First I must confess: this past Tuesday night wasn’t actually my first track meet. Back in the spring of 8th grade, I did run outdoor track. However, to say “run” outdoor track would be a misnomer.
Being a junior high school team, we were encouraged to sample whatever events we liked and then were required to choose at least two to compete in. I tried every single event I could think of that didn’t involve running. Given that this was track and field, the number of eligible events quickly shrank. Add to that caveat the fact that that I have a literally 2” vertical jump, fear of falling, and no ability to throw whatsoever, and I was quickly forced to cross the high jump, hurdles, shot-put, and discuss off of my list, as well. I couldn’t seem to master the long jump but, as it turned out, I was halfway decent at its much more awkward-looking cousin, the triple jump. So I latched onto that.
Unfortunately, we were forced to compete in a minimum of two events, and since I didn’t have a secondary preference, the coach chose to put me in the event no one else wanted to run: the 400. For someone who hated running, this was probably one of the most torturous athletic activities I have ever endured—perhaps because I was in no way trained for it. Every practice, the cross country-turned-track folks trotted off for their seemingly endless multiple-mile runs, while the 100m and 200m sprinters dominated the track. Everyone else dispersed to practice their preferred event. Thus, I spent all my time jumping into and out of a sand pit. This did not leave me at all prepared for my detestable running event. If I recall correctly, I think I came in last every time I ran the 400. It certainly felt that way.
Fast forward to this past Tuesday night. Icahn Stadium. For those unfamiliar with NYC running venues, this is a stadium located on Randall’s Island where some very important people have run: in 2008 Usain Bolt set the (then) work record in the 100m, and in 2012 Kenyan runner David Rudisha set the 800m world record. With its massive blue track and looming scoreboard, it did not seem like a place where a silly novice runner like myself belonged. And looking at the other chiseled, serious-looking women with their team-emblazoned sports bras and frightening looking spiked shoes didn’t make me feel much more at home, either. I had all sorts of random fears running amuck in my brain. Would we have to use those awkward-looking starting blocks? Or did only sprinters use those? Would I sound stupid to ask?
The first event of the evening was the women’s mile. I was pretty sure the mile wasn’t run in individual lanes, a prospect which brought on a whole new set of concerns. What if someone tripped me? Or worse, what if I tripped someone else? Right at the start? In front of everyone?
On my 90-minute trip over to Randall’s Island, I had worried about coming in last. On a track, everyone could see exactly who came in first and who finished last. It would be humiliating. But by the time I was toeing the line for the first event, I had finally come to terms with the fact that someone had to be last, and if it was going to be me, so be it.
There’s nothing quite like a starting line and a gun. Road races are great—I certainly run my fair share—but I have never started right at the very front. Consequently, when the gun goes off, there is still a lag time where I’m trotting toward the starting line, not quite racing yet, and so the gun is somewhat meaningless. Those starts are more of a herd mentality; the herd surges forward and you’re carried with it. The gun at a track meet, however, has a whole different meaning. You’re standing crouched at the starting line with one woman to your left and one to your right. The starter shouts, “On your mark!” and all of your muscles tense. You’re one coiled machine. And then the gun cracks and it’s all systems go!
For all of my description right there, I have terrible reflexes and an even worse ability to get up to speed from a dead stop. Looking at the pictures of the mile race start, I’m very clearly behind every other runner. It’s a miracle I didn’t finish last.
In fact, to my utter surprise, I didn’t finish last in a single race. Yes, I came very close, but when it comes down to it, I beat someone in every single race. I have to attribute this to my level of fitness, of course, and my coach (thanks J___), but also to my innate ability to “kick.” On that last home stretch, I just wanted it more than some of the others. And while I’ll be the first to say it’s all about beating the clock—since I’m certainly never going to win any of these races against elite runners—there’s just something about catching that girl. The one right in front of you, who you know is trying to win, trying to edge you out. It’s motivating in a way I can’t quite describe.
At the directive of my coach, I ran all four events offered at this track meet: the mile, the 400m, the 800m, and one leg (the 800m, it was ultimately decided) of the Distance Medley Relay. I was surprised to find that I liked the mile a lot. Compared to road races, of course, a mile is incredibly short, and I’m not a sprinter. But compared with a 400m race, the mile is an eternity. If you hold back a little at the start of the mile, you can still catch people by the end. You have four laps to determine where you are and how you feel, and to gauge how much faster you can run for that last lap. If you even stop and think for a second about how you feel during the 400m, you’re not going to catch anybody.
That being said, I surprised myself by actually enjoying the 400m race, too. We only had 8 competitors for that race, so we started in self-seeded lanes. With no idea of what I would run (the fastest rep I had ever run in practice was a 1:26), I seeded myself as the slowest time and was assigned to the 8th lane. This meant that I was basically starting all alone, ahead of all the girls in other lanes. This is extremely unnerving, because when the race started, I felt like I was sprinting into empty space, all alone, with the other women bearing down behind me. It made me feel almost hunted. However, that aloneness didn’t last long; within seconds the winner went flying by. And in what seemed like just a few more seconds, the race was over. Practically a blip on the radar; nothing like the grueling agony I had remembered from 8th grade. I guess a lot has changed since then.
The 800m was by far my least favorite event. I had no idea how fast to start out, or how long two laps of the track would feel. Well, now I can say: after racing a mile followed by a 400m, that second lap of the 800m, especially the back stretch which faced directly into a headwind, felt like an eternity. Luckily for me, one of my teammates, A___, was running this race, and I knew she was at least in the same ballpark as me, speed-wise (unlike S___ and L___ who were way out in front, where they belonged), so I paced off of her. It was a good decision.
Last but not least was the DMR, or Distance Medley Relay. Again, for those not in-the-know (which until Tuesday included me), the DMR is comprised of a 1200m leg, followed by 400m, an 800m, and then 1600m. I had little preference for what distance I ran, so I was given the 800m leg of the race. This gave me the opportunity to both receive the baton—which is nothing more than a hollow aluminum tube—and to pass it off. Just the act of waiting for my 2nd teammate to come around the bend reminded me of how much I had loved relays in swimming. Cheering for teammates—and having them cheer for you—is just so much fun!
All in all, I’d say the meet was definitely a success. My only worry is that I had so much fun because it was a brand new experience and I held no expectations of myself other than to go out and “do my best.” I didn’t have a mile time in my head that I wanted to beat, or a 400m time, or an 800m time. Now I do. But I guess there’s no way to know until I try it again, so I hope I get the chance!
Results from the July 8th NYRR Tuesday Nigh Speed Series: