Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Race recap: Charlotte Running Club Summer Track Event

Track meets are a very different beast from road races. Instead of massing together at the start and finish for what in general is a very lonely event, a track meet is social in all aspects. There are familiar faces everywhere, everyone is running different events, and when you're not running, you're cheering someone else on.

And when you are running, all eyes are on you (or so it seems, from your perspective as a runner).

In retrospect, my plan for the Tuesday's CRC Summer Track Event was over-ambitious. I would start the evening with a 4x400 race, going all-out. Then I'd finish with the fast heat of the 5,000 meters.

As our team got ready for the 4x400, we could see that most of the runners on the track looked faster than us. They all looked like lean, muscular sprinters, and nearly all of them were younger than us. I may well have been the oldest competitor. There were seven teams, and the meet director surprised me by saying there would be a "waterfall" start, meaning runners would break instantly for the inside. As the second runner, this meant I'd have to be jockeying for position at the baton exchange. Oh well, no time to think about that; before we knew it the race started.

Carl was our first runner and he did a great job getting us off to a good start, but clearly our team was outclassed. The runners taking the exchange line up in the order their team is finishing the first lap (e.g. the first place team gets lane one, etc.). It looked like Carl was in 6th so I lined up in lane 6. You are allowed to move in as other runners arrive but the exchange area was fairly congested and I didn't get a chance to move in much. I was so preoccupied by this that I ended up taking the baton from Carl in the wrong hand.

No time to think about that, I was off! My main concern was not getting passed by the 7th place runner, so I went out of the gate hard. Maybe a little too hard, because after about 200 meters I could feel myself starting to slow down. I gave it everything I could around the corner and then sprinted for the finish line, trying to get a good sight of Chas in the exchange zone. I did remember to extend my right arm with the baton and hand off to Chas, our team still in 6th place. Here's a photo the local runner who goes by "Gucci Freshness" took of us at the exhange:

Me relieved to be done; Chas giving it his all!

Chas and then Dustin ran their legs, and we held on for 6th place. This was a pretty informal meet, so there were no official split times, but a friend of ours agreed to get our team's splits, and this is how it worked out:

Carl: 60
Dave: 67
Chas: 65
Dustin: 65
Overall: 4:18

He said he may have started my lap a little early but I can only go by the clock, so I'm pretty disappointed in my time -- only 1 second better than what I did in training last week, after already running four hard 400s. Oh well, it is what it is. Here's the whole team after the event:

From left: Carl, me, Chas, Dustin

Next I watched and cheered the other runners on. Chas ran an impressive 5:03 in the 1500 and then did the open heat of the 5000 just a few minutes later and finished in 19:07.

Now it was my turn; I had decided to run in the "sub-18-minute" heat of the 5000 based on my PR of 17:49 from last fall. But I don't run well in hot weather, and this was definitely a warm night. But since this was a perfect, flat surface, it only seemed reasonable to take a shot at a PR (technically a track PR since the road race is a different event). This would require laps of 85 seconds. My Garmin has never been very accurate on the track, so I set it to show only my time for each lap, not my pace.

A group of 16 very fast-looking runners was warming up near the start line, and I scanned the group for anyone who, like me, might just barely be faster than the 18-minute standard. I didn't find anyone. Here we all are at the starting line:

That's me, hiding in the second row!

For the first couple laps, I felt okay. I glanced at my watch every 200 meters and my splits looked good: Lap 1, 83; lap 2, 85. But I was definitely, solidly, in last place. The one runner I was somewhat close to gained a second or two on each lap. Chas was doing his cool-down lap, and cheered me every time I passed, and everyone who knew me yelled words of encouragement each time I passed them. While I appreciated the support, I was a little freaked out about it. Here I was, slipping farther and farther behind, while my friends and running buddies could watch my every step. In a regular 5k, the spectators only see you once or twice for the whole race. At the end you can explain what went right (or wrong, as the case may be), but mostly you're on your own. Here, everything you do is public.

But I continued making my splits: Lap 3: 85, lap 4, 85. Now it was really starting to hurt. Somewhere around here Gucci got a rare shirtless photo of me:

Note my sheet-white belly, in perfect focus

At this point I could no longer maintain the 85-second laps. So I decided to try for 90-second laps, and did okay for a couple: Lap 5, 90. At this point, the leaders started lapping me. Lap 6, 90. Now even this slower speed was not sustainable. I was halfway done, but I was finished. I could tell that each subsequent lap was going to be slower. I would probably get lapped again. There was no way I could finish sub-18, and sub-19 would be doubtful as well. I decided to drop out.

That's another difference between a road race and a track race. On the road, you pretty much have to finish unless you are injured. What are you going to do, sit on the curb in the middle of nowhere? But on the track, there's a huge temptation just to stop. Especially when you are in last place and going slower than the advertised pace for the event.

I felt bad for my friends because they had stayed for this event to see me run, but I also felt like I was probably much too ambitious for this meet. I probably should have picked a "target" race and then maybe ran another event just for fun. Lesson learned; put that in the old memory bank for next time, Dave!

One thing my friends, online and in person, were able to convince me of, is that despite this setback, I'm still a good runner who just had a bad day. Many runners would kill to be able to string four 85-second laps together, or run a 67-second 400-meter split. On the other hand, we all need to set our own goals, and I do hope to get faster than this. Just as the 9-minute-miler hopes someday to run an 8-minute mile, just as the run-walker hopes to someday run a whole 5k, I have hopes too. At 47 years old, wouldn't it be neat to run a sub-17-minute 5k, like that 14-year-old kid at the meet? All it takes is a 5:28 mile. Surely I can manage that. Or at least I can try, can't I?

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