Tuesday, May 27, 2014

2014 USA Track and Field Overview

The Track and Field season is underway and I realized that the races aren't just a series of disconnected events, but rather a sprawling, epic story. There are heartbreaks and heroes, travails and triumphs, and a narrative that spans decades. It's Anna Karenina, it's Les Miserables, only with real people.

Someone recently told me they thought watching people run around a track was boring. It is unless you know who these people are or what this particular race means to them: maybe it's a comeback after years of injury, or another shot at breaking through a long plateau, or a chance for him or her to prove something. And the athletes all know each other, so there are friendships and rivalries and scores to settle.

With so many players it is easy to get lost, so I'm gonna be the "last time on..." that you get at the beginning of your favorite TV show and let you know what you have missed so far. The best way to do that is to highlight some of the most vibrant personalities in U.S.A. Track and Field:

Galen Rupp: The Prince

If his coach Alberto Salazar was the King of American distance running, then Galen Rupp is the Prince, a spiritual son and heir to the throne. Salazar told a 15 year old Rupp that he saw in him the potential to compete at the highest level, and since then his career as been an almost uninterrupted parade of staggering accomplishments: he ran 13:37 for the 5 K in high school, was a five-time NCAA Champion in college, won a silver medal  for 10000m in the 2012 Olympics, and currently holds American records in the 3000m, 2 mile, 5000m, and 10000m. Not a bad for only 28 years old, right? Now that he has essentially conquered the American field, he's set his sights on trying to beat the seemingly unstoppable Africans at the international meets.


Bernard Lagat: The Professional

At 39 years old he has been racing competitively for two decades, and just this winter he set a new American record in the outdoor 3000m proving he can still reach new heights. Each year for the last several years Lagat and Rupp have stolen records from each other, and although Rupp usually beats him in head to head races, Lagat has won more international medals. In interviews he has a broad smile and boundless enthusiasm, and when praised for his many accomplishments he graciously thanks his wife, his children, and God for enabling him to do what he loves. Hands down, a great guy.


Emma Coburn: The Comeback Kid

Wait, is this a model? No, she is a real runner, she just actually looks like this. Emma was the star 3000m steeple-chase runner at the University of Colorado and upon graduation instantly signed with New Balance, but right after she got injured and missed her first year of competition as a pro However, she came back in a big way by crushing the field in her first Diamond League race of 2014. Everyone is excited to see what she can do now that she is healthy again and ready to compete.


Matt Centrowitz, Jr.: The Boy Wonder

He's the guy in the front, which is a place he's used to. In 2011 at just 21 years old, he won the NCAA championship at 1500m, then won the American Championship, then earned a bronze medal at the World Championship. Centro really cracks me up: he talks constantly, bragging, joking around, trash talking, so much so that his teammates at the Nike Oregon Project like to set the pace of their group runs just fast enough that he will finally shut up. He kicked off the 2014 season by dominating the USATF High Performance Classic 1500m.


Brenda Martinez: The Underdog

Out of college no professional team wanted her, so she spent a year trying to figure out where to run and who would train her. Eventually Joe Vigil agreed to coach her which turned out to be a solid investment because last year she grabbed a bronze medal in the 2013 World Indoor Track and Field Championships (an inspiring race that I got to watch live: other runners went out too fast and faded, but she was smart and saved just a little for the end and ended up catching enough people to get a medal.) Martinez is so tough: she races competitively at distances ranging from 800m to 5000m which is an incredible spread that shows her true athleticism.


Will Leer: The Lumberjack

Although he is clearly the most robustly hirsute professional runner, I think the nickname "Lumberjack" fits him for more than just his hair. He has this nervous, wild energy during interviews (he casually swore while talking to Flotrack one time, which I thought was pretty funny because, surprisingly, you don't hear a lot of salty language when athletes talk to reporters.) Also, he doesn't run quite like other track runners: instead of a smooth, effortless stride he takes powerful, deliberate steps, as if his legs are devouring the track underneath. Good in college but not a standout, he has steadily made improvements in the handful of years since and after winning both the 3000m and the mile at the 2013 U.S. Indoor Track and Field Championships, and then winning the 2014 Wannamaker Mile, there is no doubt that he is one of the best middle distance runners out there.


Katie Mackey: The Rising Star

Katie is so off the radar that she doesn't even have a Wikipedia page, but she was the top American at the highly competitive Payton Jordan Invitational 5000m with a P.R. of 15:04 (I dare you to watch this interview and not love her.) She is a 1500m specialist, but if she is flirting with 15 minutes for the 5000m that puts her in serious contention in the longer events. Equal parts ebullience and sincerity, Katie Mackey truly lives the motto of her sponsor, Brooks: Run Happy.

(Perhaps her enthusiasm gets the better of her sometimes, like in this relay in the Bahamas where she just plowed head-first into an Australian runner during a hand-off. I don't mean to put her on blast, because she came back and helped her team get second place, but the Jennifer Lawrence move was pretty funny. Maybe that's part of her charm.)


You might be wondering how to follow the 2014 season because ESPN doesn't cover a lot of running, but there are a couple of websites with great content:

USATF.TV: Live coverage of many U.S. Track and Field events and interviews.

Flotrack.org: Some live events, but mainly behind-the-scenes material like interviews, special documentaries, workout videos, and links to interesting videos on other sites. An indispensable place for all things running. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Race Report: Provo City 5K

Race day started at 6 AM with some Honey Bunches of Oats and YouTubing some classic Disney songs (I dunno why, but I really wanted to listen to that. Maybe because their cheery and uplifting?)

Then I took a shower and shaved my arms and legs-I remember doing the same thing before the triathlon and I think I'm always going to do it pre-race as a sort of ritual. The Spartan warriors used to do something similar by taking off their clothes and covering themselves with oil the night before a battle, and while that probably had some homo-erotic overtones, I imagine it also helped them to get a sense of their own bodies, to confirm to themselves that they were physically prepared for the contest ahead of them.

I got to the start line almost an hour early, so it was nice and quiet and I had plenty of time to get warmed up which was about 25 minutes of jogging in this really swanky neighborhood in north Provo. I thought I had been all over this city, but I had never seen this place; these were mansions with long driveways, fountains, and luxury SUV's parked in each driveway. And at 8:30 AM on a Saturday morning no one was up, so it serene and beautiful and still.

By the time I got back my family was there which was really great. I use to run a lot time but it's taken me a long time to get past injuries and get back into it, so I think they knew how important this was to me personally.

My sister's kids said something funny-a common occurrence. 
Check out that race kit! I just bought it the night before and I was pumped to wear them. I mean, what's the point of running if you can't look cool doing it?
The half marathon was already going and my nephew Tyler got out there at cheered on the runners.

Everyone is checking out my shoes.

Momma bear and her cubs. And some dude in the back stretching.

Own it!
This race has a great gimmick, which is that the Mayor was running it as well, but he gets a two minute head start and the rest of us have to catch him. (Mayor Curtis is the bomb, by the way. My brother and I were joking that we see him everywhere: case in point, I saw him 12 hours earlier at an open-air concert downtown.) Now he's an old guy so I figured I could get him, but two minutes is a pretty long time in a race as short as 5K, so when I saw him at the start I walked over to say hi and casually asked him what time he was planning on running to size him up. He laughed and said he was just gonna get through it. He asked me my goal, I said about 20 minutes and he wished me luck.

That walk to the start is always the most nerve-racking.

Let's do this!

About 300 people showed up-mostly weekend warriors, but there were a handful of serious runners in the group too.

This is a great shot of my shoes: the New Balance 1400. Killer kicks, I've put a couple of months on them so I'm gonna write a review soon.

And they're off!
The race went pretty much exactly according to plan. It was a straight shot down University Ave with no turns or hills so it was about as simple as a course can get. I went out comfortably fast, which ended up being 6:50 for the first mile. From there I just gradually ramped up the pace and tried to hang on until the finish.

I did end up catching the Mayor, about 8 minutes in. He remembered me, though and as I said "good job" he replied, "You too! Good luck going after that 20 minutes!"

About halfway through University Ave crosses University Parkway, and because it is a busy road they had a bunch of cops stopping traffic as I flew through the intersection. I run a lot around town and usually I'm the one waiting for the cars, so it was sweet to see them all stopped for me this time.

Mile two passed in 6:29, and at this point I was starting to feel the fatigue set in. The wheels weren't entirely coming off, but I definitely had to start concentrating on keeping the pace up and fighting off that inevitable feeling that you just want to take it easy and slow down a little. I focused on my form, kept my cadence up, and zeroed in on the finish line that was rapidly approaching.

After high school I switched to running longer distances, so I hadn't run a 5K since I was a teen; the first thing I was reminded of is how quick the race goes by. You have so much training and warming up and stretching and strides, and the actual event feels like a single moment, a brief blur of adrenaline.

The race finished at the intersection of Center Street and University Ave, the nexus of downtown Provo right in front of the courthouse. There hadn't been a lot of spectators early on so most of the race was actually pretty quiet, but at the finish there were plenty of crowds and music and noise. My family had left the start line a few minutes before the gun went off and were going to try to get to the finish before me, so while I was mostly focusing on the finish I also stole some glances around to see if I could find them. At that exact instant, I spotted them and my brother Court grabbed this great photo:

THAT is how you finish a race.
Moments later I barreled through the finishing shoot and it was all over. Five kilometers in 20:37. My goal was under twenty, but being my first race in so long I really had no idea where my fitness was at. It felt good, though, fast, smooth, and not near as much pain as I used to remember from my days on the Glencoe XC Team. Maybe I didn't push myself as hard as I used to, or maybe I know my body better and how to run within myself. My third mile was 6:33, so my pacing was just about perfect- a nice, even split.

Afterwards there was the Gatorade and the congratulations and the sweat and the tired crowds and the euphoria of knowing you pushed your hardest and the relief that it was all over.

Why are my eyes always shut?
It was hot that day, already about 80 degrees.

My Dad, my brother Court, and my nephews Tyler, Keaton, and Alex. 

They had some free food for the runners but there was a huge line so we ended up going across the street to get some breakfast at Gurus (best blueberry pancakes in town). My short shorts got me some funny looks from the waitress, but I didn't have any other pants with me, so she was just gonna have to deal.

My brother had to show me that buzzer-beater from the Blazer game. Amazing.

It's hard to find gluten-free food even at the hippiest restaurant in town.

So cute.

Men, being men.
I wish my mom was in more of these pictures, but as usual she was the one behind the camera getting the shots. Thanks, though, these turned out great.

Afterwards they posted the finishing times, and it turns out I placed 18th out of 287 finishers! Watch out Zephyr Hufflepuff, I'm gonna catch you one of these days.

The whole thing was a blast. Thanks to Mom, Dad, Court, Marissa and the boys for coming out to see me and taking all of the pictures. In a way this race was both an end and a beginning. It was the end of trying to be a runner, of getting strong and working through injuries and figuring out my form. And it is the beginning of running every day, of training hard and racing often. It took me ten years but I finally made it back.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Not nervous

Tomorrow morning I'm running the Provo City 5K.

But I'm not nervous.

I always got nervous before races, so I've been surprised at my current state of tranquility. Don't get me wrong, I'm excited, because this is the first road race I've contested in almost 10 years. But I'm not worrying.

The reason is probably because even though I only signed up for this race two weeks ago, I've been preparing for it since I broke my kneecap in the summer of 2006. Since then I've rebounded from injury to illness trying to get back to where I was. And I've logged plenty of miles during that time, particularly in the last couple of years; in fact, this is exactly why I started this blog, to try to process what I was going through and maybe help a few others who were going through the same thing.

I've ran, for sure, but I haven't raced, because I just wasn't ready before now. Racing is testing yourself, laying it all on the line, being fit and strong and prepared to give an all-out effort. And each weight lifting session, every yoga pose, all of the ice baths and the hours spent trying to find the perfect form were leading me here, and onward.

That is why I'm not nervous.