We were supposed to be skiing. We had reservations for a weekend at Jay Peak, but with a winter storm brewing, bad driving on the horizon and negative temperatures the whole time we’d be there, we weren’t feeling it. So we decided to stay home. I half-unpacked my bag and relished the prospect of a few days to relax, after we’d rescheduled our Jay date, of course. It was going to be cold here too, just not AS cold, and we’d all enjoy a little natural snow (we’d get just under a foot) to cover the grass again.
I was going through my email, and one from Adam Engst caught my eye. He was talking about the Finger Lakes Runners Club track meet, the first of the season, this weekend. I didn’t have it on my calendar since we’d planned to be out of town. But plans changed, and I suddenly found myself available. Amy and I have been training with the MITHACAL MILERS group for the last month. It’s a Tuesday night group that meets at Barton Hall, which has a beautiful indoor track on Cornell University’s campus. Amy’s doing a great job chronicling her experience with the workouts. I’ve really enjoyed them, too, as they push me to the limit, but in the company of like-minded people.
As I registered, I saw a variety of events. The mile jumped out at me. After all, that’s what we were training for. Hartshorne, a huge meet for masters milers, is scheduled for next week, and Adam wrote that this weekend would be a great opportunity to kick the tires, so to speak. I finished the registration process and paid the hefty fee of $0 for FLRC members. I was going to race a mile!
I re-read the heat sheet the morning of the meet. There’d be several events before the mile, including a 5000m and then some shorter distances. Some friends are mine were running the 5K, but since I was pre-registered, I could show up anytime before my heat and grab my bib. Since we’ve been having some heated games of Risk in our house, I opted for the latter and calculated my arrival time. The mile event would start at 11:40, per the schedule, and I was in heat 8 of 11, going slowest to fastest. I figured getting there around noon would give me a few minutes to warm up and be ready to go. A last Tuesday’s training, I ran with Keith Eggleston, who I’ve raced before at outdoor 5Ks. We were scheduled in the same heat, so I looked forward to being able to pace each other.
Traffic was gratefully light and moving right along in Ithaca (you never really know) on this sunny, crisp day, and I easily found a spot to park in the Schoellkopf parking garage. A flight of stairs later and a brisk walk to Barton, and I could hear the cheering from outside the big red doors. I smiled to myself. This was going to be a high-octane, fun event. Perfect for my first track meet, ever!
I played soccer in high school. Any track work I’d done was in the context of soccer practice or recreational track as a really little kid. I’m 44, and have found my stride so-to-speak with running, but only as a full-grown adult. I thanked myself for exposing me to new experiences, took a deep breath and swung open the big red door to greet the expanse of Barton’s interior.
The atmosphere was electric. Runners of all ages were milling about the infield. A group of runners were making their way around the oval while coaches and spectators shouted encouragement from all sides. If my calculations were correct, this would be the 3rd or 4th heat. Plenty of time for me to —
What the hell? My brow furrowed as I tried to process what I was seeing. The group of runners made its way past me, and in the middle of the pack, gutting it out, was Keith Eggleston. He was in my heat! I dropped my bag, wasted no time swapping my outdoor shoes for indoor, and bounded across the six lanes of track when there was a break in the traffic. I wandered around the infield area, looking for the registration table. I found it near the start line, and Adam, who was announcing the event.
I squatted down in front of the registration table, trying to appear somewhat inconspicuous. I was already self-conscious about running the event and was now obviously tardy.
A volunteer working the table looked at me intently. “Can we help you?”
“Uh, yeah. I’m here to race.” I stammered. “And I think I’m late.”
She looked at me and said, matter-of-factly, “Yeah, they’re running way ahead.”
Crap. What a mistake to make on my first time out! I should have been here earlier, but how was I to know? I had half-thought when planning my morning that I could’ve brought a book or something and arrived WAY in advance. The book would be useful if I had to pass an hour or more. In hindsight, that would have been a good idea, though I wouldn’t have had any time to read it.
The other volunteer at the table sprung into action as well, saying “Are you pre-registered?”
“Yes.” I said. I quickly found my name on the pre-registered list, made a mark next to my name (what I wrote wouldn’t really pass as my signature) and grabbed a bib the first volunteer had started pinning for me. It was the quickest check-in I’d ever had at a race.
“Do you know what heat you’re scheduled for?” a volunteer asked.
“Heat 8.” I replied.
“Oh —“ the volunteer trailed off and looked over at the start area. “You missed that one, but they’re just starting the next one. Maybe you can get into that? Can you be ready?”
I slipped out of my zip-off pants and took off my top. As I started pinning my number on my High Noon singlet, I noticed Tonya Engst standing at the end of the table. The volunteer looked me up and down and said, “Wow. That was fast.”
Tonya and Adam organize the MITHACAL MILERS group, and I was grateful that she was there just then. She smiled at me, saying “Do you need to warm up at all?”
I thought about it, and knew there was really one good answer. “No. I’m good. I’m ready to go.”
She nodded knowingly and said “Great. Let’s go.”
We walked over to the start line. She and Adam conferred with the starter, who was lining up a group of what appeared to be high school kids. Adam said, “Let’s get Scott in this group, because the heats are just going to get faster.”
I thought that was a fine idea, and fumbled with the second pin on my singlet. I lined up at the back of this mass of kids who were young enough to be my own kids. Adam looked at me with one eyebrow raised. “So, this group is running 5-5:10.”
What he didn’t need to say was “Don’t keep up with them.” My time trial from a few weeks prior was 5:35, and my training all centered around that.
“Well, that’ll be easy, then.” I said. My inner dialogue completed the sentence for me: I’ll just stay behind all of ‘em and I’ll be good.
One of the things I love about the Tuesday training sessions is a greater awareness of effort and pace. As we do intervals, we take turns leading and following, taking note of our lap times and adjusting if needed. If something was a few seconds too fast or too slow, the group takes note. I knew what too fast felt like, so as I waited for the gun to go off, I thought about not going out too fast. I didn’t have time to think about not warming up, not going to the bathroom, and not racing with anyone my age. It was just time to go.
We started flying forward with the shot from the starter’s gun. I settled into what I felt was a good pace based on training, trying to forget about the other fifteen kids all around me. I didn’t want to trip anyone up, or get tripped up, so also focused on this as we rounded the first turn. Barton’s track is brand new, so a delight to run on. It’s also an ⅛ of a mile around, so 8 laps of “hang onto your hat” pace for me. I came to the first split while I heard some friends yelling encouragement to me. I was using the stopwatch feature of my TomTom, hitting the split button every time I passed the start. I looked down at my jostling watch as I rounded the first corner again, making out the time of 39.80. Not bad, I thought to myself. My race pace in training was 42 seconds.
The second and third laps went by at 39.31 and 41.21. I was feeling good, despite the snafus getting to the start line, and I noted that I was nowhere near the end of the pack. Solid mid-pack, I thought. Clearly the group was not all running 5-minute miles. Suddenly I had a sinking feeling as I felt the sensation of one shoelace loosening. I didn’t look down to check, but I felt it. My right shoelace had come untied. In my rush to change shoes and toe the line, I had not double-knotted my laces.
Lap four was done in 41.70. Somewhere along this lap, my other shoe came untied, as if in sympathy with its brother. I thought briefly about pulling off to tie them, but my shoes were staying on. They didn’t seem to be adversely affecting my running. It was making me more self-conscious, if anything. Here I was, a forty-something running with a group of kids less than half my age, shoelaces flinging around both feet like the tassels on a girl’s bike handlebars. I was hanging on for dear life with a tasseled banana seat bike while everyone else had flame-emblazoned BMXs.
I felt like I was wearing bedroom slippers, but I shelved the thought and kept on going. The cheers for me each lap helped immensely. The next three laps flew by in 41.89, 42.80 and 43.11. Getting slightly slower, but by no means flagging.
‘Last lap.’ I thought to myself. Time to find another gear. I’d been chasing the heels of a young man in front of me, and I pulled alongside him with a burst of speed. He answered the call and we sprinted together around the last curve. He’d finish before me, and that was just fine. I stopped my watch for a final lap of 39.69 and an official finish time of 5:29.49. I breathed heavily as I bent over in the line of finishers and tied both shoes.
“Nice kick at the end, there.” I said to the kid next to me. “Now I can tie my shoes.” He smiled and nodded.
I high-fived Adam on the way out of the start area, and Tonya came up to me to ask how I’d done. I told her I was happy, that I’d beaten my time trial by 5 seconds. Adam smiled at me from a few more feet away, saying “Yeah, you can go faster.” He knows, since he’s wicked fast. I have no doubt that he speaks the truth, and I’m sure that our Tuesday night trainings will have something to do with that. Adam explained the timing changes, too, saying that several groups hadn’t shown up, so they had to skip some heats and adjust people around. It was all good, and I learned a valuable lesson.
I packed up my things and walked the short distance back to the car. I promised myself I’d run a few miles once back home to cool down. A hot sauna after that would be just the thing I needed to wrap up the day’s fitness. The cold, dry air combined with my already dried throat and made me cough uncontrollably as I walked through the Schoellkopf garage. I definitely sounded like I’d run a mile. Next time, though, I’d show up just a bit earlier, and tie my shoes with a double knot.