Monday, February 24, 2014

Searching for El Dorado - Part IV

Finally a post about running.  My friend Claire, who I was staying with in Flagstaff, was a member of my old running group in Baltimore.  She has run several ultra-marathons, including a 100 miler.  I came into town on a Wednesday night – she suggested that I check out the “Thursday morning bagel run”.   She said that many times some pretty decent runners show up.  Flagstaff has become a running mecca.  The elevation and climate make it a great place to train.

I showed up to the run a little early.  There was only one guy there.  I introduced myself – he said his name was Jordan.  I could tell that he was a serious runner from his build – and his accent told me that he was from somewhere in Africa.  I was surprised to hear that he was from Zambia – I had never heard of a distance runner from Zambia.  He laughed when I said that – he agreed that “there were no runners in Zambia.”  He explained that he grew up mostly in South Africa – which is where he had taken up running.

The second guy to show up introduced himself as Matt.  I could tell he was a decent runner as well – but to be honest I didn’t know what either of these guys had run.  There were a group of about 10 runners – both men and women.  We started out relatively leisurely – but with given my elongated run the day before I was hoping that the pace wouldn’t go too fast.

I started out talking to a woman – probably in her early to mid-forties.  We had started talking because I said I was from Michigan and had some friends who ran there – and she knew some former Wolverines as well.  Although we didn’t know anybody in common because she was a few years older than me.  I asked her how long she had been in Flagstaff.  “Nineteen years”, she replied “ I was here before it got popular.” 

She started to fall off the pace a little bit – and told me I shouldn’t wait for her.  So I caught back up with the group.  I started talking to Jordan again.  I asked him what distances most of the guys on the Northern Elite team (who he and Matt ran for) competed at.  He said that it varied – but that he ran between 10 miles and the marathon.  I asked him what his marathon PR was – I was a little shocked when he said that he ran 2:13 at Grandma’s in Duluth last year.  That’s good enough to make the US Olympic team.

He said that Matt had just come off an even more impressive race.  He ran 1:01:47 (4:43 per mile) a few weeks earlier at the Houston Half-marathon.  The world-record is just under an hour.  We gradually moved up to where Matt was – I kind of wanted to ask him about his experience.  Running is a funny thing.  Many times it is like banging your head against a wall.  You work incredibly hard and your body seems to push back.  It can be very frustrating at times.  But if you can keep pushing amazing things can happen.  The great performances just flow from your body.  You don’t even seem to really be in control.  In my last post I wrote about balancing the civilized and animal parts of being human.  In a breakout race the animal takes over – the civilized part of you just needs to get out of the way.

He said that the plan had been to run ~63 minutes.  His coach had told them that the lead pack might put in a surge – but to let them go because they would come back.  At the highest level of running surging in races is very common.  The top guys might be averaging 4:40’s in the marathon – but many times someone will drop a 4:30 or even a mile in the high 4:20’s to shake off the pretenders.  It is the most brutal part of racing at that level. 

Matt said that the beginning of the race was a bit slower than anybody had anticipated.  Again – that’s the way things go sometimes.  Taking the lead takes extra energy – so, everybody kind of sits back waiting for somebody else to do the pacemaking.  Matt said that the group started to feel a little on edge with the slow pace – and that it gradually sped up.  There was a truck in front of them with the anticipated finish time – and as the miles went by the time kept on getting lower.

Finally the move happened.  It happened organically – as if the entire group decided when it was going to happen.  Matt said that he remembered what his coach said – but that something told him that if he let the group go they wouldn’t come back.  So, he went with the group.  This group included Meb Keflezighi – Olympic Silver medalist and New York Marathon Champion.

Matt didn’t quite have what it took to win that day – but he ended up only 25 seconds behind Meb (who won the race) and got himself a position on the Half-marathon World Championship team.

We talked about how much passion you have to have in order to run.  Matt admitted that he was just now able to give up his day job.  I asked Jordan how his training was coming.  He said pretty well – he had a 10 mile race in California coming up soon.  I asked what he hoped to run – he said 45 minutes – which is 4:30 per mile!  He said that his training had been hampered because he was working nights.  A 2:13 guy has to work nights!  That is crazy.

I realized though that these are my people.  Yes, they are much faster than I ever was.  But it’s not like they are living large.  Endurance sports are one of the few sports where everybody can participate in the same race as the pro’s.  But even more oddly – most of the recreational runners probably make more money than the pro’s.  It’s a sport where it’s entirely about the race.  And I love it because of that.  

I used to think that running was something that I would grow out of.  I now realize that it is an essential part of me.  Even the competition part is something that I’ll probably never give up.  And that’s ok.  I’m no longer ashamed of that.  It merely means that I’m dialed into what makes me happy – and I’m not afraid or embarrassed to pursue what makes me happy.
Sorry about the lack of pictures on this post - I'll be sure to rectify that on the next post.  At first I thought this would be a maximum of five posts on my trip.  But there's still a lot more than happened believe it or not.

To be continued . . .

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