Friday, February 19, 2016

Racing on the Track

Had the pleasure of competing in the Without Limits City Wide Winter Track meet last night.  Official times were 2:24:89 in the 800m Boys/ Adult Open race, and 5:35:55 in the 1600m Boys/ Adult Open race.

Was the first time I had run such a track double since my last track & field meet in high school, close to 23 years ago. It was arduous, a bit tortuous, and tested my physiological mettle; but I loved every minute of it. Periodically we as competitive runners and athletes need to step half blind into the breach; for it is in such tenuous, uncomfortable moments that serendipitous discoveries can sometimes be found.

Tonight I discovered that when pressed up against my current fitness limits, I did not back away from the challenge. To paraphrase one of the Flyers runners I coach who also competed, I stepped up to the line with courage and confidence, and accepted the venture at hand.

In both races I was lined up on the "pole position" or the inside of lane 1 on the waterfall start. I think perhaps this was done per age, me being the oldest entrant, and in fact 1 of only 2 adults in the 800m field. But in the 1600m race, there was a guy there in his 60s, so who knows. Nonetheless, it was somewhat amusing to me, and also slightly disconcerting at the start of the assembled 1600m field which included several young bucks considerably faster than myself.

Before any of the races got under way I took two of my Flyers charges on a warm-up run outside of the stadium. Neither of the Perry boys had ever competed in a track meet, so I discussed some basic elements of and strategies with them such as staying in lanes in the 400m versus cutting in after the 800, 1600m starts. And passing on the first piece of track running wisdom I was provided by my first track coach Dick Semmel, which is to not pass on the turns.  (I even briefly brought up centrifugal force to Isiah... though at times I think I just like the sound of my own voice).

Was a cold night too so I counseled the boys and took the advice myself to remain clothed until moments before the beginning of each of our respective races. Was glad I threw gloves in my bag at the last minute. Got in a few shorter striders with them on the infield grass before we were summoned to the start area for the 800m race.

Joe Harty was lined up by me in the 800m, I've known him on and off the past few years thru his running and helping coach at Ashley High School. He said he was aiming for a 2:15 800m; I told him that was too rich for my blood. Oh to be 20 again-

We were all commanded by the meet starter to step forward to the start line on the Set command. Those are the most mentally agonizing few seconds in the sport of's a suspended universe that doesn't conform to the natural laws normally governing us humans. Everything goes weightless and time itself stretches out real wide, like the tick of a second can be broken down in to innumerable requisite sub units. Sounds are diluted. The runner's field of vision narrows to the few feet of track directly in front of them. Somewhere in a far recess of my mind I was cognizant of not flinching over the line and false starting.

And then an instantaneous cosmic flash we are off and barreling into turn 1.

I settled into 3rd behind Joe and a younger HS age runner. And followed the two of them all around the track on the 1st lap, about 2-3 strides behind. In an 800m race there is no time to relax, or at no time in the race does one settle in to some pace that has any modicum of what could be considered "somewhat comfortable".  No, the 800m requires a perpetual hard, grinding effort which quickly throws its aspirant into some degree of oxygen debt, whereby the race becomes an anaerobic test of willpower to simply sustain pace, while trying to gobble of precious meter after meter of track.

Coming off turn 2 on lap 2 I was slowly losing contact with my two compatriots, but knew I had to keep the gap somewhat reasonable and not completely lose contact. Which I was able to do down the back stretch, as lactic acid flooded my churning legs, and the cold air threatened to burst my lungs wide open and spew pieces of my innards all over the rust colored track. The poet John Donne once wrote "no man is an island."  I can safely bet he never found himself 200m from the finish of an 800m race.

At this point each step is a laborious exercise in sustaining velocity and forward motion. The whirling rush that consumed my head for the most part of the past two minutes or so had all but it exhausted itself, starved of its own source of energy. Life itself becomes so elemental. And strikingly alluring, like a shining diamond unearthed in a sea of black mass below the earth's surface. For in that brief window of existence, all internal effort is unequivocally focused on one singular objective. And that objective is to reach the finish line.

Which I finally did. Utterly exhausted, and coughing like crazy, and unable to walk in a straight line as us finishers were moved up the track to record the results. But I was happy. Happy that I had stared into the abyss and had not blinked. Instead, I ran straight through it.

About an hour or so later I ran the 1600m. Another fairly solid and respectable effort, as I crossed the finish line in a little over 5 and a half minutes. Enjoyed watching some of the next generation of track runners challenge themselves and each other as well. Our sport is assuredly in good hands for the foreseeable future. The smiles on the faces of those I am blessed to coach paint a picture worth more words that I can write out today.

Such a gift to be able to compete, and share the journey with others young and old-