A Run Down Memory Lane, Part 6: Breaking Out

I found a gem of a photo from the CollegeMeganRunning archives (also known as that box of pictures under the bed in the guest room) that brought back some fond running memories, so I wanted to share. See that  younger and slightly scrawnier Megarunr?  

03_CMSU

Go, Megarunr, go! Move those skinny arms...

I love this photo. I’m not even sure who took it, but I’m so glad to have it. It’s from the breakout race of my college career. I was a Sophomore with an ambitious goal — to hack over two minutes from my 10k PR in order to run a provisional qualifier for the NCAA DII National Championships.  

For anyone unfamiliar with this aspect of the sport, in Division II Track & Field qualifying for the national meet is based on time. Some committee sets “automatic” and “provisional” qualifying marks for each event. If you hit an “automatic” mark in an official (as in, with official timers and witnesses and whatnot) race, you’re rewarded with an instant ticket to the National Championships. A more realistic goal for most college athletes is to aspire for a provisional qualifier. Hitting a provisional mark basically puts you into a lottery. If there are spaces left over after the automatic qualifiers, they’ll fill out the rest of the field with the next fastest runners. The final cut-off varies by year and can be heartbreaking. Basically, people set up their entire season to run the best possible time in order to give themselves the best possible odds of achieving that elusive goal.  

My Freshman year, my best 10k time was just under 40:00. To run a qualifier, I’d need to log 37:20 or under. This is basically a 90-second average (or 6:00 mile pace) for each of 25 laps around the track. No easy feat. I started my Sophomore year with a strong cross country season. As a team, we won the Conference and Regional meets and earned a trip to Nationals. We were a strong, evenly matched team, so I think my performances ranged from first to fifth runner that year. Even better, I was handling longer and longer threshold runs at a much faster pace than the previous year. When I ran a six-mile threshold at just under 6:00 pace, Coach began to get a gleam in his eye. He was already preparing me for the outdoor season.  

I made it through the indoor season without injury (the best I could hope to accomplish…running under three miles without hills does not coincide with my running strengths) and took up the third season in a collegiate runner’s never-ending training schedule with relish. Often, I found myself doing longer reps than the other runners on the team. Coach would have us line up at the same time and push me to stay with them and then run an extra lap (or two!) on my own while the rest were reaquainting themselves with oxygen. Sometimes, a couple of other 10kers and I would be taken to the countryside for threshold runs…something  reserved for the cross country season for most runners. The long runs got longer, and Coach even managed to work in some extra morning runs to amp up the mileage. Through it all, I often felt fatigued but never overworked. I was continually amazed by the strength I was developing.  

At a small home meet towards the beginning of the season, I broke 18:00 for the 5k for the first time. This was a huge accomplishment for me that I felt boded well for my eventual match-up with the longer race.  

The 10k isn’t an event that can be attempted repeatedly. This isn’t a perfect comparison, but on the track it’d be somewhat like trying to run a Boston qualifier every week. Eventually, the energy output will sabotage your good intentions. Most of the runners I know ran two 10ks prior to the National meet — one midway through the season with the sole intention of running a qualifying time and another at the Conference meet, where race strategy often dictated a “sit and kick” approach in order to conserve energy for other events. After a year of work, my dreams of 10k glory came down to one race.   

Even worse, after mentally preparing for 90-second pace, Coach broke some disquieting news: to have the best chance of hitting that qualifying mark, I really wanted to hear 89-second splits. Why? The bleepin’ decimal point. I had to always, always be mindful of the “point”, which adds up alarmingly over 25 laps. There’s a world of difference between 90.05 and 90.50, for example. By averaging the latter, I’d add over twelve seconds to my finishing time. Blech. Mentally, this was a bit of a blow…89 seems so much faster than 90.  

The day finally came. To be perfectly accurate, I should say “night.” The 10k was the second to last event…and in the time-honored tradition of track meets, the meet was running long. I spent most of the day attempting to sleep in the shade and convincing myself that I wasn’t nervous. As the sun set, I began to warmup for the race. It was a smaller meet, so the men and women’s 10ks had been combined. This isn’t something I minded. Conference excluded, you rarely find more than 5 or 6 girls willing to run 25 laps around the track. I’d take all the company I could get…even if most of that company would be lapping me repeatedly. We lined up. The gun went off. The race began. Even in the excitement of the first several laps, I managed to keep my cool and settle into the established pace. From the first lap on, I knew it was going to be one of those days. One of those magical, miraculous days. My legs were obedient…my breathing was natural…I felt almost supernaturally strong. “If you can maintain this pace, Megan,” I told myself. “You’re going to have a shot at this.” 

In an unbelievably short time, I was leading the women’s group and running all alone. A short time thereafter, the entire stadium realized what I was doing — if I was merely out for the win, I’d have switched into “take it easy” mode. This, the evident excitement of the teammates who had stationed themselves around the track to offer encouragement, the assistant coach’s sprints across the infield to offer me 200m splits, and probably my look of grim determination clued everyone in to the fact that I wasn’t running for the win and I wasn’t just running for a time…I was running for THE time.

 Now, I had rivals from other schools cheering me on. This was more than the grudgingly respectful “good jobs” I might have otherwise gotten for leading a race in such a commanding fashion. They were excited, too. These girls (and some guys) who in ordinary situations would not be wishing me well (from a competitive standpoint, at least), wanted to see me hit the qualifying time just as badly as my teammates did. It was amazing. The only other time I’ve felt such an overwhelming show of support was the Conference meet when I was supposed to be the one to stop a girl from sweeping the distance quadruple — 10k, 3k, steeplechase, and 5k. I didn’t accomplish this feat, but I definitely had a fan club for 37:45 or so.

From the outside looking in, it probably seemed like I was expending no effort. Like clockwork, my first 200 of each lap would be a 44(point) and the second 200 would be a 45 (point). As the laps added up, however, I found myself expending considerably more mental energy to hang onto that pace. I spent much of the race eagerly awaiting single digits on the lap counter. “Oh, golly gee,” thought I with 17 laps to go, “won’t it be great when there’s less than 10? I’ll feel so great once I see that sucker flip to 9!” When that long-awaited time came, I was mentally cursing myself. “Are you insane? Nine laps? Nine laps isn’t a treat! That’s farther than your farthest race used to be, moron!” Which is true. In high school, the longest race you can run is the 3200m…8 laps. At this point, I began to despair. “This is never going to end. It’s really never going to end. Good grief, what have I gotten myself into?”

Externally, the pace rolled on. 44(point)…45(point). Teammates and rivals alike continued to cheer me on. With five laps to go, I began to see a ray of hope. I considered attempting to kick in the last mile but worried I’d hurl myself into the looming wall that I could sense but not really see. Besides, at this point I wasn’t absolutely sure that they’d let me stop. Ever. With three laps to go, I began to get excited. “This is happening! Actually happening!” On the last lap, I tossed every ounce of remaining energy as a sacrifice to the gods of the 10k and prayed for a qualifier. Crossing the line with a final lap of 86 seconds, I breathed a sigh of relief that it was over…and promptly choked on bile. I stumbled/shuffled/hobbled to the outside edge of the track and pressed my forehead to the delightfully cool top of the chain-link fence, debating whether or not I was going to be sick. The timer in charge of the first female gingerly followed me…being careful to stay outside the splash zone, of course. Finally, I had to know. Twisting my head so I could see him, I managed to sputter: “what was the time?” He checked the stopwatch. “37:05,” he said. I grinned. “Are you feeling ok now?” he asked, and I nodded.

I’ve had other great races since then and run a faster 10k, but this race is the one I want to always remember. It was a turning point in my college career. In one race, I went from being just another underclassman struggling to adjust to the rigors of college training, from someone who was pretty good in cross country but not much of a threat on the track…to someone other teams needed to worry about, to someone with an EVENT. To this day, I’m #4 on the all-time list for the 10k at my school…and it all started that day.

To top things off, I had the honor of making a trip to Nationals that year. I was #17 out of 20 on the qualifying “list.” If my qualifier had been a few seconds slower, I might have been bumped from the list entirely.

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9 responses

  1. I really, really love old-school racing stories. Thanks for sharing!
    As a competitor, I was always amazed at your consistency. I didn’t have a hope of running even splits for two laps around that track, let alone 25! Maybe that’s why I was a pseudo-sprinter in the springtime…

  2. Thankee. 🙂 We all have our running talents…my main one is a pretty good feel for pace. I definitely could not have handled your event — the 800 is ROUGH and I definitely do not have the speed for it!

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