Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Throw back 2007 Olympic Trials

  Just over 10 years ago, on November 3, 2007 I finished 7th at the 2008 Olympic Trials marathon.

   On November 2, 2007 I was very fit.  I had come through a very up and down year.  I started the year in the greatest shape of my life thinking I was ready to breakthrough to the upper echelon of US distance running.  Shortly there after I began experiencing my coordination problem, runners dystonia, and around the same time I came down with Mono.

  After 7 or 8 weeks of no running I started back with my fitness very much reduced.  Over the rest of the build up the dystonia was a problem here or there but not everyday.   By late summer I was again quite fit but had a spasm in my calf/achilles that lead caused me to drop out of the Falmouth road race and miss a week of training.   In October my fiance at the time broke off our relationship.  I was so focused on the trials at this point that my honest to goodness biggest worry was that being upset about that would hurt my race.  As I dealt with that I was also dealing with the dystonia.  I had lost coordination at the end of most of my hard marathon workouts.  I couldn't find a source of the problem or even anyone who had any understanding of what I was dealing with.

   The night before the race I was extremely worked up, like all the competitors I suppose. Around 10pm my roomate, Miguel Nuci, and I shut off the light and tried to sleep.  I actually fell right asleep.  Around 1am I woke up and had to pee.  After that I didn't fall back asleep and I could hear that Migual wasn't sleeping either.  Around 3am I suggest we get up and Miguel agreed.
 
  A couple hours later we took a bus on the empty streets for less than a mile to Rockefeller center for the start of the race.  I was sitting a couple spots behind Abdi Abdirahmen and it seem Nike had put posters of him in nearly every window along the way and I remember wondering what dealing with that kind of pressure was like.

  We went inside at Rockefeller center and we had plenty of bathrooms and it was warm.  I went out for a warm up. We basically had a 200 meter road that was blocked off and I did about 2 miles back and forth on it. It was actually a pretty neat experience with about a hundred runners who I knew by reputation and looked up to all going back and forth in this little area.  The best part was when a fan leaned over the barrier right into my face and yelled "Good luck beating Brian Sell!".   I went back inside did my stretching and made a bathroom trip.  Thirty minutes before the start they kicked us all out.  This was less than ideal for two reasons.  First it was very windy and the temps were in the 40's.  Second there was only one porto potty outside.

  I went out in just about all the cloths I had with me in hopes of staying warm to the start.  Very quickly we athletes decided that the porto potty was for sitting only and if you needed to pee you had to find an alley or bush, not easy in Rockefeller center but it was still dark out which helped.  I did witness a hilarious little dance where Ryan Hall who had to pee but was being followed by a film crew finally kneeled down and took a quick piss while his wife Sara stood between him and the camera as a physical block. Now Sara is five foot nothing and weighs 90lbs soaking wet so she wasn't exactly a wall which made it all the funnier.   All in all it was an extraordinarily well organized event I have no idea why there was only one porto john out there.

  Soon enough they lined us up.  I was shocked to see some of the B qualifiers or guys with qualifiers slower than mine elbow and push for a front row spot.  Mean while a few of the quite famous big guns took spots in the following rows.  I joined them. It was a marathon afterall.  I remember seeing one guy sort of shove himself in front of Meb and thinking, "dude, unless you push him two miles back he is gonna beat your ass."  In the end an official went by and pulled the big guns up to the front row.  I ended up in the second row next to Jacob Frey, another 2nd tier Saucony guy who I had hung out with a good bit at the Utica Boilermaker back in July.

  When the gun went off it was immediately slow.  Very slow.  It felt like an easy group run.  Mike Wardian jumped out to a lead while I was in the middle of this huge slow pack.   I thought about going out on my own and getting up with him as his pace seemed more reasonable but with it being so windy I thought better of it.  Also I was surrounded by some of the greatest runners in American history and figured we would get after it sooner or later. 

  On the city streets it was unbelievably windy and I remember thinking if it wasn't more broken up in the park we would be in for one hell of a hard day.  We hit the mile in 5:40 something.  Unimaginably slow.  We picked it up only slightly and Mike stayed out in front by a good bit.  About a mile and a half into the race we tucked into the park and I was relieved that the wind was reduced but unhappy to begin the hills.  For anyone who has run central park it isn't really hilly, it just doesn't have any real flat spots.

  As we moved onto the park roads the untenable nature of our slow pace started to become apparent.  With  more than a hundred guys in a 5 or 10 second span surrounded by motorcycle cops and camera men as well as dozens of bike riding course marshals on the tighter and very curvy roads things immediately started to get rough.  At one point I actually banged into one of the motorcycles with a cameraman sitting backwards on it filming.  I was fine but I was shocked the driver was able to keep them from going over.

  At three miles Mike Morgan and Kyle O'Brian of Hansons took the lead and drove the pace down to just under 5:00 pace.  They had both run the world championship that summer and it was pretty obvious they were leading to ensure a quicker pace for Brian Sell who would likely have little chance against some the other favorites in a race that came down to a very fast last 10k.

  Pre-race I had told myself that my speed limit was 5:00 per mile.  It was ok to dip under it here or there but not to stay there as I knew from my workouts I wasn't in shape to run under 2:11 and that things got hard fairly quickly when I was clicking off sub 5:00's on rolling terrain.  Mike and Kyle seemed to lock in at just under 5:00.  I think we maybe ran one 4:55 but really we locked in the 4:56 to 4:58 range.  Initially, though I was a bit stressed that the pace was a shade faster than I wanted, I was mostly just enjoying the whole event.  We had crossed the finish at Tavern on the Green and the crowd in the stands there was already quite large.  On top of that I was just blown away at the group of National champions, NCAA champs and generally amazing distance guys I was rubbing elbows with.  I had done a number of national level races at this point but to see this many super stars in one place and to be running with them was really something special. The reality of the Olympic Trials is that everyone there is amazing.  Generally speaking if you are at a race with 10 or 15 Olympic Trials qualifiers that is a big deal.  Well now the whole field is qualifiers and there were a couple dozen guys who had made at least one Team USA and a few american record holders and a world record holder. On top of that the spectators were over the top.  There were signs and screaming and just a huge number of the Brian Sell face on stick that Brooks must have mass produced for the event.  In additiona Mbarak Hussien was quite popular and as long as he stayed in the pack, which was out past 10 miles you seemed to hear someone yell "Age is just a number! Go Mbarak!
, every few seconds.  At one point Ryan Shay fell back suddenly for some reason I thought he had hurt his hamstring.  I didn't think about it at all.  I have thought about it uncountable hours since.

  Just after 5 miles I passed a blonde woman screaming and cheering her head off and realized just as I went by her it was 3 time Boston marathon champ, Uta Pippig.  This was no normal race.

  At this quicker pace the first real stressful moment was the "bubble" Just before mile 6.  To make the course hit the exact distance we had to take a 90 degree left off the road and onto a sidewalk go less than a 100 yards and take two quick 90 degree rights come back to the road and take another 90 left.  The pack was still 50 strong and we were banging into each other and the barriers.  It was really a remarkable piece of teamwork that no one went down.

  Shortly after that we turned back onto the main loop just past the finish line to do the first of 4 'long' loops. As we went up the first hill back on the main drag I felt a bit of acid in my legs.  It scared the hell out of me.  We had 20 miles to go and we had only been running at a decent clip for 3 miles and I knew damn well I was under my agreed upon speed limit for the those 3 miles.  I had to make a call.  Stay in the pack or back off.  I decided that if I had gone out too fast the damage was done so I had made my bed and now there was nothing to do but lay in it.

  After a couple of uneventful miles Abdi got sick of the 5:00 miling and shot off the front right at the 9 mile mark.  Hall, Meb, Ritz, Bizuneh and I believe Dan Brown went with him.  I hung back with the second pack.  The pace of the lead group seemed crazy fast and given that Sell, Khannouchi and Culpepper were in my pack I felt pretty confident.  Once again we passed Uta Pippig and as we did she shouted "stay with them cutie!" and I could have sworn she was looking at me. As we approached the 10 mile mark I was worried because I was starting to hurt a bit.  When I saw the split, 4:47, I knew why I was hurting.  We settled down but almost immediately I got a pretty bad side stitch.  I buried myself back in my head and put all of my focus on just trying to breath and staying with Culpepper.   As I stared at his back and rode out the stitch Khannouchi and then Sell with Lehmkuhle went off the front after the lead back.  Bizuneh, who I considered a threat to make the team because he had joined the Kimbia team, came back to us and we went right by him.

 All the while the side stitch was really all I could think about.  Running low 5:00 miles over rolling hills was actually pretty easy at this point but not so easy I could do it without breathing.   Finally just as we were coming up to the Tavern on the Green finish area marking two laps to go the stitch quickly faded out of existence.  Right about that moment Culpepper dropped out.  I was stunned.   Honestly I thought he was the single most likely guy to make the team.  Meb was better but had some calf problems in his tune up and I thought he might be hurt.

  As I absorbed the shock that I had outlasted Culpepper I also became aware that my huge pack was now quite small.  Only a small handful of us were left and they were all guys I knew.  Or more correctly knew of. Peter Gilmore who was on a string of really top notch marathons took control of the group with myself, Matt Downin, a two time National Cross Country Champion, and Josh Rohatinsky a sub 28:00 10k guy who had won an NCAA cross country champion who many thought would be a dark horse to make the team in his debut, following behind.   I was both excited and in awe that I was in this place and frankly feeling really good.   Over the front side of the course the hills were a little tougher and things seem to happen fast.

  Peter Gilmore who was leading our crew suddenly seemed to lose all steam and come to a crawl.  Downin took over and surged a bit but in less than a mile he seemed to pick up a limp and it was just me and Rohat.  At this point the adrenaline was really kicking.  First these were big names falling by the waste side.  Second we were running decent splits on a very tough course and third I felt GREAT!

  Shortly after Downin dropped back I decided to push.  I had read that Rohat had done some great workouts in the build up including a very fast 20 or 22 miler so I didn't think I could get away from him only 17 or 18 miles in but I was thinking we were in the top 10 now and others had been more aggressive and there would be bodies on the road so perhaps I could jump start our pace and we could work together to go after the lead.

  It is important to note I had no idea that Ryan hall was dropping 4:30 miles out front!  I was basing a lot of my expectations on the previous trials, where a 2:11 on a very flat fast course was good enough for the win, and the results of the top americans over the previous couple of years, which were significantly better than the past but still left me thinking if you ran in the 2:12's on this course you would make the team, particularly with Culpepper already gone.  I also was feeling like 2:12 was still on the table for me.

  I pushed the pace back down under 5:00 pace.  I think miles 18 and 19 were 4:57 and 4:54 respectively.  It felt like Rohatinsky didn't even try to stay with.   At about 18 miles I could see a guy walking on the course in front of me and as I closed up on him it was apparent that it was Abdi.  This played right into my thoughts that the super fast middle miles would tear apart the lead group and a guy like me could do some damage picking off the pieces.  On top of that I wasn't just soldiering to the line I was flying.  I couldn't have been more pumped.

  Then, in what could be a microcosm of my whole career, it all came crashing down around me with a funny sensation in my hip and hamstring and then the loss of control of my right leg right at the 19 mile mark.  My mind raced.  I had only one recourse.  I needed to stop and stretch.  Sometimes stretching would bring the coordination back for the rest of a hard workout, sometimes for only a few miles and sometimes not at all.  Just past a water stop I stopped suddenly and stretched for 10 or 15 seconds until Rohatinsky caught me.  I jumped in behind him as he went by and almost held my breath.

  My darkest nightmare was visiting me on the road.  The coordination was still gone.  I had little control of my right leg.  Running even this reduced pace was suddenly impossibly difficult.   I  locked on to Rohatinsky back.  It was all coming apart.  Very quickly my motivation went from having the race of my life to promising myself that if I was going to fade back through the field I was going to make everyone who was going by me bleed to do it.

  I had Rohatinsky to control pace and I was going to limp, peg leg and fight with everything I had to stay right on his back.  It was a bit of a dark moment.  Then we went by Uta Pippig again.

  There was no doubt this time, she was talking to me in her german accent "Stay with him cutie!  Race of your life, cutie!!"

The race might be going to shit but it was sure one hell of an experience and a day I would never forget already.

  As we came by Tavern on the Green to enter the last lap I got final confirmation that I wasn't going to make the Olympic team.  The jumbo tron at the finish showed Brian Sell who was flying and it said 4th place.  If Rohatinsky and I were going to limp up through the field at our speed they would have to be completely cracked.

  Entering the last lap the task seemed completely overwhelming.  I was limping.  I had little control over my right leg and felt like I could fall with every right foot landing.  I was doing everything I could do just to hang on Rohatinsky's shoulder.  I was taking some confidence from having stayed with Rohatinsky for a couple miles but the task in front of me, 5 more miles like this with every stride awkward agony, seemed impossible.

  I just kept taking it literally one stride at time.  Then on an uphill just after the 22 mile mark Rohatinsky began to slow noticeably.  I almost didn't know what to do.  I was so convinced the most I could hope for with the peg leg was to stick to his back but I could still taste the blood in the water so I pushed by and he had no response.

  The after the elation of that moment the stress of the hobble and the pain it was now causing and the reality of how far I had to go settled in.  My left calf started to spasm and I had to start forcing myself to land on my heel, as if my stride wasn't awkward enough already.  I also was worried by the pain in the front of my hip from pulling my leg through, as I was almost doing that with my abs, because at least I had control of them. 

  As I crossed over and began the journey on the back side of the course coming up to 24 miles I saw a diminutive man coming back to me.  With Abdi out it had to be Meb.  I was sure he had hurt his calf, as that was his recurring injury to that point in his career.  I had no idea his hip was far worse than mine.  Inch by inch I closed the gap but it was so far and I was limping so badly.  It seemed time would run out but it gave me a target and a job to do and when you are trying to convince your body to do something beyond its limits that is something you very badly need.

  Again I went by Uta Pippig, she was jumping up and down screaming "You are doing it cutie!! Go get Meb, cutie!!"  Shortly after that I passed Glenn Stewart on the side of the road.  Glenn was president of the Greater Lowell Road Runners who I had run for after college and who I did some coaching for.  He was a friend.  I was hurting in bad way knew I looked bad.  I wanted to give Glenn some sign that I would finish.  So I did all I was capable of, a weak thumbs up.  Glenn went wild!  I didn't understand.

  He thought I was trying to tell him I would catch Meb.

  Though that was not my intention it was reality.  Just as we hit the sign that said 800m to go I caught and passed Meb.  The man who had just four years before won Olympic Silver.  He was in a bad way and I was going to hobble by.  I had a moment of elation.

 A few yards later Meb went back by me.  I was crushed.  This man was too damn strong.  I didn't know then just how strong, but I had a moment where I wanted to quit and let him beat me in.  Then I realized here I was on the home stretch of the Olympic Trials Marathon fighting with the reigning Olympic Silver medalist.   I had no doubt Meb would beat me but I was going to go back and forth with him as many times as I could and make the most of the moment and so I lifted myself for another peg-legged push.

  Back by Meb I went, I was shocked he didn't go back by and now I was climbing up the final bit of the course.

  I don't remember finishing.  I do remember Meb a bit after he finished.  I thanked him for returning Americans to the world stage.  I did an interview or two over the barrier.  Then I began to shuffle to the gear collection area.  I couldn't believe I wasn't being drug tested.  I mean I was the 20th qualifier and basically a complete nobody and I finished in the thick of the big guns and yet no one thought, hey lets get that guy to piss in a cup?

  I got to the area where our cloths were and began to get dressed.  As I did I saw a young guy on the other side of the barrier almost shaking and he seemed painfully familiar.  It took more than a few moments to figure out he was my brother.  I was so destroyed that I didn't instantly recognize my only brother.
With the Moulton twins in the recovery zone

  That seems like as good a point as any to stop.  It was a great day though tinged with regret because it should have been more.  Again a microcosm of my career as a whole.

5 comments:

Tomek Baginski said...

Thank you, Nate, for being so open and sharing your experience on that day! As many emotions were coming through while reading your story, and even for a moment I thought I could really experience your microcosm, I can't even comprehend how huge was your own experience. Thank you again. Best greetings from ATX.

Magne Paulsen said...

Great story, Nate! Thanks for sharing.

Jacob said...

Awesome writeup, Nate. Thanks for sharing it.

Unknown said...

I remember like it was yesterday, great read!

I hope all is well Nate!

-Mike Morgan

Matt Slocum said...

what a race. hammering!