I never had Olympic dreams. When I was in my “prime” competitive running years, I never ran in any big meets. In high school I fell just short of qualifying for the state meet. In college I watched and cheered as friends and teammates competed at the Penn Relays, IC4As and, NCAAs. I was such an unremarkable runner that my high school counselor, in expressing his disbelief that I could possibly run competitively in college, said to me, “I mean, it’s not like you’re a world-class runner or anything.”
Suck it, Mr. Meredith.
Never would I have thought that I could compete in a field of runners this strong.
Photo by Mark Connolly (TigerIron)
Never, in a million years, would I have dared to dream of walking into a stadium filled with 22,000 track and field fans. While no one would call me unflappable, I can be a bit stoic about certain things. But filing into legendary Hayward Field and looking up at the packed stands took my breath away. I had to hold back the tears.
The thing, for me, about experiences like this is the soup of emotions that overwhelms my usual train of semi-rational thinking. Everything became such a blur that I even got lost on the track. Seriously.
How do you describe the event of a lifetime? The way it’s experienced, in completely disjointed terms.
Photo by Mark Connolly (TigerIron)
Where’s the finish line?
At any other track meet, the finish line is easily identifiable by the crowd of 3 people and the equipment surrounding it. In the distance events there is also a lap counter and maybe a coach reading off lap splits. At Hayward Field, however, people lined the stadium, equipment surrounded the track, and the stands pulsed with the cheering of 22,000 fans. On a 400m track, the 1500m does not start and end at the same place. And once we started racing, I completely lost track of where the finish line should be. Every turn looked exactly the same to me. It wasn’t until two laps to go that I heard or saw the lap counter and realized where the race would actually end.
Acting like the elites
My credentials granted me access to all areas of the venue. I whisked through security lines, walked right past Jackie Joiner Kersee (no pen/camera/phone with me – and let’s be honest, lacking the nerve to actually approach her – but I fangirled internally), and snagged ice cold water from athlete hospitality. What I came to realize, however, was that these backstage areas were a total pressure cooker. Jeez, people apparently get really intense when a spot on the Olympic team is on the line. So I ended up hanging off-site and with my girl Sarah Lorge Butler, who was there covering the event for Runner’s World. She wrote the sweetest story about us here.
Get out of my lane, Ashton Eaton
We owed our sell-out audience to the event finals surrounding our race: the 400m, the 100m, and the completion of the decathlon. While corralled into our secondary holding area we shared space and warm-up lanes with the decathletes, and I found myself striding right past 2012 Olympic gold medalist Ashton Eaton. Again, no pen, but fangirled internally.
I wonder how Galen Rupp gets to the track on race day? I arrived at Hayward Field via Albertsons, where I stood in the candy aisle choosing treats for my kids to throw at Bainbridge Island’s Grand Old 4th of July parade the day after the race. I had forgotten to do this before we left, and had to cover my ass in case we didn’t have time to do it the next morning.
I feel so fortunate to have been able to share the experience with Mike and my kids. I don’t know if the kids took anything away from it (aside from some killer tats and cool autographs), but it meant so much to me that they could be there.
When the race of your life isn’t THE race of your life
It’s a fact: you’re not always going to run an awesome race. This was not my best race. Some of the reason for this was out of my hands (a little injury) and some of this was a complete breakdown in employing any sort of race strategy. Yes, I missed some key workouts and did not feel completely on my “A” game. But I could have done myself a favor and started a little more conservatively. I finished in 6th place, in a time of 4:51.82, and while I would have liked to have raced better, this day at Hayward Field was still the experience of a lifetime.
I cannot thank you all enough for your encouragement and well-wishes. Every single note of support meant so much to me and I carried all of your thoughts with me to that starting line. Peace out and I’ll leave you with a quote that a good friend just sent me:
“A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways they’re capable of understanding.” -Steve Prefontaine