was just happy to be there. My first piece of good news came when I checked in. There were in fact going to be 2 heats. Thankfully I was not going to have to race the Olympic Trials guys! There were just 4 guys in my heat, the #1 guy had a seed time of 1:57, #2 was 2:01, #3 was 2:10 (this was a BS time BTW, this guy was good - he just wanted to avoid the first heat!) and then there was me w/ NT (no time). We were to start off in lanes (nice) and cut in after the first turn. The four of us were using lanes 4-7, and unfortunately I was in 7. (unfortunately because I wouldn't be able to see anyone until after the first 100m so it would be very difficult for me to judge the pace early on)
I wasn't able to take in the first heat as much as I'd have liked. Due to the temps, the four of us in heat #2 kept our sweats on as long as humanly possible - which meant as the big boys were entering their 2nd lap, we were all frantically shedding layers trying to time it such that we wouldn't be down to shorts and singlets until they hit the finish. Of the six (count 'em SIX) guys in this race that have gone sub-1:50 before, Tetlo Emmen was the winner in I believe 1:48.8
I headed out to lane-7 and lined up right below the big #7 on the track. The USATF Official (a little old guy about 70yo) called me back and said "hey, we're not running a 400 - your stagger for lane-7 is back here". Oops! I said to him, "look I'm running against college kids, I'm going to need all the help I can get." He laughed, took a look at the field, looked back at me and wished me luck. This got me laughing and just like that, the pre-race tension was gone. As I looked over the field it wasn't difficult to pick out the 1:57 guy - about 6'1" thin, strong and he just looked like an athlete. The gun hadn't gone off yet, but this race was over.
When the gun sounded I took off in what I believed to be a quick, but under control pace. I was shooting for a 60-61 second first lap, but mentally I was prepared for anything. (anything meaning me running way too fast early and having to deal w/ it later) As I approached the 100m mark I could hear the official yell out "you have to get to me before you cut in". At 100m I was in front (probably not good), but being in lane-7 I just couldn't see anyone so it was difficult to judge the pace. Rather than cut in all at once, I targeted a line where I'd get to the inside just as I got to the far turn. (shortest distance) At about 125m I looked to my left to see Mr. 1:57 - he was still behind me. I figured, "OK, good - he'll pass me before I get to 200m and I'll tuck in behind him". 50m later I looked over again and came to the realization, "maybe not - I'm still pulling away". No way I was going into the 2nd turn in the lead - not in front of a 1:57 guy - I was going way too fast. I almost put on the breaks at 185m to let him go to the front. Sure I lost some time here, but it was better than the alternative.
There was someone yelling out 200m times, and that's when I fully understood why I was in this situation. "26-27". Damn, I had just put on the breaks the last 15m and I still came across the 200 in 27-flat. Had I kept going, I was looking at a 26.x first 200 easily. Well, I had just run the fastest 200m I've run since HS . . . . and I had 600m to go.
For whatever reason (and I hope this doesn't change) when I'm racing I have not had a single negative thought enter my head. There was no panic, no "oh I'm blowing the race", or "damn I better slow down a lot". I just tucked in behind Mr. 1:57 and kept going. I just remember telling myself to settle in. Into the teeth of the wind, but had a guy about 7" taller than me out in front so this helped tremendously. They had a clock at the start line, but the display was very small and for some reason, rather than put the clock on the INSIDE of the track (where we were running) - it was way over on the outside. The end result was that you couldn't see the time until you were right on top of it.
I crossed the 400m mark right as the clock switched from 57 to 58. Based on how this corresponded to the official times, I'd estimate my 400m split at 58.2 - 58.5. About a 31.5 200m into a stiff wind.
Yeah I was too fast overall, but the 2nd 200 was just what I wanted. I was now in uncharted waters - the 2nd lap. The plan was to pick up the effort on lap #2 because if you don't you simply slow too much. I don't believe I did a great job of that for the first 70m of the turn as I think I was waiting to hit a wall. It didn't happen and as I was finishing the turn I was able to pick up the pace and go faster. A little time lost there, but nothing I could do about that now.
I tried to power down the back straight as best I could. Mr. 1:57 had a good lead now, but I was still in 2nd place. As I approached the 600m mark I could hear the guy yelling out, "1:29-1:30-1:31". Not sure exactly when I crossed the mark, but I believe it was between 1:30 and 1:31. (this was a handheld time obviously, so let's call it 1:31) Maybe 32.5 for that 200m - not bad considering I took my foot off the gas too much on the curve.
1:31 was damn fast for 600m I was thinking. I made the same mistake I made on the previous curve - foot off the gas waiting to hit the wall. This time however, it cost me more than some time - not one, but BOTH guys behind me passed me early on the turn! All of a sudden I dropped from 2nd to last. This got me out of sorts for a few seconds, but again I quickly re-focused and as I took an instantaneous assessment of my condition I came to what I thought was a remarkable conclusion - I felt fine!
I picked up the pace and passed one of the kids that passed me before the curve was finished. I had to swing out to lane-2 to do this, but hey I put myself in this position. There would be no more "waiting to hit the wall". At this point (and for the first time) I had complete confidence in my fitness level and I would increase the effort the rest of the way.
The unfortunate thing coming down the final 100 was that I was in lane-2, meaning I was not getting any protection against that hellacious wind. I was so focused on just finishing strong that I forgot about the wind and making sure to stay shielded if I could. With about 70m to go Juan was on the infield yelling at me to use my arms more. I increased my effort one final time and headed towards the finish. As I approached the line I could finally see the clock: 2:03-2:04 - I came in just as it hit 2:05.
The next 3-minutes were a blur. As I gasped for air I recall the announcer calling out the official times. I heard my name - 3rd place, 2:05.27. Two seconds later my feet were off the ground . . . Juan had me in a bear hug - lifted me clear off the track and yelled, "2:05 in these #&%@ conditions!?" A few seconds later, the little old race official came up to me and congratulated me on a great race. Clearly he had expected me to be on the track a good 30 seconds after the kids were finished. As I walked off the track, my head pounding, Timothy Bayley (one of the pros who ran in the Olympic Trials for England last year) offered his congrats on the race, which was very cool.
The pain in my head just got worse. It felt like my head was in a vice and someone was turning it tighter and tighter. Oxygen debt being repaid I guess! I was so dizzy I had to sit down. I was prepared for pain DURING the race, but damn the pain is much much worse AFTER the race.
A minute or two later, my son came onto the infield and we sat there and talked about the race for a while. First thing he said was, "gee dad - you don't look like any of those guys" (i.e. tall, young, etc etc) Thanks! Usually, I'm talking to him after one of his HS races - quite a change of pace to have the roles reversed yesterday.
Five minutes after the finish and the pain was still getting worse. The last bit of a 5k race might be more draining than the last 200m of the 800, but post race there is no comparison. The post 800m pain is infinitely worse than anything I felt during or after the 5k - I couldn't even drive home!
I'll probably post up an analysis of the race later - but as usual for me, this post is way beyond "long enough". I was very pleased w/ the race overall. Yes I could have done some things better, but you can't run a perfect tactical race on your first go-round. And I have to believe the wind cost me a good second or so as well (I'll find out later this season) I competed hard - I came back and passed a guy late in the race even though I went out too fast - and I gave it everything I had.
It was also nice to have my family there, my neighbor Tim was nice enough to show up, and it was also a plus to have an experienced Masters racer like Juan there to help me out. The race was well run, and the it was a great atmosphere to be around all of those great athletes. How often am I going to be running in a meet w/ Olympians?? Exactly! I'll enjoy this one for a day or two and then it's back to work . . . . June 18th ain't that far away!