Saturday, March 13, 2010

D2 Indoor Nationals 5k Race Recap

Since I have free time and free internet while on a layover in Phoenix, I figured it would be ideal to recap last night's race while it's still fresh on my mind. Before I do, let me say a few quick words about Nelson's stellar performance in the 800. Tanya and I were able to watch his race from the corner of the convention center just before leaving on our warmup, and it's no exaggeration to call it inspiring. For a guy who didn't qualify for Nationals until the last chance meet, then almost didn't make the finals, to run in second position wire to wire in the finals is pretty incredible. Everyone who knows Nelson knows that he is an amazing person, and now they will realize he's an amazing runner as well. Kudos.

But now let's talk about me. That's what this blog is about anyway. (Edit: I ran out of time on my layover. I am now writing this on Monday evening after a marathon day of travel Sunday.) Tanya and I warmed up on the sidewalks of downtown ABQ, saying little but sharing similar emotions. Her goal was to beat pre-race favorite Neely Spence and claim the individual title; mine was to finish in the top 8 and make All-American. Both of us knew what we had to do; now we just needed to execute our race plans and run smart.

With just a few minutes before the race, the group of 15 runners was led onto the track and permitted to run a few strides. The crowd immediately erupted into cheers once we stepped out, and I fought to keep back the nervous energy welling up inside. I tried not to think about my parents watching in the stands, or about Jordan watching the live feed at home, and just blocked everything out. I toed the starting line feeling unusually calm. For a moment everything was still, and then the gun went off.

Immediately it became apparent that no one wanted to lead the race. Within a few laps I could tell the pace was lagging, though I had no idea how much. Even if Simmons or Jenna were to read out splits there was no way I could hear them, as the crowd noise swallowed everything. At any rate, it felt like we were literally jogging. The first time I spied the clock was as we crossed the 1400-meter mark. It read 5:00. Later Jenna would tell me that the announcer described the pace as "pedestrian," and I couldn't agree more. We passed through the mile a lap later around 5:42, still bunched up in one solid group. I remember being surprised to look up and see Tanya directly in front of me; shouldn't she be at least half a lap ahead? For a moment I thought about passing her and then checked myself; in hindsight I wonder what that kind of move would've done to shake up the race. Instead, I stayed wedged inside the lead--and only--group, taking pains to avoid being spiked and elbowed with every step. Because of the painfully slow way that things were playing out, this ended up being an extremely physical race. I'm no stranger to jostling within the first few laps, but it's a bit unusual to be forced to jockey for position throughout the entire race. No one wanted to cede their positions, and I have no doubt it took a toll on everyone as things progressed.

The middle portion of the race is more or less a blur, as not much changed. I remained consistently in the back of the lead pack, never falling off but not really moving up either. I kept waiting for a big move to be made by Tanya or Neely up front but it never came--at least not until the last possible minute. With three laps to go I could sense the feeling of urgency overwhelming the group, and I knew that it was almost time to go. A quick head count told me I was in 10th place, two spots out of All-American. Something had to change, and quick. With two laps to go I heard Jenna's voice for the first and only time, as clearly as a bell: "Just go around the outside!" I didn't even think about how risky it was. I just went. Swinging wide, I gathered myself on the backstretch and prepared to kick at the bell. Tanya and Neely were just out of reach, but I saw everyone else as fair game. I sprinted with everything I had on the last lap, swinging wide into lane three to move around the group from which I'd sought shelter for most of the race. I had no idea who I was passing, or how many, but I knew I was digging as deep as I could in the final meters. I crossed the line breathless and exhausted, knowing I'd made All-American but unsure about the final standings. It wasn't until I saw Jenna at the rail that I learned I'd placed 5th, and that Tanya had been outkicked by Neely to earn 2nd.

Even as I type this two days later, the emotions I felt immediately after the race are almost tangible. I came into this indoor season without enough training or enough confidence, and totally lacking in expectations. To qualify for Nationals last month was, at the time, a huge surprise. Even as my training has progressed, even as I arrived in New Mexico last weekend, part of me still felt like it was a fluke. Like I didn't deserve to be here. After this championship race, I know that not only do I deserve to be here, but that I can run with anyone. Well not, say, Usain Bolt, but you know what I mean. When I crossed the finish line I became a different runner than I was when the race started. This new runner, the one I will be going forward, is ready to face new and exciting challenges.

Outdoor season, bring it on.