Last weekend I competed at the USATF Masters Indoor Track and Field Championships. I took home a couple of medals but mostly it was an exercise in humility! It was great fun, I made some excellent friends, and I left feeling incredibly invigorated.
My journey to the nationals began last Summer. As I have blogged about before
, I participate in the annual summer track meets hosted by Carolina Godiva Track Club
. These are informal events with participants ranging from 8 to 80 years in age. I have never trained for them and have mostly viewed them as a fun, social way to get in some speed work for my distance running.
Last year, though, my world was rocked at one of these events when a 60-year-old woman named Becky lined up next to me in the 100m dash and ran neck and neck with me the entire way – wow, I was impressed! It turns out that she was the US national 100m champion in the women’s 60-64 age division. Between her, Louise (78 years old), and William (77) – all of whom came out to some of the summer track meets – I was thoroughly inspired.
Although I have never run track competitively, I spent the first half of my life as a sprinter of sorts on the football field. I carry around a lot of muscle that does me no good in long distance but helps me generate power in a sprint. Whether for these reasons or for the reason that I’ve just been getting kind of bored training for the same 5-10k distance races for the last 15 years, the inspiration I felt from Becky, Louise, and William motivated me to make a change. In August of last year, I shifted gears and began training as a sprinter.
Another friend from summer track nights, Cindy, took me under her wing and helped me get started. As a world class track and field athlete, she helped me ramp up quickly in this new world. Her husband, Dante (an Olympic-caliber 400m runner himself), helped and supported too. It was hard to make consistent improvement throughout the Fall, though, as I was traveling a great deal and getting sick every other week as our son brought home various bugs from the petri dish that is daycare.
I ran two “test” track meets, one in October and one in January. The results weren’t great and, due to my inconsistent training, I wasn’t showing much progress. I recognized several friends at the January meet, though, and they encouraged me to join the Piedmont Pacers
, a local track club that competes together as a team at these types of events.
Joining the Pacers really marked a turning point in my training. At least once a week I began joining a team practice with other Pacers. Louise, who turned out to be a Pacer, brought along her teammate, Angela. Rick, a very fast sprinter and middle distance runner about my age – brought along his awesome wife, Ryan. Even Becky, who isn’t a Pacer and lives hours away, would come join us when she would happen to be in town. Anyone who knows me at all, knows that I am 110% extrovert so turning training into a team event really supercharged my workouts.
When March rolled around, it was time to see if the training had been paying off. To be clear, my times indicated that I wouldn’t be terribly competitive. I was still new to track, still trying to remind my muscles how to fast-twitch, and, to boot, I would be the oldest competitor in the 35-39 age division – just three weeks shy of moving up to 40-44! However, I thought it would be good experience for me and I hoped to help the Pacers earn at least a few points, so I left my pride at the door and headed to Winston-Salem for three days of intense competition.
On the first day of competition, I only had one event: the 400m. In January I had run a 1:08, which is substantially slower than my outdoor 400m times from the Summer. Because indoor tracks are shorter, requiring more time in tighter turns, I expect my times to be a little slower but I was hoping to bring my time down at least to 1:06. An even-ish race plan was to run a 32s split for the first lap and 34s for the second lap.
Well, best laid plans! I went out way too fast, probably pulled along by my much-faster-than-I-am competitors. When I saw the clock at 30s as I finished my first lap (barely slower than my 200m PR), I knew I was in for a world of pain in the second. The rest of that race seemed interminable – all the more so because I was basically running by myself at that point – but I finally crossed the finish line in 1:06.66.
It was an improvement but not quite what I had hoped for. I’ll try to settle in and run my race next time. Dropping some excess weight will help too; I averaged 529W of power over the course of the race and that could propel a lighter version of myself much more quickly. Regardless, I have a long way to go; the winning time was 51.42!
I had three events to run the second day, starting with the 60m. The 60 is a pure, all-out sprint so I had no strategy other than run as fast as I could. The start really matters in the 60 since it is such a short race. I’m still pretty new to starting out of blocks but I was hoping my recent practice would pay off.
When the gun went off, my reaction time was good. I had violent arm swings and rapid step turnover. My top speed just isn’t very good yet, though. My poor flexibility limits the range of each step and my competitors all pulled away as the race went on. I finished in 8.75, nearly two seconds slower than the winning 6.88. 8.75 was a new PR for me, so I’m pleased with the progress, but I have a lot of room for improvement. In addition to flexibility, I really need to work on explosive power for this race. I’m stepping out of my blocks rather than exploding out of them.
After several hours of waiting around, my next event was the 4×800 with Matt (41 years old), Kevin (43), and Rick (38). A team’s youngest member determines its age category so we were competing in the M35-39 division.
Matt, who was battling a calf injury, started us off well with a 2:42 leg. I took the baton and ran a very uneven 2:47. My first lap was – surprise, surprise – way too fast so, after I passed two competitors, I settled down. I may have slowed down too much but it was hard to know my pace as I had taken the baton at an odd time and my brain was way too oxygen-deprived to do math! I averaged 432W on my leg.
Kevin did better, running 2:46 with disturbingly even splits. Seriously, he might be a robot! Rick, our fastest runner, started off hot, running a 32s first lap. We could see that the first place team was way ahead of us and we had a commanding lead over the third place team, so we called out to Rick to slow down and save his juice for the next race. He wound up running a 2:33, putting us at 10:48, which was good enough for the silver medal – huzzah!
No sooner had we finished the 4×800 than we had to line up for the 4×200. Our 4×200 team had the same members and we ran in the same order so at least our exhausted minds didn’t have to think much.
Matt ran a good 29s opening leg. He had to pass the baton to me in the outer lane on a curve, though, which was a bit of a challenge. I ran 30s (577W), as did Kevin after me, and then Rick brought home the anchor leg in 27s. Our final time was 1:56 but the competition was much stiffer in this race and we were only good enough for 4th.
Having run the final heat of the final event of the day before, I was among the last competitors to leave the track. Naturally my first race the next day was early so . . . no rest for the weary!
Because my projected time was the slowest (by far!) in my heat, I was assigned to lane 1, meaning I had to run the tightest turns. When the gun went off, I had another powerful start, but I had to bend that power around a tight curve – and then another one at the other end of the track. I finished in 29.25 (633W), an indoor track PR for me, but far behind my competition. The same notes apply: I have a lot of work to do to increase my top speed.
Our team reunited to run the final heat of the final event of the track meet: the 4×400. We were tired and sore from days of competition but adrenaline pumped us up as we neared the starting line. The same teams who had beaten us soundly the day before were out there again but they were tired and sore too, so anything could happen.
Matt again started us off well, hobbling through a 1:06 opening leg, maneuvering us into 4th place. I grabbed the baton and all soreness seemed to leave my legs. It’s hard to tell from the race video, but it looks like a ran a PR 1:04 (553W) for my leg.
It seems strange that I should be able to run seconds faster (and sustain higher power output) over 400m on the third day of competition vs the first. I definitely can’t attribute the performance increase to a running start as we were being extra cautious with our handoffs to ensure that we didn’t drop the baton. I have two hypotheses:
- I’m a team sports guy, not an individual sports guy. Put me out there with teammates depending on me and I will rise to the occasion.
- In the relays, other runners are spread more evenly around the track, motivating me to surge and pass them. Compare that to the individual events, during which the closest I ever was to the competition was when were at the starting line!
Regardless of the mechanism, I ran a good time (for me) and passed two competitors to put us in 2nd. Kevin ran a strong 1:13 and then Rick brought us home with a smoking 58s anchor leg. Final result: 4:21, good enough for another silver medal!
As I returned home, exhausted but exhilarated, I reflected on my first real track meet experience. Here are a few of my final take-aways:
- It was fun – a lot of fun! I didn’t expect that. There were long stretches between my races when I intended to sneak away to a cafe to get some work done but staying and cheering for my friends as they competed kept me at the track.
- I loved being on a team; that made all the difference in the world, adding meaning to every race. The Pacers finished 7th in the team points competition and I was proud to have helped contribute 15 of those points through our relay performances. Being part of a team also gave me more people to cheer for throughout the meet.
- I wonder how “valid” the results of the competition are. It’s neat to receive a silver medal and claim that our team earned #2 in the nation but we were really only #2 of those present at the meet. How many faster teams might be out there who didn’t have the time, money, or other wherewithal to travel across the country to compete? This point isn’t very important to me since I’m really not in it for the medals, but it did make me wonder.
- What I will remember most about this meet is the friendliness and supportiveness of all of the competitors. Before each race, competitors shook hands and wished each other luck. Between races, I met and made fast friends with competitors from all over the country and with very diverse backgrounds. Kudos to the USATF and JDL Fast Track for cultivating such a culture of positive sportsmanship – that is, after all, what sports are all about!