My buddy Ted and I had driven over here from Nashville, lured by the idea of a good night race under the lights with solid competition. Conditions were going to be pretty much perfect, 60 degrees and no wind. We got there early and watched the steeplechase, 800m heats, the mile. Large men hurled blunt objects in the infield. Eventually, inexorably, race time rolled around. On my warmup, I felt a little flat, both physically and mentally. I had been nervous all week, so maybe this was the final calming of the nerves. I didn't worry about the flat feeling. Ted's race hadn't gone well (he ran the 5000m), but he joined me for a few strides.
In track culture, everything has its place and time, and it goes by the book. The lines are clean, the surface level. The officials conduct themselves with dispassion and effectiveness. They have the demeanor of scientists, preparing the lab for an important experiment. Which, I suppose, they were. So, about ten minutes before the race, I went to check in, to get my hip number. As you probably know, you line up at the start according to the seed time you submitted, from inside out. The hierarchies are clear from the outset. Fast on the inside, slow out. The number, a big sticker attached to your hip, designates your rank. Mine was 13.
|Letzigrund Stadium, Zurich|
When the women finished running, the official called us over and lined us up on what's called the 'walk up line.' This is a dotted line that is a couple steps behind the start line. I found my place dutifully towards the outside of the track, peering down the line of runners. Twelve faster than me on my left. Two slower than me on my right. The starter raises his pistol and calls out, "Take your marks." We then shuffle up to the start line, carefully place a foot closely behind it, and lean forward, waiting for the gun. In my time away from racing on the track, I had forgotten about all of this, but I fell back into the rituals with ease. Like sacraments, all of these little carefully constructed practices get the mind straight and attentive. They tell the body and the mind that what we are about to do here is, well, something special.
The 10,000m draws the runner's runner. Even though these guys seemed perhaps less athletic than the guys I had met in earlier races--leaner, goofier, skinnier--they were harder. These were the guys who couldn't break 60 in the quarter, but who could go on forever. They soaked up training and effort like a sponge. They didn't need fancy coaching, and probably wouldn't take to it, anyways. You just send them out to run 120 miles a week, hammer mile repeats, and hope they show up for the race on the weekend. There was little anxiety among these runners. They were very familiar with this small and unforgiving space. It was time, simply, to do what they had been training to do: run for 30 minutes straight at a withering 5 minutes per mile.
|1980 Olympic trials--these guys can break 60 in the quarter.|
My seed time was a couple minutes slower than most of these guys. I'm not running 120 miles a week, nor am I hammering mile repeats. Running with them would feel easy for 5 minutes, hard for 10 minutes, then I would simply be crushed and would not finish. I knew these guys were dangerous. So, when the gun fired, I let the peleton of 10,000m runners go without regret. Maybe another day. By a lap into the race, they already had about 4 seconds on me. This lead would multiply 25 times.
Fortunately, for the first two and a half miles there was a diminutive Italian kid running my pace. He was from Xavier and probably a freshman. He had a lot of fans out there. We traipsed along together, a smaller band of two that trailed the organized peloton. Every backstretch his buddies would yell, "Go Coniglio!" I knew pretty soon that he wouldn't last, since he just kind of limply sat on me. Occasionally he would make a half-hearted pass, as if to pretend to challenge the pace, but he would then slow down. He dropped off the pace after a couple miles, and the rest of the race I would run alone.
My buddy Ted was on the infield giving me splits. Normally, I am not a huge fan of splits, but when I found myself running by myself out on the open track, I was really glad to have Ted there. Maybe if I had been in the peloton it wouldn't have been important. It didn't really matter what he told me. It just mattered that there was someone watching. Otherwise, it would have just been me, running alone, on a track, round and round. Which is, of course, what it was.
Anyways, I was out easy, through the mile in 5:17, pretty much perfect. I kept clipping off 77s and 78s and felt really good. The breathing was easy and the pace did not feel hot. I bided my time and let the laps fall away without counting them, content to just hear Ted's splits. According to his watch, I was through 2 miles was even in 10:29. 3 miles in 15:47. I just concentrated on running easy, and I felt like I had a chance to run even splits all the way through. For a few moments, I allowed myself to reflect on the ease with which this 5:15 pace was just coming to me. I didn't catch the 5k split, but it must have been around 16:25. In January, I'd run an all out 5k in 16:22. Today, in April, it felt relaxed and smooth. As in the early moments of the marathon, there is time in the 10k to enjoy running fast.
This enjoyment turned into labor in the 4th mile, and I hit this split in 21:03. Shortly thereafter the main group lapped me, my solitude interrupted by a pack of sweating, straining runners who ate me up on the back stretch. You could tell that it was about to break up because some of the guys on the back looked grim. I tried to keep my rhythm, but after I was lapped it started getting pretty tough. It was as if the passing of the pack, the effort that they were putting in, woke me up to the fact that I had been running pretty hard for the last 20 minutes. It's funny how the pain settles in on you almost immediately, and you go from floating and flying to that deep sensation of effort. The end was coming, and it was time to reckon with it.
Only three laps or so removed from that feeling of strength and power, it got really fucking tough. I'm happy with my mental effort through this part of the race. I just tried to stay strong. I held my form together, but the laps slipped 78s and 79s to 81s. I thought a lot about the last six miles of my last marathon, about grinding, and I tried not to count laps, which was pretty much impossible. With 6 laps to go, my face got kind of twisted, and I tried to relax it, but it didn't work. The thought of giving up and dropping out passed through my mind, and I played with it a bit, just to pass the time. Every now and then I would get lapped by a straggler and do my best to hang tough. With 800 to go, I started to convince myself to kick. The winner of the race double lapped me, just before my last lap. I ran the last lap in 74, running hard to try to get under 33.
The only guy I beat was Coniglio. A couple other guys dropped out. I ran 33:04--an all time PR, since I never raced 10k when I was really fit in college.
Secretly, I had been hoping for 32:30 and even letting myself daydream of running under 32 minutes. For now, it was enough to feel like a part of that old quirky game, back with the guys who die by the second, count their races by the meter, and choose for their competition the only thing that never stops: the clock.