Thursday, August 8, 2013

Operation #PRlegs (aka, Euro Conquest 2013)

When I ran 2:01.05 in the 2007 Outdoor NCAA Championships as a sophomore for the University of Minnesota, I thought it would be a year, two tops, before I broke 2 minutes in the half mile.

As most of you know, that 1-2 year plan has turned into a much longer journey than I originally expected. At first, it was discouraging to be running at or near my personal best for so long. I began to question whether I was physically capable, or if I was ever ‘meant’ to break through this seemingly unsurpassable barrier. Of course, that doubt seeped in, and forced me to question whether or not I should even continue along the path of professional running if I couldn’t even run a time that would put me ‘in the mix’ for winning world-class competitions.

Time went by. I ended my college track career with a disappointing final 800m race at the NCAA Championship, but knew in my heart that I had more. I bounced back and had my best ever season in cross country to finish out my eligibility with the Gophers, and went pro immediately following graduation. I joined Team USA Minnesota, and soon after signed with ASICS America, and thought surely now, as a professional athlete, I will break 2:00 in the 800m.

I didn’t.

I chalked that first year up to experience, and decided 2011 would be the year (because logically, I knew it would take some time for me to adjust to a new training regimen with a new coach). That second year training under Coach Dennis Barker, things starting happening.

I WON a race for the first time since becoming a professional in Kortrijk, Belgium.
I won AGAIN at an 800m race in Italy about a week later.
I ran a new PR in the 1500m a couple days later, I was on a roll.

And then, at my final European race in Lignano, Italy, I ran 2:00.41. I was pumped to FINALLY have a sub-2:01 PR after so many years, but also slightly devastated that I still didn’t break through 2 minutes.

It certainly humbled me to realize that 2:01.05 sounds like just a hair over one second away from breaking 2:00 but I forgot how long a second really is when you’re right on the precipice of something so rare and so great. I gained an appreciation for what breaking 2 minutes actually means, and what it will mean to me (more on this later). I also gained perspective, and even created my own ‘math’ metaphor about this journey I’m on.

I call it the “Asymptote” Theory. For those of you who recently completed high school math, you may know what an asymptote is, for those of you who don’t know here’s a visual: (thank you Wikipedia!)

The Hyperbola y=1/x:

So basically, an asymptote of a curve is a line that infinitely approaches closer and closer to zero without ever reaching absolute zero.

For the purposes of running, pay attention only to the upper right quadrant of this graph. Lets make the x axis the passage of time (the years you put in training and competing). The y axis is your performance axis (the closer to zero the faster, imagining that “absolute zero” is your absolute best possible performance in your event.

**Note-I would argue that none of us ever actually reach that ‘absolute best’. I say that not as a pessimist, but as an optimist. Tell me if you disagree- whenever you cross the finish line and see you’ve ran a personal best, the first thing you think is, “I can do it faster!” right?

Sooo, back to the theory. In the beginning of your running career, you drop time crazy fast, because you totally don’t know what you’re doing (or at least that was true of me!) Then as the years go by that you invest in this sport, and you inch closer and closer to your absolute best potential, the drops in time get smaller, or you may simply hang out near a PR for several years.

BUT- what I love about this visual is that it is INFINITELY approaching absolute zero in some way or another. So as time passes, and you may not always see the drop in race performances that you’d like, but you’re gaining experience, you’re building training cycles on top of one another, you’re getting stronger, learning from your mistakes, trying new strategies, and most all, mounting up this burning DESIRE to make that next drop.

Ultimately, you’re still MOVING FORWARD, and that’s key.

Some people might argue when you don’t run a new PR for years that you’re stagnant, or ‘plateauing’. I personally hate this metaphor because it gives me the mental imagery of climbing up a bell curve towards greatness, and then leveling off at the top, knowing the only place to go from here is the same dang thing, or worse, back downwards.(Insert disappointing sound effect here: wuah-wuaah).

I think this metaphor can work for more than just running, so I encourage you to apply the asymptote theory whenever you might feel a little stuck. It certainly has given me a better outlook on life, that’s for sure!


WHERE WAS I? Ah yes, Europe...

I decided before I even left for this 2013 Europe trip, that it was going to be a conquest.

I was coming off back-to-back near-PR performances in the 800m at the US Championships, and knew I was ready to drop a chunk of time off my 1500m best as well. In the past I’ve made excuses about bad weather conditions, sparse competition, etc. for not achieving what I believe by the grace of God I am capable of doing.

But there’s no crying on a conquest.

I felt fully prepared and equipped to come out here, and run faster than I ever have. Period.

My final Tweet on the way to the airport before I flew over here was this:

Always worry I'm forgetting something when I travel. But as long as I've got my #PRlegs, I'm good to go!

So with this mentality, I boarded the plane for my first destination, Cork, Ireland.

Not including an emergency landing for a man who was really sick on my flight (poor guy!), travel went smoothly. It always feels like an accomplishment in and of itself, just to arrive, see your checked bag slide through the flap at baggage claim, and then find the guy holding the sign with your name on it by the door.

I technically left on June 30th, arrived on July 1st, and raced in the Cork City Sports 800m on the night of the 2nd. Other than nearly tipping over when I attempted to toe that line (haha, the first thing my mom said to me after she watched the race online was I needed to work on my starts! I blame jet lag?), the race went surprisingly well. I tucked into the pack which moved well through 350 meters or so, and then started getting antsy when the pace seemed to be slowing. Re-surging on the backstretch I was moving well with the front crew, until with about 100m to go, all I could see was one runner in front of me, and all I knew was Phoebe Wright, my friend/a studly 800m woman in her own right, had to be coming close behind. I drove hard to the finish with all I had, and managed to eek out the win, running 2:01.57.

Great start. Onward we go.

While in Ireland, I caught wind that a meet was looking for a 1500m pacer in Oordegem, Belgium on July 6th. How convenient, I thought, because I was looking to be confirmed in a 1500m race! I offered to take the job on the condition that after I took the field through the prescribed distance/pace, I was allowed to stay in and finish the race.

At first I was told I’d be expected to pace the field to a 4:10, but learned after arriving in Oordegem that Cori McGee was there chasing the B Standard for the World Championships (sub 4:09). So, the plan then became to run 66 second laps, which equates to about 4:07-4:08 for total race time. We ran pretty dang close to that, 66-67 first lap, 2:12 at 800m.

At about 1000m in, Cori started a long drive for the finish. I did all I could to keep the pressure on from behind, staying right on her heels until about 150m to go when I heard that familiar whisper in my mind, “you have more to give...”. I made one final blitz for the finish, and came away with another win and new 4 second PR of 4:08.37. Cori just missed the standard there (in her defense, this was her first race off the plane!), but of course as we all know now, she killed the standard in Heusden to punch her ticket to Moscow!

I’m not sure if it was because I was pacing and had the ‘option’ to drop out at any moment, but I felt pretty dang awesome in that 1500m, and was pumped about my future in that event.

My ‘future’ in that event came the following Wednesday, in Liege, Belgium.

In hindsight, this was one of those races that I probably should have forgone. Originally, we were expecting a least a couple faster professionals to be in the field, but when we checked in, I was definitely in the minority for my age and fitness level. I thought maybe all I needed was a track and a clock, and I could shave a little more time off my race, but as it turns out this wasn’t the case. I still ran a respectable 4:11 in a solo effort, which was my second fastest time ever, but felt a little bit bad about stealing the show from some of the younger local competitors in the field!

I chalked that one up as experience and a solid workout, and set my eyes towards the next thing: an 800m in Kortijk, Belgium on Sunday the 14th.

Race day in Kortijk was calm, warm, just a tad bit humid, but nearly ideal for racing. Again, some of the ‘bigger dogs’ in the field ended up getting into other races, so I was the only person in the field that was at least willing to admit I was shooting for sub-2. The nice thing about this situation was I got to tell the rabbit exactly what I wanted, and she executed perfectly. We went through 200m in 28ish, 400m in 58ish, and we were still sub 1:15 at 500m when she stepped off the track. At that point, I knew the stage was set, I felt pretty good, and started that long solo drive with 300m to go. I was sub 1:30 through 600m (a very good indicator for success in an 800m), and had decent turnover around the curve. With maybe 80m to go, I could see the clock ticking from 1:51 on up.. I tried not to focus on the clock, pretended like there was someone right in front of me that I needed to beat, and made my best effort to prevent my form from deteriorating.

As I crossed the line, I saw the minutes tick from 1 to 2. My time was 2:00.12. A new PR, a 4th win in Europe, and one minuscule step closer to the dream...

Two days later I found myself in Lignano, Italy, for my final race of this trip, and by far the best field of 800m women to race. I was feeling just a little bit ragged from racing so much and traveling a lot to get to Italy the day before, but a lot of times this year I had come to the track thinking I felt tired, and then ran some awesome workouts, so I expected things to happen like that for just one more race.

Given the history of Lignano women’s 800m races, I was all but certain if I ran for the win, I would have the bigger prize, a 1:5anything personal record in the half mile. I went out there, and competed well with the group. I had a minor misstep where I had to dodge a runner in front of me that was tripping up a bit at about 300m into the race, but we still were through the quarter in a great 57high-58low pace. I thought about maintaining speed and relaxation on the backstretch like my coach always tells me to do in practice, and when the race really started to pick up (largely led by Lea Wallace who made an awesome surge just before 600m), I went with it. Coming down the homestretch, I looked up and saw the clock was well below 2 minutes, and then looked away so as not to get distracted. I fought to be the first to cross the finishline, and turned around to look at the clock...


I didn’t know whether to laugh or drop a string of F bomb’s. I still felt good when I finished, too good of course, and wanted the race to start over again so I could give it even more right then and there. I didn’t want to be the jerk that is angry with a 5th win in a very competitive field with a new lifetime PR, but that wasn’t what I wanted out of that race! What I wanted was 5 hundredths of a second away. A blink of an eye. You can’t even start and stop you watch fast enough to get .05 to come up on your stopwatch. (Trust me, I’ve tried.)

That night, I realized I needed to have some perspective. I should be overjoyed that I am legitimately pissed off when I run 2:00.04. Just looking back at how far I’ve come, to be at a place where I am THAT CERTAIN I can break 2 minutes that I can beat myself up over a new personal best is phenomenal. Beyond that even, I am healthy, I got to travel to some pretty incredible places and spend time with some pretty incredible people. That is a blessing. It’s also an incredible blessing to have the support that I have back home while I go on all these adventures.

Since my times were still coming down, I wish I had had one more race lined up before I came back to the states, but the next day I took my flight home. I’ve been looking into getting a couple more track racing opportunities after the World Championships in Moscow, but have not gotten confirmation from any meet directors yet. Granted, I only asked to get in the really big meets, but I am at a point where I know I need to compete with the best in order to bring out my best- and I truly believe I deserve it.

The irony in this sport lies in the order of operations. It seems that in order to get in a really big meet like a Diamond League, you need to have already placed in a Diamond League, and how do you place in one until someone gives you the opportunity to race one? A similar pattern exists for a lot of funding and resources allotted through the USATF. The best athletes, the ones who have already proven themselves by making Olympic/World Teams, get the most resources such as performance workshops, health insurance, medical support, and all kinds of funding at their disposal. While I do understand and agree with rewarding those who have been successful in representing the US, I would argue that those athletes are probably already well taken care of by their sponsors, and the funding they receive may just be money in their pocket rather than that essential extra bit of money that might allow another athlete to travel to a big racing opportunity, or work one less job and focus more on their training.

I don’t want to sound petty or ungrateful, and I would never condemn the athletes that are receiving more help than me because they have earned it and certainly deserve compensation and continued support to keep them at the level they have achieved.

All I am trying to get at is how incredibly difficult it can be to prove yourself without someone believing and investing in you prior to your success. I can only imagine the incredible DEPTH in athletics that we could have in this country if the ‘extra’ resources were allocated to the “up and comings” rather than the “been there-done that” athletes. It’s a dream I have that our organizing body will evolve over time to be investors in potential, not only just for resources but also for competitive opportunities.

It may be old news now, but it was quite a big deal when the Men’s 5K at the USA Championship in Des Moines this summer had just 9 athletes in it, and there were people there ready and willing to race that were denied the opportunity to compete. Those athletes that weren’t allowed in may or may not have made any difference in the final outcome of the race, but getting that experience to race at the national level could have made a huge difference for their own development as an athlete, and maybe change the outcome of future events.

Again, I can see it both ways- of course you need to have established rules or this sport would be chaos. Obviously you can’t just go adding anyone to national championship fields without some guidelines for how this should look. But if it were me making the call, I would have saw an opportunity for change that clearly needs to be made, allowed the athletes that were present to compete, and used that situation as a springboard to iron out all the details of new legislation in these matters moving forward. Just like the old adage used by many a salesperson, “The customer is always right”, or our country’s legal system, “Innocent until proven guilty”- I feel that our sport should first and foremost be in the business of allowing opportunities and supporting the ATHLETES, not the rule book.

This blog is running way off course, but the reason I am discussing some of these things is so I can bring it all back to what I mentioned earlier- what it will mean for me to break 2:00 in the 800. It’s like a two-sided mirror in many ways-

In my mind, I’ve told myself that I will be content in my retirement from running if I break 2:00, but at the same time, breaking 2:00 would open the door to so many new opportunities. When you post a time like that even just once, it seems like you are a more marketable athlete who gets into bigger competitions which ultimately means running as fast, or faster, again! I would see breaking 2 as the closing of one door (like, I could quit anytime and be happy), and the opening of so many new doors (like, I’m only getting started!)

Breaking 2 has been a goal of mine for a very long time now (a good 6 years at least), so to finally achieve it will be incredibly gratifying. In a way it will ‘prove’ that I was never crazy for thinking I could do it, that this journey has been ‘worth’ it, and be a lasting reminder that hard work, faith, and dedication really do pay off. Simultaneously, it will mean nothing, because I know I’m not crazy for setting my sights on this goal, this journey has been worth it every step of the way, and I’m not going to start believing that hard work, faith, and dedication is worthless if I don’t break 2.

If I’ve run 2:00.04 or 1:59.96, is it really going to change who I am? Am I any more or less of a ‘worthy’ human being either way? Will I drastically change the way I live my life, see myself, or treat others? No, no, and no.

A couple times this season, I have tried to visualize what I’ll do, the first time I turn around and look at the clock and see that I’ve finally done it. Will I throw up my arms in jubilation? Will I fall to my knees with gratitude? I guess I won’t know the details, but ultimately, I simply see a huge, genuine smile on my face, and a wonderful sense of accomplishment as I look back on all the attempts that have led me to that place.

So while I think I’ve prepared myself enough to know that breaking 2 isn’t the be-all, end-all, I am still chasing just as intently, to smile that smile, and feel that way for the simple and pure joy of knowing I traveled through the space of a half mile faster than I ever have before. That’s pretty dang cool all in itself isn’t it?

1 comment:

  1. Keep visualizing the reason you will have that smile! It will happen and when it does, we'll be smiling right along with you! ;) Philippians 4:13