Monday, October 15, 2012

Keep it clean, people.

Call me old school, but I think the beautiful and most exciting part of running is that it is an opportunity to see what the untainted human body is capable of. Through training, hard work, and dedication, we can do amazing things.

Unfortunately amazing things can be accomplished through other means as well. News just bursted wide open on an athlete I've met on several occasions, Christian Hesch, caught for using EPO. Not long before that, we all heard Lance Armstrong gave up fighting an uphill battle with the US Anti-Doping Agency. (Below are some links to the NY Times, and one to Hesch's own public apology for doping).

At this day and age, when these types of 'alternatives' are available, it seems that someone will always ask, "Why don't they just legalize everything and let the best man (or woman) win?"

I'll tell you why: It take everything PURE away from this sport and turns it into a technology/financial war. The person with the best tech team and the most money would win races, nothing would be left to chance, and there would be no excitement in even watching the sport anymore. There would be no such thing as 'miracles' in this sport, if it were left to become a free-for-all sport.

Think about it in really simple terms, as a kid, if you challenged another child to a race on the playground, would you call it fair if your friend pulls a bike from behind a bush and rides off and leaves you huffing and puffing on foot? NO. While doping might not look the same as hopping on a bike and riding away from the competition, it is not in the spirit of raw competition to take any shortcuts or easy ways out.

Of course, those shortcuts and easy ways out may tempt people at times, especially when they are down. To me, succumbing to the pressures and deciding to dope only demonstrates that you have truly given up, and believe that you are not good enough on your own to accomplish the things you, or others have said you can do.

I don't generally like to bring negative attention to anyone, but I feel moved by some of the responses to this breaking news about Hesch that I needed to get off my chest.

First, I saw a comment a meet director wrote on Christian Hesch's Facebook page. He basically wrote: "No doping controls at my race! ;) Hopefully we'll see you back next year."

SERIOUSLY? I usually LOVE to meet race directors because they are incredibly generous people who take the time to make an honest opportunity for people to race and see who is truly the best. A lot of times they personally do most of the fundraising to provide prize money for the athletes, and truly hope it goes towards clean athletes who are trying to represent themselves and their country in an honorable way. I remember David Monti, of the New York Road Runners mentioning at the 5th Ave Mile that this race does have drug testing, because "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." That is the type of man and organization that I truly respect.

If you want to create a doper's race, maybe you should advertise even more publicly the fact that you turn a blind eye to cheating, so that none of us show up to get robbed.

That's how I see it. It is ripping off not only the race directors of their hard-raised funds, but also the athletes (whom he calls his "Friends") that toe the line right next to a him. It is unfair for us to walk away with less prize money at a race because someone else made an alternative investment to cheat rather than to train. More importantly to me, I take my finishing places and times seriously. It robs a clean athlete of the positive morale they deserve for their accomplishments when they get beat by a cheater.

I fear a lot of people will read this as a public criticism towards Hesch alone. This is not my intent. This incident is just a perfect example for me to use to write public criticism towards the behavior of doping in general. To me, even if the doping behavior is done 'responsibly' and 'safely', it is still wrong, and still dangerous and damaging to the sport that I hold near and dear to my heart. I know a lot of people don't take cycling seriously anymore because they say "They all dope." I don't want that to become true of running, and I especially don't want people lumping me in this category because I am associated with high-level running.

To me, the decision not to dope comes down to one simple fact: it's not worth it. Doping must come with incredibly conflicting emotions, especially if it's going well for you. You'd feel guilty for your success, and wonder how much of that success if from "you" and how much is from what you're taking. You wouldn't feel comfortable acting as a positive role model for anyone while living a lie, and you rob yourself of the opportunity of knowing what you COULD have done without it. Worst of all, when you get caught (I'd like to hope that all eventually do get caught), everything you did prior to doping is tainted, and if you return to competition, people will always associate you with your past, and it will never just be accepted as a great pure performance.

I know these things probably take place more often than I know, and more commonly than what gets splashed around in headlines. I also know I am extremely naive when it comes to this issue, so forgive me for any remarks that might seem unfounded. These are my feelings on the issue and this is my public proclamation that I believe in this sport, and I believe in me, so hopefully the only headlines you'll see from me are from when good ol' hard work pays off.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Road Mile Groove

One of my all-time favorite animated movies is The Emperor’s New Groove. If you’ve never seen it before, I highly suggest you check it out at your earliest convenience- I would argue it is funny for all ages.

Why, might you ask, am I telling you about this? Besides the (obvious) reason that I don’t want anyone to go through life without the pleasure of seeing such a fantastic show, there’s a scene in it that sort of came to mind as I was reflecting on the latter half of my 2012 competitive season.

So, basic synopsis of the movie: there’s this fictional Emperor named Kuzco, he’s immature, irresponsible, and incredibly self-centered. Of course, that makes him a holy terror to work under or even just to be a citizen of his domain.

One of the very first scenes is Kuzco literally dancing through a day as the emperor (to the music of his very own ‘Theme-Song Guy’), when suddenly he moonwalks right into an old man hunched over his walking stick- bringing the theme-song music to a screeching halt. Kuzco is obviously upset, so in pops one of Kuzco’s brawny guards who says, “I’m sorry, but you’ve thrown off the Emperor’s Groove...” Naturally, the next thing you see is the little old man getting tossed out the window of Kuzco’s gigantic palace, and the theme-song guy resumes his fanfare.

(In case you’re more of a visual person, here’s a 33 second video link.)

I’m not referencing this scene as a literal reflection of my late-season competitive experiences (I threw no little old men out the window of my nonexistent palace, and I like to think I’m not as egotistical as Kuzco started out), but I can relate to the feeling of being in an unstoppable “groove” and even when things came up that had the potential to derail that groove, I found ways to toss that aside and move on to the next line of my ‘theme-song’.

Originally I thought the score of that song would include a trip to Europe for some track races after the Trials. I was content with how I had competed this summer, but felt I had some better times in me if only I could compete in the ‘right place at the right time’. That plan fell through when I didn’t get entry into enough races that I felt would be worth the big trip across the pond.

I was a little disappointed, but I also knew I was still in good shape, and just wanted an opportunity to prove it. It was then that I turned to the American circuit of road miles to fill that racing void. I discovered a couple new races for me, and signed up for two of my favorites in September: The Ryan Shay Memorial Mile, The GNC LiveWell Liberty Mile, Grandma’s Minnesota Mile, and The 5th Ave Mile.

It’s been way too long since the last time I blogged,and four races is a lot to talk about in one entry, so I’m going attempt to be brief, and share a few of the highlights from each!!

First up: The Shay Mile, held on July 28th in Charlevoix, Michigan. Charlevoix is an incredibly beautiful, friendly little town right on the waters of Lake Michigan. The highlight of this trip for me was that the elite athletes were housed with host families, rather than in a hotel. I was a little bit nervous that it would be an awkward situation until I met my host’s four daughters. They were adorable, and made me feel right at home immediately.

I stepped out of the van that drove me to their house and the first thing the 2nd youngest girl, Megan says: “You’re really pretty!” Wow! I liked her, and I could honestly tell her she was beautiful too :)

Later, I was chatting with Megan and her younger sister Claire about the race to take place the next morning. Here’s a brief summary of how it went:
Claire: “I’m so glad we don’t have a BOY staying with us...I wouldn’t want his greasy, rat-head on my pillow!”
Me: “Oh gosh, I hope you don’t mind that I’m sleeping in your room!” (Mind you, their room had pink walls, pink linens on bunk beds, a pink TV set, One Direction boy-band posters lining one wall, and a life-size Justin Bieber cutout on the other. No joke.)
Claire: “Nooo! You don’t have a rat head, you have a BUTTERFLY head! I hope you win tomorrow...” (as she smiles with adoration and cups her chin with both hands like she’s taking a glamour shot)
Megan: “OH MY GOSH!” (I’m thinking she’s going to make fun of her sister for being so freakishly nice, but nooo.) “I just got the BEST idea! We should make posters to cheer for Heather tomorrow!!”
Claire: (While sipping water straight from a squirt gun on the couch) “YEAH! And can I squirt you when you go by?!?!”
I told the girls I liked both ideas, and they totally followed through on both (see attached pics).

Thanks to the girls I was feeling built up, confident, and I really wanted to win for them! On race morning, the whole town had lined up lawn chairs along the course, probably because the town “Venetian Day” parade was to follow immediately after our race, but it made for a lively crowd! It was a unique course in that it was mostly flat until the 3/4 mile mark at the top of a steep hill. In interviews from previous years, and word on the street was people’s races are made or broken on that hill.

In the race, we were still all bunched together at the top of the hill, but as I started sprinting down it (yes, it felt like sprinting to keep my legs moving fast enough to avoid falling!), I started to pull ahead. At the bottom of the hill, there was still a fair distance to go to the finish line, but since I had already gained so much momentum off the hill, I decided to continue my finishing kick, ran for my life all the way in to cross the tape first in a time of 4:31.83!
I was super pumped to run a great race in honor of an even greater runner who lost his life too soon, and was excited about running just a second off my road mile personal best of 4:30.95. At this point I hadn’t raced since the Olympic Trials, so I was uncertain of what to expect. It was fun to celebrate the win watching a boat parade and fireworks on the water later that evening as well!

Next on the road mile tour was the Liberty Mile, held in Pittsburgh on August 17th. This year was the inaugural race, but based on the incredible organization and execution of elite athlete care, you can tell that Three Rivers Marathon, Inc. is experienced in putting on top-notch events. One especially drawing piece of this race was the fact that they were offering more prize money than the organization can even afford, taking a net loss on the race just because they like to support us athletes.

After having won the US Road Mile Championships this spring, and then defending my road mile reputation at the Shay Mile, I was feeling a little bit of pressure to continue my streak in Pittsburgh. It was certainly going to be a more competitive race, largely because my teammate Gabriele Anderson, who was 4th in the Olympic Trials 1500m, and just came off a big 4:04 PR in Europe was in the race too! It was both a comfort and a stress to have her out there because I knew she would help make it a great race but she’s also tough to beat!

This race started out pretty similarly to the Shay Mile, pretty conservative through the first three quarters, and then we started to move like crazy to finish it up! Momentum shifted back and forth between myself, Gabe, and Sarah Bowman until I got this little itch just to take off NOW. I followed my gut, and went for it. It was earlier than I like to start a kick, but I continued to tell myself just to keep form and take a shot at it. That night, under the lights of Pittsburgh, it worked! I crossed the tape in 4:35.8, just pulling out my third road mile victory of the year by half a second.

Next on the list was the Minnesota Mile, held as we Minnesota native like to say “Up North” in Duluth on September 8th. By far the highlight of this trip was the road trip up with my teammate Jamie Cheever, my husband Ben and our dog Ricky. :) I was so happy when I learned our hotel allowed dogs! I know it’s silly, but I was excited to race to the finish with my pomeranian pup watching. Not only was he waiting, but my parents made the trip to Duluth to watch me as well. I felt surrounded by such great love and support in my home state with my family all there.

The weather was nearly perfect come race morning, cool and sunny, but a little but of a headwind. This race got off to a quicker start than the last two, but I heard someone watching the race call out, “Stay smooth and relaxed!” I’m pretty sure they were talking to someone else, but I took his advice, and just rode the pack until someone decided to make a break for the finish. That someone turned out to be Barbara Parker, making a decisive move about 350m out. Again, my teammate Gabe and I covered her move, again, we made for an exciting finish, and again, I managed to eek out a win for my family and Ricky!! ;) (Photo credit for these go to Dan Swanson Photography!!)

Last on the road mile circuit was the 5th Ave Mile in New York City, on September 22nd. It’s a fast and exciting course down 5th Avenue down the East side of Central Park. This is by far the most prestigious and competitive road mile of the year. I wouldn’t call it being negative on myself, but I knew it would take a whole lot more to win this race against Olympians and other amazing milers from all over the world. My goal for this race was to break 4:30, and try to finish in the money (top 8) for the first time. I knew these two goals were certainly realistic.

Another interesting twist to this race is there is a $1,000 prime for the athlete who crosses the half-way point first, so long as they finish sub-4:32 for the women or sub-4 minutes for the men. This pretty much guarantees that it will be an honest/fast race. After the gun went off, there was no settling in like there were at my previous road miles, it was keep-the-gas-pedal-down, fast racing. Obviously this kind of race hurts a bit more, and for a longer time than a kicker’s race. As I worked through the pain I tried to keep in contact no matter what, so that when I neared the finish line, I could pour out whatever I had left and have no regrets. My confidence may have waxed and waned throughout the race, but I put it all out there, and ended up accomplishing both goals, finishing 6th and running 4:27.8!

It was a little bit of a letdown not to finish higher in the placing ranks, but when you finish behind three Olympians (Anna Pierce, Hannah England, and Shannon Rowbury), and two athletes who have been lighting the track on fire all year (Brenda Martinez- who won in 4:24.2, and my teammate Gabriele who got me by a second this time and finished 4th), I was pretty happy with the way I ended my season. Twelve of the 13 athletes in this race finished at 4:30 or better, anytime you can even call yourself at home in a field like that is something to be proud of I figure!!!

In hindsight, the decision to stick to the roads this year was a great one for me. Not only is the road racing business quite a bit more lucrative than the track (I think I earned almost $9,000 in these four races! I’m grateful that these wins will help pay for us to insulate and re-side our 101 year old home before winter this year!), I had so much fun and regained something that I think I had been missing for awhile- the mentality and confidence of a winner. That, to me, is more valuable that any prize money a race could offer. Reclaiming that sense of confidence to believe that no matter the weather, or how I felt leading up to the race, or what I ate for breakfast that morning, I REMEMBER what it is like to cross the finish in first, I KNOW what it takes to get there, and I BELIEVE that I can do anything I set my thought on. It is one thing to say this, and a whole new ballgame to truly internalize that feeling and carry it around with you.

I’m hoping that this new inner vision for myself is something I will be able to carry with my through my break, motivate me through my early training for next year, and show up right where I left off! I want to stay on this groove, and throw every doubt out the window where it belongs;)