Finally… After some nail-biting close finishes (Albuquerque, Sacramento) and some heartbreaking disqualifications (Boston, Eugene), Mark Gomes won a national championship at the USATF Masters Nationals at Baldwin Wallace College near Cleveland. In what has come to be their trademark display, Gomes held off a charging Nick Berra down the home stretch to take the M40 800-meters in a tactical time of 1:58.4.
Below is the video and Gomes’ recap of the race.
Berea, OH — July 30th, 2011
I awoke this morning with a palpable sense of dread.
From a conditioning standpoint, I knew I had nothing to fear. When I finished in fourth place at the World Championships a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t peaked yet. I still had two weeks of sharpening left in my training program, so I was prepared to improve on my 1:56.2 performance in Sacramento. Had I known that I’d come within half a second of winning the worlds, I might have altered my program to peak a little earlier. I hold no regrets though… Today’s race was the goal from the start.
I was ready. The last two weeks went very well. I focused on three things: speed, speed, and speed. I performed short and sharp sprints on a near-daily basis. Last Saturday, I ran a workout with my sprinter teammate John Cormier, which forced me to find my optimal form. At the end of the session, I clocked a 24-second 200-meter, my fastest since college. On Tuesday, I ran a race simulation – 400 meters followed by two 200 meters with only 45 seconds rest. I ran 54, 28, and 27 seconds, respectively. Filthy times. I was clearly at my absolute peak.
So why the dread? Simple. Regardless of my conditioning, I was seemingly cursed.
In February I lost two world-record attempts indoors that my relay teams should have earned easily. In March, I was 50 meters from winning the USATF Indoor Masters Championship, but the venerable Nick Berra chased me down.
In June, I “won” the Masters Invitational 1500M at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Eugene — the most thrilling moment of my athletic life. But 30 minutes later I was controversially disqualified and stripped of the medal and what turned out to be one of the fastest Masters 1500-meter times run in the world this year. Finally, just a couple of weeks ago, I led the field at the World Championships with less than 100 meters to go, but I was passed by three extremely talented veterans. I travelled home with no medal at all.
As the setbacks mounted, I forced myself to respond with redoubled resolve. But fighting harder only made each subsequent failure tougher to accept. And now I was down to my last shot.
Thus, today’s pressure was the greatest I ever felt. Physically, I was ready for anything. Mentally I was fighting a multi-nation army — losses, disqualifications, expectations, childhood redemption. All the work. All the miles. It was all I could do to hold it together.
Everything else was business as usual. I followed my pre-race script to a tee. I was beginning to convince myself that everything was going to be okay when I was approached by competitor whose stature and skin-tone triggered flashbacks to a guy I met before my race at Worlds: Neil Fitzgerald. (Neil went on to win, as one of the three guys who passed me just meters from the finish.)
I had never met this runner before, but I recognized him. His name was Blair DeSio. Yesterday, I watched him challenge for a Gold medal against Eric Prince, the recent Masters 400-meter World Champion. Blair was fast…and we were about to race.
It only took a few seconds to figure out that Blair’s a great guy. He seemed more like a kid at the playground than a combatant in a national competition. He couldn’t have known that his mere presence was threatening my fragile psyche. I did my best to be cordial before getting back to my warm-up. There would be plenty of time to converse – after the race.
Minutes later, I headed to the check-in tent, joining the six men that stood between me and my goal that was two-plus years in the making: Dave Brown, Gary Rossen, Kenny Walker, John Zuehlke, Blair DeSio, and of course, Nicolas Berra. The officials escorted us out to the track and up to the starting line.
I was in Lane 2. As the top seed, Berra stood behind me in Lane 1. DeSio was just ahead in Lane 3.
This was it. Nine-hundred-and-five consecutive days of training reduced to an agonizing two-minute sprint. I took a knee for a moment, then stood and thought, “This is it. Run a clean race.” Without another moment to spare, the starter commanded us to our marks. The gun was fired and we were off.
I expected Berra to start the race conservatively. There was a bit of a breeze out there, so he was unlikely to lead early. Conversely, I thought Blair’s speed would take him out quickly, whether he meant to or not. Sure enough, as we reached the 100-meter break, Berra was nowhere in sight. DeSio and I were almost even, so I eased up to give him the lead. Down the back straight we went.
It was a humid 90 degrees on the track. We went through the first lap in 58 or 59 seconds. It felt like a brisk jog. I wanted push DeSio toward exhaustion before the final turn. Considering his natural speed, I definitely didn’t want him around in the final 100 meters. But the headwind on the back straight had become fairly stiff. I decided to let him lead for awhile longer, but stayed glued to his tail. It was like running behind an 18-wheeler. Being short hasn’t been good for much, but it was good for this.
Halfway down the track, enough was enough. I pulled into the second lane, picked up the pace, and took the lead. I continued to push the pace until we hit the final turn. There, I eased up just a bit, daring my foes to challenge me wide. Nobody bit. As the final straightaway approached, I thought to myself, “Explode at the corner. Fourth gear, fifth gear, and the afterburners. Everything…all at once. All hell’s gonna break lose.”
I remained patient around the curve, but the second I hit the straightaway, I took off like I was coming out of blocks. As I took that first explosive step, I caught a blur of blue in my periphery.
It was Berra.
I had a flashback to my loss at the USATF Indoor Nationals but snapped myself out of it.
I called on every muscle in my body, swung my arms hard, and focused on the form that I had practiced every day since yielding to Berra’s finishing kick in Albuquerque. I accelerated to full speed and knew that there would be no lactic acid wall this day. The blur of blue disappeared from the corner of my eye and I was alone. But I pressed anyway. DeSio could be back there, and Berra had proved before that he could find another gear.
The finish line loomed ahead.
“GO!” I kept urging myself.
The line drew closer… then closer. I peaked over my right shoulder. Nick was a step behind.
Still in full stride, I raised an arm to the sky. Rick Miller stood at the edge of the track. I looked at him and waved an umpire’s “safe” signal. There were no yellow flags. “That one’s clean!”
John Cormier ran onto the track and gave me a hug that nearly crushed my rib cage. My girlfriend Jamie – who has patiently indulged my peculiar eating, sleeping, training, and travel habits for more than two years – was waiting. She threw her arms around my neck and burst into tears. I whispered in her ear, “It’s over.”
Blair DeSio and Nick Berra came by to congratulate me, and we all took a photo together. As it turns out, DeSio never even ran in college. Scary. If he sticks with it, he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Speaking of forces to be reckoned with, we stayed in Cleveland an extra day to see John Cormier run in the 200 meter final. He got off to a great start and held second place coming off the turn. For a second, it looked like he might pose a challenge to Eric Prince. But his groin blew out in horrific fashion just beyond the turn. He went down in a heap and had to be helped off the track.
Needless to say, he was disappointed. I was sad for him, but simultaneously encouraged. In that race, I saw a future champion. He’s definitely faster than forty.