The Track Trade Offs
For many of us Oregonians, late June and early July is prime time for camping, hiking, and generally exploring the outdoors. However, the last few years, my summer energies have been channeled towards a different endeavor, as I have swapped the mud-crusted hiking boots in favor of my flashy neon pink track spikes. The goal : earning my spot at the prestigious, culminating event of the track season - the Outdoor National Track and Field Championships at Eugene’s very own Hayward Field.
After hitting a new personal best less than two weeks prior, I was ready to lace up and lay it all out there at the national meet. However, the irony of passing up opportunities to make money in the sport, in favor of pursuing a bigger competition stage and loftier running dreams is not lost on me. Prior to rediscovering my love and capacity for track racing, I was a regular competitor in two events, that this year, both fell the week prior to USA’s : the Yakima Mile and Eugene’s Butte to Butte 10k. Aside from being a ton of fun, both races offer cash prizes that I have won in the past and used to help fund my racing endeavors. In contrast, USA championships requires a $50 entry fee, despite being an event where spectators must pay to watch, both in person and online as the stream is behind a paywall. Those of us unsponsored athletes competing at track events are doing it for the love of track racing. I certainly considered myself fortunate to not have to book travel and lodging to compete, as Hayward Field is a mile and a half from my front door.
Role Reversal: Race Day Spectator
Although I was excited to be preparing
to participate in my second outdoor championships, it was a little sad on the morning of July 4th to watch my husband and friends head out to race Butte to Butte, leaving me behind to spectate. However, armed with a water gun, cowbell, and plenty of coconut water to stay hydrated on a hot morning, I had my fair share of race day fun! The Butte to Butte race certainly highlights the fantastic community feel of Eugene’s running community. I was excited to see many, many athletes that I run with on group runs, and many more that I have worked with in the physical therapy clinic at Zenith. One of the most rewarding parts of my job as a physical therapist is seeing folks that I am working with, or have worked with previously, out on a race course running happy and healthy. I was a little surprised by just how many familiar happy faces I spotted along the course between training and therapy clients, current and former athletes and running friends.
The Track Collective Pre Meet Crew
The day before my race, some middle distance running competitors, who I had met at a few previous races this season, invited me to meet up for a small group pre-meet run. “The Track Collective” a newly formed, collaborative group of professional runners with varying experience levels, some represented by different sponsors and others unsponsored, organized this get together. Over the past few years, I have been straddling the line between pro runner fan girl and competitor. The first few times I found myself on starting lines next to the big names in the sport the “aw factor” of running with the track and field ‘celebrities’ made me feel a bit like an impostor. However, as I have found myself in more and more big races, competing alongside my previous running idols, I have gotten to know and like many of these runners. These connections help make the solo track related routines of travel, meet warm ups, and cool downs a little less isolating. They create a larger sense of belonging in a sport that can otherwise seem at times intense and mentally daunting. Our love of sport, and similar disciplined runner lifestyles result in us having a lot in common.
Meeting up with a handful of 1500, 5k, and steeplechase athletes who, like me, don’t have the social support of a big training team behind them, was a great opportunity for us to relax a little on what could otherwise be a bit of a stressful pre meet run routine. After all, all of us were there to compete in the meet. We were all preparing for a similar important race. The sense of community and camaraderie amongst various competitors this little group run fostered helped set the stage for having fun and soaking up Championship Week.
For the 1500m race, 36 athletes (37 this year as Athing Mu entered the 1500m conversation) are randomly divided into 3 heats, from which 3 athletes automatically advance, followed by 3 more athletes with the 3 next fastest times, move on to a final race. It’s always a little disconcerting when you first see your heat assignment. This year, I scanned the sheet to find my name in Heat 1, alongside 3 Olympians, and a fourth woman with a personal best time of 4:01. Wow. This heat was going to be very, very competitive. I allowed myself a few minutes to be a little unnerved by my luck (or lack thereof). Then, I reminded myself to control what I could control. Rather than thinking about it as being dealt a rough hand, this would be an opportunity for me to roll with the best of them!
The Perks of Racing at Home:
I love racing at Hayward for a variety of reasons. First, nothing beats having the hometown community support in the stands. This came full circle when one of my current middle school athletes ran down to the trackside after my race to give me a high five. I love that the athletes I coach get to see me race, just like I get to cheer them on when they compete. I want them to see how running, working hard and chasing your dreams can be a lifelong pursuit, and that success comes in different forms and isn’t just defined by finishing first and breaking the race tape.
Second, it means I get to enjoy all of the comforts of a home meet. I get to hang out at home and pet my dogs as part of my race day routine. It also means less interference with my work schedule. I don’t have to reschedule patients to accommodate travel plans. I am able to continue working and treating patients up to a few days before my race. It also means that I am able to continue coaching youth track practices here in South Eugene without interruption.
Although I do not have a team that I get to train with on a regular basis, I do have a team of support behind me for who I am incredibly grateful. Zenith allows me the work flexibility to carve out the time I need to train and compete. My husband/coach never complains about setting up wickets for me to practice my form after a long workday. He’s always willing to hold the stopwatch or jump in workouts to help me out, and enthusiastically talks me through race plans, recaps, and tactics. My good friends even came up to Oregon and cheered me on. They even used their professional photography skills to capture fantastic, high quality pictures of me before the race and on race day. As an unsponsored athlete who is not a favorite to win, it usually takes some digging to find a race photo. Thanks to my skilled friends, I’m lucky to have many quality photos to commemorate big events like this.
As I have run a few races at Hayward Field already this year, I was familiar with the pre race warm up routine and call back to the clerk stand and pre race holding area. Decked out in my brand new Tracksmith race kit designed especially for this meet, I’m ready to get things rolling. Being in the first heat means you don’t have to sit around for extra time and tensley wait for the other 1500m races to go off before it's your turn. When the first heat was up, they called us out from the cool call room under the stadium to the start line. The men’s race was just finishing, and I recalled hearing the results of the men’s 1500m race, and seeing the array of hot exhausted bodies littering the finish line. The announcer’s voice rang through the stadium as I dumped some more cold water over my head and strided to the start line.
Then, the few seconds of time before the start of the race play out in slow motion. Once the cameraman side steps past me and focuses the lens on the woman on my right, my focus narrows, and I zoom in. For some, racing is a performance. For me, the backdrop of the stadium typical turns to static, only occasionally punctuated by a tidbit of announcer commentary or a particularly loud cheer.
Twelve tense women toe the line. Then, false start, we get called back, the official shows a green card to the runner whose spike crossed the plane of white marking the waterfall start. (This is rare in distance races, and is likely a reflection of the pre race jitters in a championship race.) Once more, we line up, and bang. The race is off, neon colored spikes are attacking the rubber of the track.
The one big lesson I learned from the last USA champs: this is one of the FEW times you don’t want to get off the line hard. If there is a possibility the race is going to be tactical, the last place you want to be is in the front, leading the pack, exerting the most energy in the early laps. (I had been there, done that, and learned this the hard way last time around).
Instead, I wanted to settle in, but stay alert, watch for moves, watch for elbows, watch for spikes, and watch for the giant kick back of some competitors' strides. Inhale. Exhale. My breathing is more steady than is typical a few laps into the race, and joins the ocean of measured breathing in the cluster of athletes moving up the track. The inner dialogue continues. Don’t give up your spot. Feel the runner next to you wanting to get to the rail, try to hold your spot without getting too close to the feet in front. The runner in front of me stumbles, I make a quick sidestep. She steadies herself and we fall back into the clustered, distorted rhythm, navigating the middle stages of the race. I try to channel my inner soccer player who thrived in the contact sport/defend your space environment.
This was one of those days where you know the pace is easy but your legs are still burning. I was hoping for a pace change when we hit 800m to go, so I surged a little, realized no one was going to give in inch and let me tuck back in, and slid back into my spot near the back of the crowded pack of ponytails and sharp elbows. At 500m to go, I looked up, thinking I would move up a bit here, just as the runner in front of me (Mu) had the same idea. I lost my rhythm a bit, and didn't capitalize on the move I should have made. Over the next 300 meters I think I zoned out when I should have been focusing back in. Although the pace may have been slower, the mental exertion of this race was significant. Before the final straight away I turned it on, and accessed that reserve of speed that has become a familiar friend in the late stages of races this year. My line of sight rose to the colored jerseys in front of me as I closed down the space between us, opening up my stride. Yet, I had dug myself too much of a hole. I was able to pick another runner off, and was right on the heels of a few more. Like nine other runners in my heat, I fell short of getting that ‘q’ by my name to signify qualifying for the finals. Only the automatic top 3 runners made it out of my heat, and all 3 displayed a blazing feat of late race speed covering the final 400 meters in under 60 seconds.
Of course I was gunning to make it to the final. Of course I was a little disappointed. Of course I knew there were more decisive moves I could and should have made. But, I fought all the way to the finish line. The last tactical race I had run was at the same event the year prior. This year, I set myself up for a smarter race than I did then. I stuck my nose in it and held my own against the impressive group of pro, full time athletes.
As a division 3 athlete, I don’t recall having ever run a tactical race in my college career. My D3 championship appearances in college were few, and in smaller scale races I would typically be pushing the pace alone or battling it out with one or two athletes tops. Inevitably, when you finish a tactical race, the time on the scoreboard doesn’t reflect the work and sweat you left on the track the same way an honest fast race does. There is a lot to be learned from this type of race, and I will be running more of them in the future. This championship race provided another opportunity to practice the game of racing in a different, more strategic yet less ‘honest’ way. Over the course of the event, I got to know my fellow racers/competitors a little better, and am starting to feel more and more connected to the elite running community, which ultimately translates to confidence on the track.
Cool Down: Scheming and Dreaming
On the cool down, I found my Cascadia Elite teammates who ran in the later heat of the 1500, and caught up with them as we jogged. Still on the post race runner high, I started to plan out more races to put on my race calendar. Because the tactical race didn’t reflect the current fitness I knew I had been building, I was hungry for more. I’m feeling healthy and excited about racing which means it’s time to keep the fast times rolling. Championships may be over, but the racing season is still going strong. I still have more big racing goals for my summer. I will be spending plenty more time both working in the physical therapy clinic and on the track in an effort to both rip a fast 1500 and to continue flirting with that elusive 4:30 mile barrier.
To end off the experience this year, I continued the tradition I started last year, and shotgunned a beer in my yard as soon as I got home, still in my full race kit. This is part celebration, and part homage to my younger self who never could have fathomed where running would take me a decade after I ran my last college track race.