Throwback Thursday: State Track

I found an old newspaper clipping that represents one of my all-time favorite pictures of “runner Megan.” (In case it’s not obvious, I’m the runner in the middle of the photo. Dark hair in a ponytail, “36” visible on my bib number.)

01_State

I know this is from my senior year of high school. I know it’s at the state track meet, where I ran the 2-mile, 4×800, and mile. I remember that this meet was disappointing for me — I was 5th in the 2-mile (I had won the previous year) and did not medal in either of the other events. I did run my season best in the 2-mile, so I guess the field was extra deep that year.

I’m not sure which of the two individual events this is. My guess is that it is the 2-mile. First, because I have this look of determination on my face that I associate with running the longer distance. It was my stronger event, and I had more confidence in it. I read a little, “this is my race, and I’m going to track you down” in my face that I cannot fathom being there for any other event. Second, you can tell that the stands are only partway full. The 2-mile was the first event of the meet back then and typically drew a smaller crowd. Also, I believe the legs and torso you can see at the right edge of the photo belong to my college teammate Stephanie. She’s a long distance beast like me, and I don’t even know if she was in the mile.

Then again, that look on my face could be, “holy moly, I’ve never run 3 races at state track before. Keep it together, Megan! Don’t let ’em see how tired you are.” Determination and desperation are hard to distinguish in a grainy newspaper photo.

What I love about this photo is my long stride. Nice work, Megan. I didn’t even know you could stride out like that! My freakin’ muscular arm. Look at that arm! For a scrawny distance runner, I’ve got GUNS! High five to you, high school Megan. I predict that you will have a reasonably successful college running career.

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A Run Down Memory Lane, Part 9: Fast

It’s already been documented that I ran through most of my childhood. What began as “fun runs” and “all comers” meets gradually became a way of life. By high school, running was pretty much a year-round commitment. High school cross country, AAU cross country, high school track, summer track, the occasional road race…I was (and am) a runner. It’s not a bad way to be.

It should come as no surprise, then, that my parents paid good money to send me to a running camp. It was actually a wonderful opportunity and fantastic timing — for my high school years, the Jim Ryun Running Camp happened to be located in my hometown. I trained with some wonderful people, learned a lot about various running and health-related topics, and made some great friends…all at the discounted “day camper” rate that my folks could afford. Win/win.

One of the best things about JRRC was having other people to run with. No, not just other people: other GIRLS. This is going to sound arrogant, and I don’t mean it to be, but at my (fairly small) Kansas school, I was the “fast girl.” We had a decent cross country team, yes, but most of my teammates were middle distance runners — better suited to the 800m than the 2-mile. Our disparate strengths and my need for higher mileage meant that I was frequently running with the boys’ team instead of the girls’. The guys and I were friends, but I always looked forward to camp as an opportunity to run with girls just like me. Other “fast girls,” state champions and school record holders who also trained solo or with the fellas for the rest of the year. For that one week, we got to run together, chat together, and challenge each other. It was amazing!

I’m not sure there’s any sport like running, where you can be constantly and quantifiably reminded of where you stand. I think it lends itself to a sort of built-in humility…you always, always, always know that there’s someone faster than you out there. The numbers tell you so. My 11:32 two-mile won a KS 4A State Championship? Awesome! Of course, the 6A state champ ran close to 11:00. Someone out in California or Colorado or Texas probably ran under 10:50. When you know that there are people out there who are capable of lapping you as you run the fastest race of your life, well…you know with certainty that the title of “fast girl” comes with several asterisks.

Mine looks like this:

Megan is fast.*

* on a good day
* at a distance of at least 2 miles
* when compared to other girls
* in Kansas
* in the Class 4A

Whew. Safe to say, humility and an honest perspective of oneself are easy characteristics for runners to hang onto.

There is one year, however, where I must have needed a reminder. A reminder that I wasn’t the fastest…not even close. This was the year the Californians came to camp…and an incident that I still think of as:

That One Time Sara Bei Ran Me Into the Ground Without Even Trying 

Sidenote: Writing this entire post has made me feel incredibly old. I’ve had to consult with my brother on everything from the years I actually attended camp to who else was there in a particular year. For one thing, I was pretty sure that Sara attended camp the same year that her future husband, Ryan Hall did. Brother informs me that this was false, and looking at the group picture  from Ryan’s first year (1999) confirmed it. Brother told me that Sara first attended in 2000, but she’s not in the group photo. Then I realized that brother and I weren’t in the group photo, either, so I thought maybe they’d taken the picture without a lot of us there? This mystery drove me crazy until brother reminded me that this was the year our uncle had died unexpectedly, and we missed a day of camp to go to the funeral. Then I felt sad and guilty that I had forgotten that, but it finally helped me finalize the timeline:

1998 – Megan goes to camp.
1999 – Megan and Matt go to camp. Ryan Hall is there, too.
2000 – Megan and Matt go to camp, but pretty much the only thing we both remember clearly is an ultimate frisbee game on a gloriously cool (60 degree) Kansas summer day. We remember this mostly because three of our friends from Florida sat miserably on the sidelines, wondering why on earth anyone would live somewhere that could be so COLD in the summer.
2001 – Matt goes to camp, Megan works a terrible summer job in the college cafeteria, but shows up at camp for most of the workouts.

THIS IS THE LONGEST SIDENOTE EVER! Back to the real blog post:

In the year we have decided is 2001, a couple of girls from California made the trip to Kansas to attend camp. They arrived the day before camp actually started, and a bunch of us townies headed to the college campus to meet them and the counselors for a run. The group was mostly guys — my brother, a few of his buddies, some counselors who were college runners, the Ryun brothers, and a coach. There were the two girls from California, however, so I was comforted in the fact that I wouldn’t be the only girl.

We headed off on a mid-morning run, and typical for a Kansas summer it was heating up fast. I wasn’t initially worried about keeping up. I may not have the fastest all-out speed, but I have plenty of endurance and even if the pace pushes me into a “moderate” heart rate zone, I can stay there for some time. After several big wins in my career, and as someone preparing for a college running career, I was beginning to see myself as:

Megan is fast.*

* maybe not the best at 1600m or under, BUT
* she can keep up with anyone on a long run.

This view was about to change.

We trailed the guys’ group by only a few meters, and in the excitement of meeting new people and having girls to run with it took me almost a mile to realize that their pace — and ours — was far outside of my comfort zone. I didn’t know the exact split, but I knew it was well below my usual 8:00 “easy” training pace, and that there was not a single chance of my being able to maintain it for the proposed 7-mile run.

The question was…what could I do? I sure didn’t want to be the one to ask to slow down. See above: I was fast. I could hang with anyone for a distance run. Me? Admit I couldn’t handle the pace? Ohhhhhhh no. There was only one thing for it — I was going to have to suck it up and somehow survive the run. Mind over matter, Megan. Mind over matter.

I grew ever more focused on breathing. I was probably a miserable running partner, because I couldn’t have contributed much to a conversation in my oxygen-deprived state. At about the two mile mark, one of the girls, Sara, looked down at her fancy Nike watch (it was one of the first ones to track pace and distance) and said, “oh. We’re doing 6:30s.”

Her tone, so nonchalant, casual, and cheery, made me really look at her…and that is when I realized just how in far over my head I was. SHE WASN’T HURTING. Not one tiny, teensy little bit. There was no possibility of her deciding to slow down — running 6:30 pace for a 7-miler on a hot day was no big thing. For me, of course, it was a threshold run…fine, fine, it was an all-out race.

Dear goodness, I thought to myself. I am going to die, and Sara is going to be completely confused when I fall into the ditch. “I don’t know what happened, Officer, we were just out for an easy run, then all of a sudden she fell over.”

I stole a glance at Laura, an 800m runner from California, and saw that she looked nearly as miserable and determined as I felt. Well, that’s something, I thought. At least it’s not just me. Then, I made a tough but necessary choice:

“Um, I’m gonna have to slow down. You guys can go run with the boys if you want.”

With a chipper, “ok, see ya, good job!” Sara was off down the road, quickly making up the distance between our group and the guys. Laura and I admitted to each other that we were both dying and opted to take the 5-mile turnaround with a short walking break for obvious, life-preserving reasons.

It still makes me laugh today. I was so sure that I was tough enough to hang with anyone. Then, along came Sara, who unintentionally ran me into the ground in the first two miles of what was to her an EASY run. Running with her didn’t necessarily rob me of any confidence, but it certainly refreshed my perspective. Almost anyone can run, improve upon their own times, and be justifiably proud of their achievements. It is only a very, very few, however, who are spectacularly talented and fiercely dedicated enough to stand apart from the pack. Sara is one of those. She is a professional runner today, and she is FAST…no disclaimers or qualifiers necessary.

– – –

I had a photo here when I hit “publish,” but it turns out that it WASN’T from the year that Sara attended camp so I deleted it. Brother Matt liked it, though, and a couple of you have already seen it so now it’s back. Super cool blog points to anyone who IDs ANYONE from the photo (and yes, there are some Olympians).

JIm Ryun Running Camp, 1999

JIm Ryun Running Camp, 1999

A Run Down Memory Lane, Part 8: Coach Megan

Are you getting tired of reading about my slow two-mile runs? I sure am. Or, oh wait, maybe I’m just tired because I’ve been running. Or because of all these poorly timed 1:30am thunderstorms that wake me up when the sweet little angel would have let me sleep. Hmph. Before I get to a (hopefully) more entertaining story, here are the latest training  stats:

Monday – rest day (‘cuz it was hot, duh)
Tuesday – 2 miles, 6:00am, 10:02 pace
Week 3 weight: 125.8 pounds (I weighed myself right after my run but am fairly certain that the water lost today and whatever I gained from our delicious carb fest at Zio’s yesterday cancel each other out. So I’m going to assume that’s a reasonably accurate weigh-in and also that I’m down 1.6 pounds from last week. Woot.)

And now, on with the show.

Long-time readers of the blog (or those who know me personally) know that from a fairly young age I spent my summers running. I quickly discovered that I had little aptitude for that other summertime sport of softball, and one can only spend so much time at the pool with skin tone like mine. So, from ages 12 to 18, if you wanted to find me between the hours of 6:30 and 8:00pm on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays during the summer months, you’d better come to the track.

Summer track was a lot of fun for me. We worked hard and many of us made it all the way to the national meets, but somehow things managed to remain low-key. I’m not sure how this was done, but it was a very healthy environment for developing athletes. (Sidenote: If you know me, you know I have little patience for overbearing parents or coaches who rob whatever joy a kid might have had in the sport by pushing them way too hard way too early on life. I was lucky enough not to experience that, but I’ve seen it play out all too often.)

For a summer or two after I was too old to compete, I opted to return to the track to give others an opportunity to find the same enjoyment in the sport that I did. Or, more likely, after spending so many summers at the track I just sort of naturally gravitated back there. It worked out well for the “real” track club coaches — they had their hands full with the field event folks and could really use someone to start the watch on the distance runners’ workouts and keep tabs on everyone for the longer runs around town.

It was intimidating to try to coach others. Even though I had nine years of running, seven years of track workouts, and a season as a collegiate athlete under my belt, I didn’t really feel qualified. Particularly challenging was coming up with the weekly workouts. I had at least some idea what to expect of the high school and middle school kids, but how much can you ask a tiny one to do? I was responsible for 10 and even 8 year olds, and I was very afraid of asking them to do too much. I sure didn’t want to be responsible for some of the burnout I was ranting against earlier.

Of course, my worries turned out to be unnecessary. The kids loved having Coach Jimmy (another college runner and volunteer) and I to run with and goof around with, no one got injured, and mostly everyone had a good time. (More about that “mostly” in a minute.)

I remember that one of their favorite workouts was the “continuous relay.” We’d gather everyone in teams and hand each team a baton. Each of their relay legs was an interval, and their rest was the time it would take the other members of their team to run. We’d go for a predetermined number of intervals and see which team “won” in the end. It wasn’t the most strenuous of works, but it added a little competitive spice that everyone enjoyed. And, of course, the littlest guys thought that carrying and handing off a baton was the coolest. thing. EVER!!! One time, Jimmy and I teamed up and said that if one of their teams beat us, we’d do push-ups. Otherwise, the whole squad would be doing push-ups. It was close, but they did manage to beat us and were delighted that they had made us workout for a change.

Another time, the littlest girls were being particularly squirrelly and not really paying attention to their workout. They were all of 8 years old, so this wasn’t exactly a big surprise. After running with them for two of the intervals and encouraging them a best as I could, I pulled them aside and said, “ok, ladies. You have one 200m rep left and you have sooooo much energy left over. I want you to leave it ALL on the track. Got it?” I almost believed the cute, innocent-looking faces that chirped back “yeeeeeeesssss!” in response to my “orders.” They were SMILING while spending time at a track, however, so even though I doubted their dedication I couldn’t help but be pleased that they were enjoying the day.

I turned my attention to the older groups of runners, sending them on their way around the track. When I started to herd the little folks to the starting line, I heard a rather insistent chorus of “meganmeganmeganmegan!” I turned to find two little girls bouncing up and down exuberantly in lane 2. What’s up, ladies? They giggled as they jumped, exclaiming, “we’re leaving it ALL on the track!” Not quite what I had in mind, but wow. Hilarious.

Of course, I’m giving you the idea that I was a nice, benevolent, pushover of a coach. This isn’t always the case. I said earlier that, to my knowledge, mostly everyone had a good time. Here’s the story of the kid who didn’t.

We didn’t always stay on the track. Once a week, we’d head away from the stadium for a “long” run. Jimmy would run with the front group to make sure that they set the course correctly for all those following. I would stay at the back to check on any stragglers and run every step with the little girls to make sure that they didn’t get lost or run over by a car. Obviously, a “long” run for these girls would max out at a mile. One week, Jimmy was out of town so I entrusted the bigger kids to run by themselves. After I’d seen the tiny ones safely back to the track, I headed back out to get some mileage in for myself and insure that everyone else made it back OK. A mile away from the track, I saw two boys coming towards me. They were walking. As I thought to myself, “I hope no one’s overheated!” the pair noticed me. As soon as they did, they started running again. Huh. In another couple of blocks, I was on them. “Hey, guys, everything OK?” “Yeah, Megan, we’re cool.” “Sooooo…why were you walking?” “Um…well…” They couldn’t even think of a good lie. I followed them back to the track to make sure that they wouldn’t suddenly forget how to run again, giving them a lecture about Jimmy and I trusting them to do a workout even if we weren’t there to monitor every step and that if they didn’t want to run they could always stay home, etc. etc.

When we returned to the track, I didn’t let them leave. “All right, fellas. For slacking on long run day, you’ve got to do 20 sit-ups.” They grumbled a bit but mostly looked sheepish. Kid A plopped down, did his 20 sit-ups, said “sorry, Megan,” and kept coming back for workouts for the rest of the summer. Kid B plopped down, did 2 sit-ups, and then stretched out on the track.

You have 18 to go, Kid B.
“It’s too hard!”
You can do more than that. Besides, if you would have just run the workout then you wouldn’t be in this situation.
“I’m not good at sit-ups. Can I do something else?”
Sure. You can do push-ups, but the count starts over. That’ll be 20.

Kid B does about 5 push-ups, then sprawls back on the track.

15 to go, Kid B.
“I’m just taking a break.”
Ok, well while you’re taking a break it’s getting dark and I still have 3 miles to run.
“You know what? I’m not good at push-ups either. Can I go home?”
No.
Then can I do something else?”
Sure, you can do a wall-sit. Two minutes.

Kid B makes it about 5 seconds into the wall-sit before standing back up.

“This isn’t fair.”
Hey, man, Kid A is already done. You’re now making this much worse than it had to be. Want to go back to sit-ups?

After very, very short stints in just about every calisthenic exercise I could think of, I finally let the kid leave. He, um, never came back. So that’s the story about how I made a 14-year-old quit track, although I like to think of it as providing a life lesson in honesty and following through. No?

A Run Down Memory Lane, Part 7: Virginia Beach

When we tell people that we have a “history” in Virginia Beach, most people wink and nod and make some reference to the state’s slogan. The true story, however, is that our experience in Virginia Beach predates our relationship…something that’s pretty tough to do, considering that we’re on year 11 of “relationship.” This trip down memory lane is officially ancient history. 

It is the late 1990’s. A certain young megarunr was running (when was she not?) summer track and had advanced to the AAU National Championships in the 3000m run. One of the other qualifiers (also in the 3000m) was a cute, funny boy from a neighboring town that our heroine was infatuated with to the point of ridiculousness. One day, the local paper (which no longer exists) visited the track to get a photo of the National qualifiers. That photo — the first that we both appear in — has been preserved in all its grainy, black and white glory. 

Future Husband (far right); Me (the only girl)

 A  few things to note about this photo: I don’t remember for sure, but I’d be willing to bet the original intention was to photograph the people most likely to medal at nationals, i.e. the three fellas in the back row wearing the official “Track Club” tank tops. (They are, from left to right, a Division I javelin thrower, distance runner, and decathlete.) Apparently, the rest of us missed the memo…or were included as an afterthought. Hmm. Also, I find it hilarious that my brother’s best friend is standing on his toes (far left) in an attempt to be as tall as the thrower whose mom always had to bring his birth certificate to sporting events. A good plan, but it sort of backfires when there’s no one in front of you! Randomly, I kind of miss my short hair. It was somewhat annoying not to be able to put it in a full ponytail, but I think it looked cute. I may consider that this summer, when I want to shave my head. And, of course, the ridiculously infatuated found a way to be photographed next to the boy she had a crush on. I was in deep, folks.   

Where does Virginia Beach fit in? It was the venue for Nationals that year. (Well, technically, Virginia Beach, Hampton Roads, and Norfolk were the venue…I remember all three names on the t-shirt!) Scott’s family stayed in a hotel on the boardwalk, but I only got to spend one day actually on the beach. I’m a little embarrassed (but not really, since I end up getting the guy) to say that I spent most of that day looking for Scott. Sure, there are several thousand athletes on the beach in addition to all the normal tourists…it’s completely plausible that we’d bump into each other! Finally, while walking to dinner, my insanity paid off. I saw Scott, and the conversation that must have consisted of “hi,” “the beach was fun,” and “see you tomorrow” left me positively giddy.

AAU Nationals

 The next day was race day. I only have a few clear memories: (1) The track was green. Tracks are usually black or red, so the occasional blue or green definitely gets remembered. (2) Long before the race, they corralled us by age group in a tiny, cement-floored enclosure just off the track. Standing in spikes, on concrete, with no possibility of jogging around to loosen up was one of the more nerve-wracking pre-race experiences I’ve ever had. (3) The whole time I was stuck in the “cell,” Scott was outside the fence talking to me and encouraging me. (4) The race did not go very well…for either of us.

 After my race, I convinced my parents to stick around long enough to watch Scott run. We were driving all the way back to Kansas that day, so they were eager to get started. I watched his race and even managed a few minutes to talk to him before I was whisked away for an 18-hour car ride. It was the end of the summer track season and — I thought — the last time I’d get to see him, so it was a bittersweet moment for me. Little did I know that more than a decade after our first trip we’d be returning together for another race. It turns out that I wasn’t the only one in deep…

Saying goodbye...but not for long.

 He liked me a little, too. 

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.

A Run Down Memory Lane, Part 5: A Change in Perspective

Run for any length of time, and you realize that it imparts life lessons as it molds calves and increases oxygen capacity. You get out what you put in…life lesson. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…life lesson. Fast and steady wins the race…life lesson. What? You’ve never heard of that one?

And then there’s this:  avoid judging others. So often, the quick, snappy judgements we’re so prone to level at someone else are misinformed. Opportunities for friendships can pass because we stubbornly adhere to an untrue, unjust assumption.

I’m thinking back to high school. There was a boy who was a fairly decent 800m runner. He was a year older than me and went to a high school about the size of mine. I only saw him compete a few times a year—at his home track meet, the Regional track and cross country meets (when he competed against our boys’ team)and occasionally at an off-season event. My sophomore year, I saw him run at an indoor invitational. He was in the slow heat of the boys’ 800, which he won handily. I watched in disbelief as this arrogant so-and-so completed a victory lap from winning the slow heat. “What a jerk!” I thought. “What a stupid jerk! Doesn’t he know that Justin is in the next heat?” Justin is a fantastically gifted runner from rural Kansas. There were whispers that he might be “the one” to take down Jim Ryun’s long-standing high school mile record. (He didn’t, but he had an incredible high school career regardless.) Had the boy of our story been in Justin’s heat, he would have certainly been the smokee rather than the smoker…and here he was, strutting around the track. That told me everything I thought I needed to know about the guy, and I added him immediately to my “do not like” list.

Fast forward to outdoor track season. We’re at the home track meet of the fella in question, and my freshman brother is racing him in the 800m. As they round the curve for the second time, my brother goes to pass him on the inside, and Stupid Jerk shoves him off the track.  Lil’ brudder stumbles but thankfully doesn’t go down. I don’t remember who won that race, but I remember seeing red. Now I had another reason to hate that guy! So much for runners being a nice bunch, huh?

I could have gone the rest of my days hating that boy, but two years later we were running on the same college team. You know what I discovered? He’s actually a nice guy with a quirky sense of humor nearly identical to mine. It was impossible to harbor a grudge in the face of it. One time, we kidnapped a pillow from another teammate and held it for ransom. I’m talking polaroid photos, ransom letters that I smuggled into her locker demanding boxes of donuts and Canadian money in exchange for the safe return of her beloved pillow, and all! It was elaborate. He and his wife became great friends of ours, and one of the saddest things about graduating was when they, us, and another couple all moved in separate directions.

I eventually told him about that long-ago track meet, and he laughed. “All I could think of was, here’s this punk kid trying to pass me on the inside…on my own track! I taught him a little lesson in running etiquette.” Oh…right! Passing on the inside (particularly on a curve) is a track faux pas. If you’re going to humiliate someone by beating them, the generally accepted rule is to at least run further while you’re doing it. Of course, if they leave an opening you can feel free to take it…but you shouldn’t try to make room or run on the inside line. Funny how when it’s your little brother being shoved around,  you forget about such things.

I try to remember that story in my non-running life. When someone cuts in front of me in the grocery line, my automatic response is to restart the “what a jerk!” monologue. But what do I actually know about their day, or their lives? Who am I to make an instant judgment based on a mere instant of interaction? As I’m far more likely to be wrong than right, I try to give others the benefit of the doubt…and the benefit of an unjudging heart.

A Run Down Memory Lane, Part 4: “I Like Hills…Hills are Good”

I like words. Words that travel from my brain to the pencil or the keyboard are kind to me. They’re usually my friends. Sure, sometimes in the heat of the moment something exceptionally snarky or mean-spirited will slip through that I later regret, but for the most part the whole brain-to-hands-to-media filter works out nicely.

The brain-to-mouth filter, however, isn’t nearly as effective. This is why I’d much rather email or instant message than talk on the phone, and why I spend so much time blogging instead of, you know, interacting with others. (Sidenote: If you talk to yourself via the computer, is that less crazy than talking yourself out loud?) Never was the treacherous tendency of the spoken word clearer than at the start of my high school running career.

During my eighth grade year, I was the third out of three distance runners on my junior high team. I wasn’t a bad runner, and my times steadily improved all year, but I certainly wasn’t a standout performer. When I entered high school, my parents prepared me for the very realistic goal of fighting to make the varsity squad.  After all, if I was the third fastest eighth grader, what were the odds of me being one of the seven fastest on the high school squad?

What indeed.

When I won the first race of the year, nobody was more shocked than me. When I won a second (and much bigger) race the next week, people started paying a little attention. After that second victory, I began to be occasionally approached by sports writers for local  newspapers (likely the lowest person on that totem pole…do you suppose anyone volunteers for the high school cross country beat?) for post-race quotes.

Boy, do I stink at post-race quotes. I’d like to blame oxygen debt—typically, reporters try to snag you for a quote the minute you get out of the finishing chute. That way, they don’t have to hunt you down after you’ve started the whole cooldown process…and probably  so they can leave sooner. So here I am, hardly a minute after throwing myself into oxygen debt, trying to answer questions about “how did it feel to finish/win/lose the race?” or “what was your plan going into the race?” or some such without throwing up on my interviewer. The questions are always they same, and there are several canned answers you can go with:

“I really tried my best today. You can’t control how things are going to end up, but today was just my day (or) I’m really proud of my effort. So-and-so is a great competitor.”

“I always try to run an even race and push the pace hard in the middle. I don’t have much of a kick, and a solid, even pace is my best chance to win.”

Canned answers are safest for people like me, because if left unattended my oxygen-starved brain will come up with gems such as, “I like hills. Hills are good.” That’s actually what I said (the question was probably something like “Don’t you find this course challenging?”), and it was printed in all its incoherent glory. Yikes. Embarrass yourself like that a few times and you’ll start pre-writing interview responses, too!

But then, there are also times when others do the embarrassing for you. My brother once told a reporter that I was “dumb as a rock and twice as ugly.” I’m sure most people, in reading the story, took it as the joke it was meant to be.  In context, it was pretty funny. I’m also sure that the maximum number of people who read the story is 500, and most of those had known Lil’ Brudder and I since we were toddlers, and know that he would never call me dumb or ugly and mean it.

Regardless, just so you know…”you’d better watch out” doesn’t just mean Santa Claus. 🙂

A Run Down Memory Lane, Part 3: Super Fans

We’ve all got them. They’re the people who are almost as crazy as we are—sure, we do silly things like go out and run (13.1 miles) (in the heat) (up lots of hills) for the fun (fun?) of it, but these are the people who will come out and watch us run…any distance…in any weather…at any venue. These are the SUPER FANS. My absolute favorite form of super hero.

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for awhile. Partly because I know that after the “I ran my first track meet when I was 6” post and the “I started running when I was 10” about me page, people are bound to be thinking that I have those parents. Those crazy, living vicariously through their kids, lost-all-touch-with-reality parents. You know the type. A blog-pal and real-life pal of mine has also written this really great series on friends and her countdown of “warrior friends” got me thinking about my super fans. I’ve tried to capture the essence of some of the super fans I’ve had at each stage (or every stage!) of my running career. I hope every runner  has enjoyed similar support. It’s been a huge blessing.

All-Time Super Fans: Mom and Dad
In my experience, encouragement and a low level of competition can help the “running bug” grab hold, while pressure, discouraging words, and an excessive amount of fierce competition can suck the joy right out the sport. My parents are great at the former. It’s kept me running for over 15 years. Dad can be loud, yes. His voice can carry across a track in a stadium filled with people if need be. The amazing thing, however, is what  he says. Being a runner himself, he knows just how to help someone in a race. My dad doesn’t say, “they’re right behind you!” He’ll say, “you’re pulling away” or “they’re 10 meters back.” If he says they’re 10 meters back, they are. He’ll never say, “you’d better speed up.” But if he says, “you can catch them,” it’s more than just encouraging words…he means it. He believes in you. I’ve had so many of my teammates tell me that they love when my dad cheers for them. He’s never negative, and he’s always smart.

Another thing Dad likes to do is “grade” races. This may sound a little harsh, but for my dad the lowest grade to give is a C. What I would consider the worst race of my life—C. When I had to drop out of the KU Relays—C. Anytime you step on the starting line and put forth effort, you deserve a passing grade. That’s my dad.

My mom is the greatest non-runner running fan ever to walk this earth. She let my dad take her on a honeymoon in Eugene, OR. That pretty much says it all. She went to his college races, his post-college road races, our road races, our track meets, our cross country meets…she’s always there, with a cooler of water, gatorade, and running-friendly munchies. I think our losses hurt her more than us because she wanted so badly for us to succeed. It wasn’t that she was obsessed with winning, she just didn’t want to see us disappointed.

High School Super Fan: D
My oldest friend is my high school era super fan. D and I met when we were 3 years old. I still have the letters she wrote me before every single state meet…letters full of encouragement, designed to motivate a timid heart and instill confidence in a girl who often had trouble standing fearlessly on the starting line. Once the race starts…well, that’s a different matter. I used to have serious bouts of pre-race jitters.

I eventually convinced D to join the cross country team, and she continued to be a source of motivation from within our ranks. She is one of the most dedicated, hardest workers I’ve ever come across. If she had a tenth of the natural talent that I’ve seen other people waste, she would have made varsity easily. The great thing about running,  however, is that there are still feats to perform and accomplishments to be made no matter which team you’re on. I remember one year at Rim Rock, after I’d finished my race I ran another two miles cheering for D. When she made it all the way up Billy Mills Hill without walking, I felt a greater sense of accomplishment on her behalf than I did for my race…and I know I had a good race that year. (Sidenote: Rim Rock’s landmarks are named after National Champions from the University of Kansas. John Lawson Hill and Billy Mills Hill are the most memorable to runners…they prove that Kansas is definitely not flat.)

College Super Fan: Kristi
My college super fan is Kristi. A pole vaulter by trade, Kristi had run cross country in high school so she had a deep respect for distance runners (as well as a keen understanding of the discomfort we can inflict upon ourselves). She’s also about the sweetest person you’d ever want to meet and usually had a lot of downtime between events, so she would roam the track cheering during a 7.5, 12.5, or 25 lap race. It happens so rarely that it always amazes me when those with “interesting” events take an interest in the long, the (supposedly) boring distance races. No one beats Kristi at this.

Post-College Super Fans: The Okies
I thought that my post-collegiate running ventures would be devoid of super fans. Mom and Dad aren’t even in the same time zone, and it’s not like I’m posting fast times or a front runner any longer. This is where I underestimated this particular breed of super hero. We have some friends, fellow midwest transplants to the Upstate. We casually mentioned that we’d be running a race in January. They wanted to know what day, what time, where it starts. I thought that 8:00am and a forecast of cold would keep them at home. It didn’t. As soon as I crossed the finish line, theirs were the first faces I saw.

The particularly amazing thing about these super fans is that they’ve never been involved with running. Not in any capacity. Not a casual runner, like D was before she joined the cross country team. Not a former runner and current field athlete like Kristi was. Not even related to runners. For whatever reason, however, they have no problem waking up early in the morning and standing in the cold to watch us run. How amazing is that?

A Run Down Memory Lane, Part 2: Running Into Mr. Right

One of the reasons running is so near and dear to my heart is that I met my husband at a track practice. Hard to think of a more romantic place,  huh? You just never know how things are going to end up.

In my time of endless running seasons, summer track played a key role. I was a member of my hometown’s track club for 6 years—5 as an athlete, 1 as a volunteer coach. I participated in both AAU and USATF meets. Almost every weekend, there was a chance to qualify for subsequent competition. Fall out of the top 3 (sometimes the top 5) places in an event, and your season was over. I managed to medal in the AAU National meet a couple of times, but only participated in the USATF National meet once. It was in Baton Rouge. At the end of July. Who picks these venues? Why aren’t Nationals ever in a mild climate? It always seems like a competition for the highest combined heat and humidity. That could be my imagination. My 3000m started mid-morning, and half the field still ended up getting heat stroke. (Sidenote: That arctic towel they pull out of the cooler of ice water and slap on the back of your neck is such a fantastic feeling that it ALMOST makes heat exhaustion seem worth it! Ok, not really…but wow it feels good!)

The season in question was the penultimate one I participated in. That year, several groups from neighboring towns decided to join our track club. There either wasn’t a club in their town, or they thought our coach had the secret to success, or they were just hoping to get in shape for cross country season. In Scott’s case, a guy from my town was hoping to get a 4×800 relay together and couldn’t find enough teammates willing to spend the summer running. I suppose I owe the guy a pretty big “thank you.” He was unwittingly our matchmaker! If he hadn’t approached Scott and asked him to run the relay I would never have met him…even though we grew up less than 30 minutes away from each other. Fortunately for life as I know it, Scott was interested in running the relay. Two weeks after the school year ended, he started making the trek east to train for it.

I remember running with him that first day. I thought he was a little strange and stand-offish…rare in a distance runner. I found out later that he assumed I would be stuck-up because of the success I’d enjoyed in cross country that year, so  he didn’t bother trying to talk to me at first. I don’t remember who started talking to whom, and at what point we realized how compatible we were, but by the end of the summer we could talk for hours. Sometimes after practice we’d stand by one of our cars chatting, and it would get dark before we realized how long we’d stood there. I’d try to bribe my brother to walk home because otherwise I was his chauffeur and he did NOT see the hour or two conversations in the same light I did. One evening he sat in the car and honked the horn periodically to hurry me up…much as I love my brother, he was far from my favorite person at that point!

After a year of friendship, Scott and I started officially “dating”…much to the relief of our combined friends and family, who were always asking one or the other of us “what’s going on with you two?” Four years later, we were married…and the rest, as they say, is history.

A Run Down Memory Lane, Part 1: Breaking the Tape

This blog has made me a little more nostalgic than usual, and I’ve decided to share some of my musings…hence the new post category, “memory lane.” Most recently, I’ve been remembering my first track race.

I was 7 or 8 years old. I wish I could remember the exact date, but there’s not really anything Google-able about results from the Marysville Jolly Jogathon from 20 years ago. I do know that this had been a family event for at least one year, and that we had “team” uniforms…that would be t-shirts with our names on them. That tee is one of my favorite childhood relics.

In the year (or two years) previous, I had competed in events designed specifically for the younger generation. The standing long jump. The wheelbarrow race. I actually held a triple jump record for a number of years, something I owed more to the fact that I was the only 5-year-old who could successfully hop, skip and jump than any innate leaping ability. Anyone who knows me will laugh: it was DEFINITELY not owing to any innate leaping ability. (My dad, the collegiate track star and high school coach, spent weeks teaching my brother and I before the Jogathon.) That record is something I remember fondly…for however brief a time, I was a field event star. 🙂 Side note: Why is it that distance runners so rarely get respect? I’ve been around track & field (clearly) my whole life, and I respect the field event personnel for their power. Whether long jump, pole vault, javelin or shot put, it’s incredible to see how high/far athletes can throw themselves/an implement. (Side note to the side note:  It’d be even better if all of these incredible performances, particularly on the professional level, were unassisted by drugs. But I suppose that’s me being idealistic.) I respect the sprinters for the raw speed that is their gift, and for mastering the extra-tricky blind baton handoff. That’s just cool. The vast majority of these respected teammates, however, think we distance runners are just plain nuts. You run 10 miles a day? You’ve GOT to be crazy. I know some sprinters who view the distance events as intermission — no one really cares about the events themselves, but they provide the star performers (the sprinters) a chance to rest up between the 100, 200, 400 or sprint relays. There are, of course, exceptions to this. I’ve just never understood why the people who occasionally sprint with parachutes behind them, fling spears around, or have to remove sand from sensitive areas after every practice always think that I’m the crazy one. Maybe it’s the mileage that scares people. Or maybe we’re ALL a little loopy.

Back to the Jolly Jogathon. The year in question, I decided that I wanted to run a “real race.” No more of this kiddy stuff. I was going to run ONE FULL LAP around the track (440 yd). My parents tried to talk me out of it—after all, 440 yards is a long way for a little kid, and the meet was just for FUN. Besides the triple jump tutorial, I hadn’t done any special training! But I was insistent. I would run the 440. There was something marvelously grown up about being able to run all the way around a track instead of just down part of a straightaway. Besides that…I had a dream. I was going to do something magical. I was going to win. I was going to (gasp!) BREAK THE TAPE.

There were several obstacles standing squarely between me and this goal, all of which I can see clearly now but was oblivious to then. (1) The track races in the Jolly Jogathon was NOT merely for people in my age group. There were high school and college athletes competing in the same race as me, an elementary school girl. (2) I had no real concept of how far 440 yards actually was. From up in the stands, running a lap didn’t seem that far! (3) It would later be determined that I have exactly zero fast-twitch muscles. Nada. Zip. I am a born tortoise, and thus woefully unsuited to sprints.

None of that stops a 7-year-old with a dream. Mom and Dad allowed me to enter the race (probably chalking it up to a valuable “life experience” at this point), and I toed the line in a spirit of entirely irrational optimism. The gun went off, and the race was on. Everything was going according to plan, until I rounded the first curve and realized that most of the other runners were in the final straightaway. Suddenly, one lap seemed like a long, hard road. My dream of breaking the tape was abruptly shattered, and I did what most little girls would do…I saw my mom and I started to cry. I started to pull off the track, but Mom said no.  I had entered the race, and I would see it through. I couldn’t quit just because I was losing. I have no idea what the time was for my first 440. I do know that it’s incredibly difficult to coordinate breathing, crying, and running at the same time. I imagine that I also got a heaping helping of “pity claps” from a sympathetic crowd. I have no recollection of finishing that race…just of being supremely disappointed that I wasn’t the one who got to break the tape.

And then I got bigger…and faster…and moved up a couple of distances…and by the time I was in high school, I had the opportunity to win several (ok, it was maybe more than several, but I’m trying not to sound conceited!) races, and I learned that the whole “breaking the tape” scenario is better in fantasy than it is in reality. In 75% of the races I’ve ever won, there was no “tape.” Just the finish line, and crossing it first is a thrill all in itself, believe me. But no tape. No icing for the cake. In the remaining 25%, the races with “icing,” the tape wasn’t actually a tape at all! Just a piece of string held across the track by a couple of volunteers. And often, there’s no recreating the famous Pre picture because one of the volunteers lets go of their end of the string too soon. Apparently, there have been instances of wornout runners getting tangled in the string and hurting themselves. Which is no good at all, and is best avoided…and also probably explains the general absence of tape or string. It’s just too much trouble.

But it’s what kids dream of! I like the Kia commercial where everyone is counting down to a buzzer beater…the chef in the restaurant, the businessman throwing wadded paper away, the girl playing basketball in her driveway (see the commercial on YouTube). The buzzer beater is just a moment people like to recreate. For runners, it’s breaking the tape. New York Marathon style. Usually edging out the defending champ/obvious favorite. Amid deafening cheers. Um…and…laurel crowns? I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one who’s fantasized about such things. I seem to remember several workouts that ended with a couple of people recreating the “stretch for the finish line” scene, sometimes in slo mo. Now THAT’S entertainment. In fact, the enlivening value of these re-creations (whether purely in my own head or between training partners) is almost certainly of more emotional and psychological value than many an actual tape (or string) breaking experience. Now the New York Marathon, though…THAT would be something.