The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials: When, Why, Who cares, and What’s the point?

The 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials are less than a week away, which means that I’m finally ready to share my goals, with only minimal worry of an injury jinx. Those are the rules of the Running Gods, I think. In the wake of a late change in Olympic Marathon and U.S. Marathon Trials qualifying standards, there have been some rumblings about the purpose of the Trials for those with virtually no chance of making the Olympic team. I do count myself as one of those runners. Admittedly, my wife has already blogged aptly about the Goals of a Non-contender (see link at bottom). As I make the final preparations for my second Olympic Trials race, I’m hoping to verbalize a slightly different viewpoint, yet a common one: that of a blue-collar runner with a white-collar job wearing a plaid-collar shirt.

Somewhere around 160 men will race the 2016 Olympic Trials marathon in Los Angeles, but the three who actually make the U.S. Olympic team will almost certainly come from a select group of 15-20. So what’s the point for everyone else? Why should any hobby runners bother to pay attention to the Trials, rather than just wait for the actual Olympics? What’s it like to have such impeccable fashion taste? I am up to the task of fielding these questions, and even giving some exclusive insights into the life of a nonprofessional runner attempting to juggle high-level marathon training with a real-life job, marriage, and bottomless appetite.

It can be hard for non-runners to grasp the significance of earning a spot and competing in the Olympic Trials without a feasible chance of making the Olympic team. My boss has repeatedly referred to LA2016 as my “party,” after I explained that I had no realistic chance of becoming an Olympian. OK, he is half-right; there will be hard partying afterward. But there is also a lot more to it. Luckily I am #blessed with supportive family, in-laws, and friends who do understand and celebrate the importance of this race. With the strict qualifying standards and Olympic implications for the top finishers, the Trials are the most exclusive, hyped, and likely the most prestigious race for most of its competitors. It is basically our version of the Olympics. With its unparalleled competition, the race is also a great opportunity to summon our best performances, earn PR’s, and test them against all of our peers to quantify exactly where we stand in our sport. Furthermore, its significant exposure offers up-and-coming runners a chance to impress their sponsors, attract new ones, and maybe fund a few more years of pursuing their dreams on the roads.

I no longer count myself as one of those up-and-comers, as I did at the 2012 Trials. I’ve entered my fourth decade of life, eighth marathon, and am suffering from an acute case of employment. I’m not complaining; I’ve spent the last couple years working toward the career I now have, and it’s nice to have some funds. Plus, many other Trials participants have had to balance similar responsibilities with their training. With this new vantage point though, I’ve become more aware of complaints by the privileged few full-time professional runners who lament making “sacrifices” during the lead-up to big races. Running is consistently one of the highlights of my day. I do frequently make choices to best support my high-level training, but I no longer think of them as sacrifices. Then again, I can’t imagine enduring a hard training block without the comfort of frequent beers and doughnuts. Still, the propagated expectation of elite runners to lead spartanesque lifestyles has prompted me to consider some of my own sacrifices this training segment:

Drew’s Olympic Trials Training Sacrifices:

Vision. It’s Winter, and most of my runs have been in the dark before or after work

Biceps. To my wife’s horror, they’ve shriveled away during marathon training

Coffee. Well, for two weeks, but then I relapsed hard and haven’t looked back.

My Vanity. At work, I’m now the sweaty guy in unflattering tights who showers at the office

So, what motivates me to endure such an ascetic lifestyle in the hopes of running moderately fast for two and one-quarter hours? I suppose I should say that there is always the pipe dream of having that once-in-a-lifetime performance, while everyone else gets explosive food poisoning, and making the U.S. Olympic team. Sure, that is not untrue. More tangibly, though, I want to prove that I am still one of the better marathoners in the country. Even more, I aspire to be an example of life-balance in this demanding sport, and to capably represent the true “blue-collar” runner who wakes up early or goes out late to pursue their passion between work hours and domestic responsibilities with minimal complaints (I could use some work on that last part). Recently, I’ve met and befriended many dedicated individuals who fit that profile, and their online running logs have provided more inspiration to me this winter than those of any professional runner. Finally, I feel fortunate that my new marriage has only added support and motivation to my training, rather than compete with it. While Emma and I have not yet found a way to harmoniously run together, it is surprisingly helpful just to go through similar training regimens simultaneously. Driving to weekend workout venues, feasting on late-dinner vats of pasta, and passing out early together does help dissipate any potential feelings of that vulgar S-word, sacrifice.

One of my goals with this piece was to motivate casual running fans, if there is such a thing, to recognize the intrigue of the 2016 edition of the U.S. Olympic Trials. After all, they will be BROADCASTED LIVE ON NBC AT 10 AM PACIFIC TIME ON FEBRUARY 13th. This is actually unprecedented, but I assume it was motivated by all the captivating Polley storylines. But seriously, this is a chance to watch huge dreams, four years in the making, come true for a few, and be crushed for many others. It’s raw, high drama. All competitors will also sport skimpy outfits and endure deep, profound pain.

Speaking of skimpy outfits, you can look for me in the sweet new Brooks “Inspire Daily” Elite kit in LA. I am pumped for another of year of promoting my favorite brand. This would be a good place to post a preview of my racing attire, but it arrived after I’d already left for my current 2-week work trip to Marin County, CA (yes, I’m still running in the dark nearly every day here). But expect me to look something like this at the Trials:*

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Ideally, I won’t be throwing up Gatorade, but let’s be realistic. I will even still be sporting an old pair of my beloved but defunct Green Silence eco-friendly racing flat, as shown above, and whose likeness is tattooed on my back. I’ll also be representing Club Northwest, a deep Seattle-area running club and my current support group. It feels like a perfect match long in the making, and being part of such a historically strong team provides yet another chunk of motivation.

To be honest, I had modest expectations upon starting this training segment, but it has gone as well as I could’ve hoped. I’ve stayed relatively healthy, run months of high mileage, and nailed many encouraging workouts. It would be deceitful to proclaim a personal record as my goal. However I can tell that I’m not too far from that level, seemingly in the neighborhood of 2:16:00-type fitness. If the course is tough and the weather warm, as I expect, I’m also happy to adapt my goal to simply placing as high as I can. It would awesome, and not unrealistic, to be a top-25 finisher in consecutive Olympic Trials. But first and foremost, there is the matter of achieving the most realistically prestigious title available to me at this race: a member of the fastest combined married marathoners in the U.S. I foresee a strong performance from Emma, which instills in me the duty of holding up my end of the bargain.

Thank you for making it through this, and special thanks to everyone who has voiced their support!

Sweet links:

Recent article by David Monti about the two married couples racing at the Trials:

Married At the Trials

My wife’s much more popular blog: https: emzmiles.wordpress.com

*Full disclosure; I wrote this over a week ago, and am now safely back in WA. I’ve tried on my gear but don’t feel like I can top this photo. Also, I will look approximately 6 years older than I did in the photo.

New Year, New Drew?

The start of this new year found me taking a day off from running, and volunteering at a local 5k. Is this the way I plan to spend the rest of the year? Well, I’m also starting the new year with some blogging, which I haven’t done since last March, so don’t expect TOO much volunteer work from me in the coming year. I’d like to proclaim that I won’t take many more days off from running this year either, but my injury history begs to differ. Nonetheless, I am currently plowing my way through winter training for the 2016 US Olympic Marathon Trials, coming off one of the more successful racing seasons of my life, and I’m worried that if I don’t blog about it, then it might not be happening. Plus, I’d like to think that once in a while there is a nugget or two of narrowly applicable insight in these ramblings.

You might think that since I haven’t blogged in so long, I’d have a lot to write about. Conveniently, the last six months have been pretty uneventful though. Other than finishing my master’s degree, moving to the Seattle area, starting my first full-time job, and getting married, not a lot of notable things have been happening lately. Maybe 2016 will be more interesting.

On the bright side, the latter half of 2015 was pretty good to me from a running perspective, which is the only perspective most people see me from anyway. As I neared my 30th birthday, I managed to set personal bests in consecutive road 5ks, the track 1500, and in wife selection.

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To go along with the theme of new employment and hosting a wedding, my goal in running this summer was to get out of my comfort zone. For an old marathoner, this meant training specifically for those shorter, faster events, taking them seriously, and trying to talk to more people at work. The shift in racing focus was motivated by a frustrating stretch of training and racing last year, including a failed attempt at a fast marathon in late 2015 followed by a long injury setback after I tried to start training for a spring marathon. By then, my “marathon pace” was starting to feel like a sprint and it was clear that I needed to mix up my training habits if I wanted any shot of running up to my own standards at the Trials this year. It was also clear that I needed to finish that master’s degree and get a damn job so I could afford my physical therapy bills. In that regard, the injury break from running was probably a blessing.

In general, 2015 rallied hard for me during the second half of the year, and during the enjoyable chaos I rediscovered the fun of running fast for short periods of time. My chronic overuse injuries eased. Plus, with the lower training volume, I had more time to spend, um, volunteering at charity events and helping Emma with lots of wedding planning. I’m now in the belly of another marathon training segment, and have noticed a boost from my summer of speed. As a working stiff, the vast majority of my OT training runs have started and/or ended in the dark. However, marathon-type paces have been feeling manageable again, and both my Garmin and ego tell me that I’m training at a higher level than I’ve been for quite some time. I’ve been feeling so newly youthful that I even implemented a brief cross-country season for the first time since 2010. I also got a coloring book. I surprised myself with encouraging results in both of those endeavors, given limited training. I also saw huge gains in my wedding dancing abilities that could only be the result of anaerobic training.

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Before this goes any further off the rails, I suppose it’s time to fish out a conclusion. For any serious runners, especially marathoners, I’ll continue to recommend periodic returns to speed-focused training segments. If you don’t use it, you lose it! In fact, let’s all use this example as a metaphor, and resolve to get out of our comfort zones a little more this year and reap the benefits. Emma and I will be in Smog City, USA in exactly four weeks for the Trials, where we’ll both be continuing to represent the great Seattle institutions of Brooks Running and Club Northwest, as we make a bid for the niche title of fastest married couple in the race. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more sponsor-plugging and self-indulgent updates as that date nears.

P.S. If you aren’t running in Brooks, get it together. The new Launch 3’s are on fleek.

P.P.S. My plan for winning the Powerball jackpot would’ve been quitting my job to open a new running store called Fleek Feet.

Taiwanese Dream

Right now, in a parallel universe, I am singing Chumbawumba karaoke in a Taipei bar. I’m still heavy-legged from racing a swampy Wan Jin Shi New Taipei International Marathon on Sunday, but I’m summoning my energy reserves into culturally appropriate celebrations. I’d planned the race months ago as a fun opportunity to race internationally for my first time, travel somewhere new, and visit my sister Shannon and her boyfriend Andy- both English teachers in Taiwan. Of course, I’d wanted to do all of these things for years. So I jumped at an offer for an expense-free trip to do it all, awarded on the basis of my aging marathon PR.

In this reality, though, I’m currently in Pullman, WA obsessing over a bum hip and frantically trying to finish my M.S. thesis. The Taiwan trip hinged on my ability to run a respectable marathon, which isn’t a given these days. While jogging a few miles with my friend Tim this weekend, he asked if I thought I’d ever run another marathon PR. I thought for a few seconds and surprised even my inner pessimist with how doubtful I felt. It’s not the easiest concept for a runner in his 20’s to accept. After all, I’d whipped myself into solid shape last fall, but my body struggled to balance the training load with real life, and I started the race feeling a little dinged up, which rarely turns out well. At the Cal International Marathon – my 7th – I hobbled to the finish in a not-completely-embarrassing-but-personally-disappointing time. Watching Emma cruise into the finish chute of her first marathon 20-some minutes later, with a smile on her face and an Olympic Trials Qualifier, felt like a passing of the torch. (Moral alert) Don’t ever take your great performances for granted!

People often describe young, mature, badass athletes like Russell Wilson as being “old souls” in a young body. Lately I’ve felt like the opposite. To treat my latest ailment, I’ve allowed my hip to be poked, prodded and stuck with needles big enough to make Kurt Cobain squirm. Sorry for all the Seattle references. Anyway, a Space Needle-sized syringe of cortisone did offer some relief for a couple weeks. However a few overzealous mobility exercises and runs have put me back in injury purgatory (i.e. the swimming pool) for now. Of course, the process is nothing new to me. I’ve been through enough turbulent injury cycles to develop skepticism of athletic medicine equal my skepticism of Santa Claus.

Santa skeptic

The one thing I know for sure is that if I never run an elite-caliber race again, it won’t be for lack of trying. I know what it takes to rebound from injuries to perform well, and I have my eye squarely on the Olympic Marathon Trials of next year.

It’s not a given that I’ll ever run a PR again. But it’s certainly possible. Unless you believe Ted Cruz, the Earth is steadily warming. We all still get some crazy cold snaps though!

Burning the Powerbars at Both Ends: A Cautionary Tale

Unlike the traditional cautionary tale, this one does not end in grisly misfortune. Or at least I hope not. The conclusion will be written in one week, on Sunday, December 7th when I race the California International Marathon (CIM). The epilogue will then be writing the next day, when I limp though my final presentation for my graduate seminar course, but school stuff is generally more boring than running stuff so that’s not the focus here.

This story picks up midway through my CIM training segment in late October. At that point, I had a few marathon-pace workouts under my belt, having recovered from the punishment of the US Trail Half Marathon Championships. My ego had also recovered, and I was gaining confidence for CIM. Then, on the morning of November 2nd, I ran into a wall of a fatigue mid-way through an assault of endless 2-mile and 800-meter intervals. It felt like a chimpanzee jumped onto the back of the gorilla that was already on my back.

Usually there are logical reasons why these things happen, and the ability to analyze them is why Al Gore created the running log. Upon quick investigation, my jog log smacked me in the face with my recent pitfalls. I’d just completed my first 130+ mile week since 2013, including my two best workouts of the year. Two nights ago, I’d stayed out late to celebrate the Best Adult Holiday by washing down mouthfuls of candy with Busch Light. Three nights before that, I’d stayed out late in Spokane “networking” with potential employers (which requires plenty of liquid courage!) after giving an air quality modeling presentation. The previous night, I slept no more than 1 hour due to nervousness about giving said presentation. Three (and four) nights before that, I’d stayed out all night painting the town crimson while two of my best friends visited for a sacred Cougar Football weekend. Thus, I concluded that the last nine days as a whole seemed pretty typical and I may never know the reason for my fatigue.

Okay, sarcasm doesn’t translate over blogs very well, ironically. Actually, I quickly recognized the collective cause of the energy hole in which I dwelled. For the billionth time in my running career, I was forced to acknowledge the precarious balance of intense training, job/career/school responsibilities, and a social life. I can’t even imagine how parents find time for this kind of stuff. The morals of this tale are that rest and recovery are crucial during hard training, high athletic achievement requires some form of sacrifice in other life sectors, and anyone who denies this is full of Bologna Sandwiches.

Emma and I almost got swallowed up by Puget Sound during our final Marathon prep workout.

Emma and I almost got swallowed up by Puget Sound during our final Marathon prep workout.

Ultimately I decided to cut back on mileage for a couple days, slept more, ate plenty of Powerbars, and more-or-less climbed out of the hole. I’ve had some encouraging training days since that revelation, but my expectations for CIM next week are still not as clear as I’d like. Most of my marathon-specific workouts have been attempted in some combination of gale-force winds, various precipitation, and/or bone-chilling temperatures. My splits, all over the board, reflect this. My self-confidence has shifted from Kanye West to Elliott Smith with each change in wind direction. In the end, I honestly think my fitness falls in the similar, awkward place as it did at this time last year, heading into the same race. Last year, Mother Nature had cooperated a little better and my final workouts clearly indicated 2:16-2:17 type fitness. With the U.S. Olympic Trials ‘A’ and ‘B’ standards set at 2:15:00 and 2:18:00 respectively, I opted for the more conservative approach. Now that I have that ‘B’ standard in the bank, it would seem like a waste not to make a legitimate attempt at a sub-2:15:00 performance, which is something I haven’t done since the last Olympic Trials in early 2012, with less than 2 seconds to spare. On the other hand, overambitious bonking in a marathon is pretty miserable and something that I want to avoid. I believe the best compromise, and a strategy that I’d encourage every marathon runner to try sometime, will be running the first half of the race slightly slower than my goal pace and trying to chop it down in the second half. If I don’t have that ability, then hopefully my destruction will be less pronounced as a result of the gentler early pace. The one thing I can guarantee is that I will be enjoying getting out of the brutal December Palouse weather for a few days, seeing some friends, and taking in one of the best races in the country.

Obligatory frost beard selfie.

Obligatory frost beard selfie.

Afterlife

Disoriented, I stumbled out of the windowless cargo van and squinted up at the bright lights. My fuzzy mind slowly registered that I was one story below the Friday night bustle of Couer D’Alene’s downtown strip. My head was beginning to pound and my achy muscles protested as I staggered up the stairs, following the cacophony of live music and drunken yelps. It was sometime around midnight. As the craving for cheap and fast nourishment intensified, I glanced up and down the street, avoiding eye contact with the party crowd. I was suddenly self-conscious of my crusty basketball shorts and salty skin. My body was impaired, but not by alcohol. I’d only had one cup of foamy IPA from the keg in the van several hours ago. On the other hand, I’d attacked over 20 hard miles of running, with another 25 planned over the next 10 hours. My guts were in painful knots from some combination of exertion and inadequate nutrition. The sweat-soaked foam mattress in the back of the van had provided a couple hours of feverish rest. However I’d accepted that real sleep would not be found that night, and instead must be compensated by caffeine and dense calories if I had any chance to keep my body from completely crumbling. I didn’t want to let my small, scrappy team down, but was seriously questioning my judgment in committing to such torture.

The Omnipresent Pimp Slaps (not my choice in team name) somehow held on to eek out a win in the Spokane To Sandpoint 200 mile relay back in mid-August, despite a team half the size of most others and with some serious injury and fitness liabilities. The exuberance that followed justified the suffering and reckless self-flagellation. It also reminded me of how much more fun it is to share an accomplishment with others; something that rarely happens in post-collegiate competitive distance running.

My objective in sharing this triumph isn’t to brag about winning a glorified fun-run, or to showcase my average creative writing skills but to characterize the theme of my running exploits the last several months. After 12 years of rigidly structured racing and training schedules, the freedom to choose races and workouts impulsively has been rejuvenating. As the pressures of engineering graduate school have overridden those of race performances over the last 9 months, this has been a valuable shift for me. Over the summer, my newfound running freedom has allowed me to poach some local praise at the Rock n’ Roll Seattle Marathon, dabble in trail and ultra-marathon races, and become a regular at community beer runs. I even managed to sneak in a little speed work with the formidable WSU XC men’s team. Emma and I also had an adventurous summer, trekking to Northwest outdoor havens nearly every weekend and trying not to stress about the occasional missed workout.

Wallowas

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Above: Wallowa Mtns, Arcade Fire at The Gorge, and a sample of my signature wedding dance moves in Ohio

After getting buried on even my best days on the elite road-racing circuit for years, it’s also been a much-needed confidence boost to take a step down and win 7 of the 8 races I’ve entered this year; everything from sit-and-kick 5ks to a mountain trail 50k grind. In fact, I can’t help but fantasize about shifting more of my focus to the trails over the next few years, as my hips complain louder and louder with each road marathon I race. The soft, curvy trails are calling to me like a…soft, curvy siren. I guess this is my competitive-running Afterlife; the point where I power-hike up a mountain trail off into the sunset.
NOT! Yes, “not” jokes are still alive, and so are my road racing ambitions. Last year I qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which instills in me the duty of staying in competitive road shape for at least 1.5 more years. Furthermore, I will do everything I can over the next couple months to turn my ‘B’ standard qualifier into an ‘A’ standard by breaking 2:15:00 at the California International Marathon (CIM) in early December. Last year I stuck to a relatively conservative race plan at CIM to hit the ‘B’ standard of 2:18:00, but I’m even more excited to return this year with nothing to lose. It doesn’t hurt that the organizers know how to throw a good party. I’m now several weeks into my CIM specific training after a post-50k recovery break and am getting more excited by the day. Also, watching some of my good friends kill it at the Twin Cities and Chicago Marathons has added to my motivation. More immediately, I’m looking forward to competing in the US Trail Half Marathon Champs (there’s a U.S. Championship for everything now) at Lake Padden in Bellingham, WA in just a few days, where my current winning streak will most likely end at the hands of some serious trail hogs. Regardless, I can guarantee that I’ll be enjoying myself.

Oh, and the Drewmors are true; Emma is no longer my girlfriend. She’s now my Fiancee! Just a few days ago I lured her to the top of Steptoe Butte at sunset and did this:

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Unfortunately I wasn’t prepared for the scenario in which she said ‘yes’… But as we continue to figure out our evolving life plans, Emma will also be joining me at the Lake Padden Half Marathon and CIM as she races them as well! You know what they say: Um, The couple that runs together, uh, has fun together. Thanks for reading!

Crushing Nuts, Taking Names

“crush a nut, man!”

 

It was 6 months from Christmas, so I assumed the vocal lady in the running skort meant these words as encouragement. It was early in the race, but I had a sizable lead in the Rock and Roll Seattle Marathon as I passed all brands of enthusiastic runners going the opposite direction in an earlier stage of the race. As a side note, the Foul-mouthed Fashionista brand of runner is a growing entity that should not be overlooked! Buy low. As it turns out, smashing my own genitalia did not happen to be part of my race plan, but in hindsight might have been more pleasurable than enduring the last two miles of the race. For the time being, though, I was enjoying myself. In my experience, the bulk of a well-executed marathon calls for about 20 miles of mental detachment in order to preserve your game face for when the going gets really tough. I’ve now discovered that this is especially true when you find yourself very alone for the majority of the race. I’m happy to report that I excelled at this aspect. I joked around with my old HS teammate Justin Culver for the first two miles; gave my old WSU teammate/pre-race pasta maker Jono Lafler some animated pistol gestures as he ran by with the Half Marathon lead; tried to throw each discarded Gatorade cup directly into trash cans; uttered some form of “good job” about 18,000 times; stared awkwardly at the officials in the back of the lead truck until they were shamed into breaking eye contact; occasionally admired the prominence of Mt. Ranier; most importantly plotted my victory celebration. A finish-line spin move would make my dad proud.

 

The spin move would not happen that morning. Somewhere around 22 miles on one of the countless, gnarly Seattle hills, my body began to remind me that I hadn’t adequately prepared it for a sub 2:20 marathon in the month of specific training that I’d done. Fueled by the hordes of supportive runners in various stages of their own races, I’d made the rookie mistake of not respecting the distance. No amount of PowerGels or mind tricks could save me now. For perhaps the first time in my road racing vocation (I wouldn’t call it a “career”) I was about to experience The Bonk. In my post-race interview, I described the feeling as a gorilla jumping on your back. A more accurate description would be a gorilla ripping all of the muscles out of your legs, cramming them down your throat and then taunting you. When you are deep into the dark phases of a disintegrating race, the cheers of spectators might as well be gorilla taunts.

 

As my quads turned to overcooked spaghetti around mile 25, the throngs of half marathoners running the same direction on the other side of the road started to appear more static. My pace was no longer much different from theirs! I had long ago abandoned my efforts to respond to each encouraging cheer and instead shifted all of my focus to staying upright. The wobbles were setting in. I began to genuinely worry that my bid for victory would end disgracefully in a face plant and ironically fulfill the prophecy of crushed nuts. My grasp on irony was also tenuous at this point. With a sizable lead, I seriously considered slowing to a safety walk for the last half-mile. Always the analyst, I quicklydrew up the following mental list:

 

Pros of walking it in:

-less likely to fall on my face and lose the race

-Marshawn Lynch looked pretty badass while walking into the endzone

Cons of walking it in:

-Finish-line photos would look ridiculous

-There’s a good chance I’d be taunted

-How would I look Sir Mix-a-Lot in the eye at the awards ceremony?

Final Score: Walk:2, Run:3

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As the photo shows, I opted for the jog, risked my balance to raise my arms and thumbs to about half-mass, and twisted my mouth into some sort of Elvis grin. While I may not have been fully able to show it, those final seconds were some of the most enjoyable of my life. Five years ago, I started my post-collegiate racing campaign at the half marathon version of this same race. My finishing time (2:24:50) quickly became irrelevant to me.

2 minutes later, I sputtered through a couple interviews. Here’s links to the Seattle Times article about the race: http://seattletimes.com/html/othersports/2023896585_marathon22xml.html

and here is a version of a similar Compitor.com article that was translated by intergalactic aliens (Seattle RnR was that big of a deal): http://www.conewsfeed.com/lakewood/polley-yanko-victorious-at-rock-n-roll-seattle-marathon/

Merely 2 hours and 2 donuts later, I was waddling around as a volunteer at the spectacle that is the Brooks PR national high school meet. My duty was to escort the winners to the podium. Between events, I passed time by getting sunburned, musing whether I could even compete with the female mid-distance runners, and wondering if my battered legs would fall off before the meet ended. Halfway through the afternoon, the boys’ 400-meter dash winner refused to accompany me to the podium. He then collapsed on the ground and began violently vomiting.

I reflected on how lucky I am that I’m not a mid-distance runner.

Thanks for making it through another post. My main girl Emma also just wrote a riveting recap of a race she ran on the same day. Check it out: emzmiles.wordpress.com

Beware the Lollipop of Mediocrity, Part II: The Reckoning

My first installment of this ambitious saga turned a little nostalgic. Therefore I now feel a great duty to keep you informed on some more current issues. I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, David and Goliath, about the inherent, hidden advantages that often come with being a traditional underdog. Actually, that’s not one of the current issues I wanted to discuss. That will come up later though, hopefully. As I mentioned previously, I had the fortune of attending the PAC-12 Track and Championships as a spectator just over a week ago as it was literally in my backyard*. Since I was inexplicably relieved of my announcing duties in favor of a “professional,” I was able to take in the meet at my own speed: hung-over and among my visiting friends. So in my backyard* on a windy day, I witnessed two collegiate athletes race wire to wire in the 1500m and run 3:36 apiece – the equivalent of about a 3:52 mile. Still more interesting (to me), I proudly watched some friends and part-time training buddies Drew, Gonzo, and Forrest seize hard-to-find team points in the 5k (7th) and Steeplechase (3rd, 6th) respectively, in the most competitive distance running conference in the country. It was a job well done by those Cougs, but of course we know that most of the credit for those performances should be chalked up to brilliant assistant coaching by Emma Kertesz.

Still, the sobering fact remains that the Cougar track teams as a whole finished near the bottom of the conference. A new head track coach has (finally) been hired by WSU but will face the same old challenge: recruiting national talent to the tiniest, most goat-iest town in the PAC-12, one hour and forty minutes from the nearest airport. This is the part where I intended to relate my newfound perspectives about perceived underdogs, which I read in a book. Here we go: Someone without access to the most ideal resources can be forced to find alternative strategies in order to succeed on a large scale. Sometimes these unconventional approaches actually prove to be superior for one reason or another. Instead of butchering more of Gladwell’s points, all I will say is that my best running performances have always come when I’ve had the most to prove. There is just no substitute for having a chip on the ol’ shoulder. I wish I could bottle up that feeling of desperation and sell it on the black market as a PED.

Speaking of desperation, I spent most of this spring hobbling around with various ailments and wondering if I’d finally aged out of this cruel sport. However as the Palouse sun has chased away my Seasonal Affective Disorder and restocked my Vitamin Drew these last few weeks, I’m suddenly feeling something more like my old self. My first workout of the spring ended in the fetal position with heat sickness chills, nausea and 64 oz of Gatorade. Four days later, though, I had an encouraging race at the Bloomsday 12K in Spokane. Since then, I’ve been sneaking in some higher mileage, less embarrassing workouts, and eating more #Powerbars than is safe or reasonable. With a little luck, I’ll be lining up in my shiny new Brooks racing kit very soon. Of course, I realize that for the last two years, I’ve probably trudged deeply back into the ‘underdog’ end of the elite jogging spectrum, even perhaps into the dreaded ‘who?’ region. But that all changed this weekend with my heroic victory at the To HELL (Southern Preacher Voice) With Cancer 5k in Redmond, WA! If there is any surefire way to put yourself back on the map, it has to be the act of outkicking cancer. Accordingly, it looks like I’ll be lining up as Goliath at my next race (and not just because of the all the #Powerbars), Malcolm Gladwell be damned.

ImageWe cleaned up from our dramatic To HELL With Cancer 5k victories in time to celebrate my cousin Lew’s wedding in the height of modern fashion.

Thanks for reading again!

*I do not have a backyard

 

Beware the Lollipop of Mediocrity, Part 1

*There turned out to be a lot on my mind today, so I’m breaking this one into two parts. I’m hoping this tricks you into reading both

As the haze of adult beverages and Lawi Lalang’s dust has finally lifted from the PAC-12 track meet/alumni reunion weekend, I’ve been forced to come to terms with some milestones. First, I’ve now finished two semesters of grad school in Atmospheric Research (it only took me 4.5 years)! Less impressively, Washington State University’s head track and field coach Rick Sloan is passing the proverbial baton after 41 years. This occasion, culminating with a banquet attended by 7 decades worth of WSU track alumni, provided half of the excuse for a multi-day Pullman bender with old friends. Of course, the other half was the spectacle of the PAC-12 Track and Field Championships in Pullman, Washington for the first time since ever.

            My fellow track alums have already been paying their respects to the legend, so I’ll address that side of the story first. Yes, this summer a rickety, crusty old WSU Track icon moves on to the next phase. Of course, I’m referring to the infamous Track House. I only spent one year in it, but it was the most fun of my college career. It is now either being torn down or passed on to the baseball team, depending on whom you believe. Either way, RIP Track House. As mentioned, another longtime WSU fixture will also be retiring soon. Coach Sloan handed out approximately one million quotes during team meetings, but I remember one from my early years especially well:

“Beware the lollipop of mediocrity; lick it once and you suck forever.”

I’m not sure of the source, but I took this nugget of wisdom to heart for many years. I achieved a lot with that mindset. Admittedly, I also tended to take it too far sometimes. At the beginning of my fifth year, I found myself living alone and growing apart from some of my dear teammates. To remedy this, I subleased my apartment and moved into the garage of the Track House, behind a wall of plywood and old couches. I was the 8th person in the 6-bedroom house and the journey to the nearest vacant bathroom made some of my long runs seem like nothing. However I also learned the value of compromise year and ran PRs in every event. I stared down the Lollipop of Mediocrity and threw it in the garbage. Or at least the garbage pile in the Track House garage.

Nonetheless, when I spotted Coach Sloan sucking on a tootsie pop while coaching a future heptathlon Olympian at practice that spring, I mustered every bit of confidence I could find and recited you-know-what to him. It was the first time I saw him laugh, and the first time I wasn’t absolutely terrified of him. “I’ve been on the lollipop of mediocrity for years now,” the former decathlon Olympian joked.

Toward the end of the reunion banquet dinner this weekend, my old teammate Alex came over and reminisced that he clearly remembered every time Coach Sloan had told him some form of “good job.” I wondered aloud if that was a positive thing. It certainly isn’t a coaching style that works for just anyone. The man did not freely give compliments, but when he did it actually meant something. I then thought about the most memorable of the few times he’d pulled me aside. I’d just run a big 10k PR the night before; my first and only NCAA provisional qualifier.

“I wasn’t there last night, but I could hear your balls dragging all the way from the hotel,” he asserted. I chose to take this as a compliment rather than recognition of wardrobe malfunction. I have my former distance coach Jason Drake to thank for the bulk of my opportunities and achievements at WSU, but Coach Sloan certainly left his mark.

Image

^ Immediately after the NCAA Cross Country meet in 2006, and immediately before a crazy night at the Track House

Part 2 to come soon. I’ll try to do better

Also, if you feel like going further down a WSU Track House/ Coach Sloan wormhole, my friend David Hickerson’s blog wouldn’t be a bad place to start: http://sideshowfreakz.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-end-of-legacy.html?spref=fb

Our Neon Bibles

Why is it so difficult to sustain momentum after breakthrough performances? Time after time, we see our heroes follow up a triumph with a turd. Kenenisa Bekele won double golds (5k/10k) at both the 2008 Olympics and 2009 World Championships, then immediately succumbed to injury and disappeared for years. Arcade Fire followed up Funeral with Neon Bible (quick, name two songs from that album!).  Heath Ledger followed up his inspired performance as The Joker by dying. Most significantly, I’ve had a string of nagging injuries and missed training days since my last marathon! It also just occurred to me that this blog won’t match the quality of my first.  At least it’s proving my point.

Of course, there are the few Bernard Lagats, Radioheads, and Daniel Day Lewiseses of the world who transition seamlessly from one masterpiece to the next. If you are one of those entities, please stop reading and email me “The Secret” immediately.  Meanwhile, this blog is directed at everyone else who struggles with the reality that it’s impossible to be “on” all the time. At least, this has been my realization as a male marathoner with big ambitions and big hips.

            While I wait to be Facebooked The Secret, let’s discuss methods to cope with the setbacks. You can try feeding yourself pseudo-optimistic mantras about how the low points are what make breakthroughs possible, or that two steps forward require one step backward. Since you’re not an Oprah Twitter account, this strategy probably won’t do much for you. More and more, I’m finding that the best comeback strategy is to abandon a comeback strategy and find some distractions. In this regard, I have it easier than I used to. As a semi-professional runner in Michigan, I had a lot of time to dwell on the black holes where great training and races should be, when they weren’t. As a grad student in atmospheric research, I now have a wealth of differential equations and dispersion model scripts to bang my head against whenever I want. The last month has been one of those occasions. Recovering from the winter’s wrath allowed me to pose as an overachiever in school, as well as a Good Samaritan. I was heartbroken to sit out the Snake River Canyon Half Marathon, but I warmed my broken heart by volunteering at an aid station for the race in sub-freezing temps. The number of runners panting their thanks while busting their asses gave me the illusion of being a Real American Hero (Bud Light Advertising, are you reading?). It was also an enlightening new perspective of how much work goes into all the races I’ve naively shown up to, ran, and left. Don’t worry, I won’t get preachy and encourage you to volunteer. Last week, I took a friend up on an invitation to show up at the fundraiser 5k he helped organize to sign autographs, give a rare press release and hence draw out a crowd of Seahawk victory parade proportions. They didn’t know or care that I hadn’t run for nearly a month, which was refreshing.

I’m still waiting on Daniel Day Lewises’ email, but meanwhile I hope you can twist this narrative into something that is somewhat applicable to your own periodic frustrations. I can even provide hope for a triumphant return to your primary passions. Bekele eventually got healthy and took down the new distance king, Mo Farah, at the 2013 Great North Half Marathon. Arcade Fire followed Neon Bible with the Grammy-winning Suburbs. Heath Ledger is still dead, but he did win a posthumous academy award. Finally…wait for it…I followed up my month-long running hiatus by outkicking an 18-year-old to win the prestigious Run-For-Her-Heart 5k in course-record fashion. Coincidentally, I am still too sore to walk normally. Good luck on your next breakthroughs, and please let me know if you figure out The Secret. 

One More Time

At 5 AM on Monday, I was startled awake by a Seahawks’ offensive lineman standing on my head. The giant bed was unfamiliar and my whole body ached. Gradually, I summoned the mental strength to make sense of the situation. I was in my Sheraton Grand Sacramento hotel room, three feet away from my assigned roommate in the other bed. The pressure in my skull was not due to dead weight, I realized, but rather the physiological effects of replenishing a depleted body with strong beer and cheap champagne. I was celebrating the night before with the help of some new friends. Less than 24 hours ago, I’d finished 8th at the Cal International Marathon with a time that qualified me for my second US Olympic Marathon Trials. It was two and a half minutes slower than my P.B. (personal best), but it also wasn’t a P.W. I had felt stronger than expected and ran it as a negative split, with my last two miles of the 26.2 being the fastest. Obtaining even the ‘B’ trials qualifier was a huge relief because my life has been in turbulent flux lately. I’ve been training largely alone, and most significantly I’ve been homeless for the last couple of months. I reminded myself of this triumph as I staggered to the bathroom and knelt down to worship the porcelain shrine.

I should clarify; I’m not legitimately homeless. However, I did grow a beard. I also lived out of my car for the second half of October, giving new meaning to its ‘Hybrid’ label. During that time, I sampled some of the finest floors and couches from Indianapolis to Kansas City to Denver to Missoula to Pullman to Seattle. For the last month, though, I have had a real bed to sleep in and a semi-permanent residence. It came complete with doting 50-something-year-old roommates and magically renewable sources of food and beer. During this time, I dealt with the stress of confronting my hazy future by running a lot. Once in a while I’d be graced with the company of an old teammate. Usually though, I had hours on the roads alone each day to reflect, meditate, or listen to silly podcasts. With the gift of hindsight, it appears that these sessions were indeed productive. I now have a 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier in the bank and a sweet new gear sponsorship via the Brooks I.D. Elite program (a brand I already know and trust quite well). Perhaps most importantly, my former panel of professors at Washington State University has thrown money at me to return to the Environmental Engineering Masters program I left four years ago. I assume they’ve mistaken my identity, but I’m happy to exploit the error. Along those lines, I even have my own place of residence lined up in Pullman next month. This one comes complete with a girlfriend who was just named an assistant coach for the track team. The jigsaw finally seems to be falling into place for this semi-homeless jogging enthusiast.

So what was the source of all the turbulence? Well it’s kind of a long story, but since you asked… Four years ago, I chose to abandon a stable grad school setup after one semester to join my running heroes of the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in Michigan. I’d been an OK collegiate runner who’d suddenly found a niche in the marathon, and with it, a chance to live The Dream. It was also a chance to avoid the grind of the Real World for another few years. There is a saying about meeting your heroes, though. My first two years as a sponsored runner, culminating with the 2012 US Olympic Marathon Trials, were everything I’d hoped they’d be. I traveled all over the country, trained hard, celebrated the victories hard, developed strong friendships, met an amazing girl, and improved my marathon time by six minutes. Look Mom, I’m a professional athlete! At that exact moment, however, a Dylanian change began a-changin.’ For the second half of my tenure, I was injured more often than not. Three of my training partners left within months of the Trials. Bees refused to stop stinging me. I continued to ignore the ominous signs. Something I did recognize was my growing debt to my benefactors. Every day that passed, I increasingly owed them for the free roof over my head, the part-time job they provided me, the gear sponsorships, contract negotiations, entrusting me with their coaching reputation, and of course the countless hours of their time. With this degree of personal debt to a single entity, the potential for problems is correspondingly high. A crack in one sector can compromise everything. Ultimately, I learned a lesson about the value of compartmentalizing your life. In my final Michigan months, I also experienced a different, more tangible type of debt. In this kind, my creditors were actual creditors who expected actual currency for my various car repairs and root canals. The signs were now smacking (and stinging) me in the face. It was time to move on.

I am excited about my new, more balanced life. I already miss all of the great friends I made while in Michigan but doubt I’ve seen the last of them. Life has a way of working out the way it’s supposed to. Right now, I know I am supposed to finish this Fat Tire and wash it down with some ice cream. I can’t think of a better metaphor for balance.