Mission Control: A Eugene Update

June 30th, 2011 in Articles by 3 Comments

I’ve finally settled in from a brutal cross-country flight and crazy weekend at the USATF Nationals in Eugene. Obviously this was not your typical race weekend – but I figured I’d still provide my race recap and a summary of the trip (which I would do even without the controversy that ensued).

Sunday was a big day. Unfortunately, two great performances were overshadowed by drama in a split second with just over 100 meters to go.

The pre-race routine I’ve used several times this spring has been successful, so I stuck with it. (You’ll have to wait for the book to get the details, but I think my race-day routine has greatly improved my performances.) I will say this though — there were a few “minor” differences Sunday:

1) Just before starting my warm-up, I ran into Ryan Hall – one of America ’s elite distance runners and a 2011 Boston Marathon hero. We exchanged some very quick pleasantries. Then, one of the meet volunteers snapped a photo. Hall wished me luck on my race and I quickly got back to business.

2) As I was starting my dynamic stretches, I ran into John Jefferson (twin of Sean, whom I met a few weeks ago). Like Sean, John’s a great guy. I was disheartened to hear that he had been knocked out of his event during the trial rounds, when a sprinting pack left him in a bad position to make a move.

3) As I completed my warm-up, the meet officials called for all Masters 1,500m competitors to gather in the waiting area. As I headed for the area, I saw decathlon great, Dan O’Brien, whom I had met the day before. He looked over at me and said, “Good luck.”

I just said, “see you on the podium in a few minutes”

“Yeah?” he replied

“Yeah. I’m feeling it.”

The O’Brien exchange helped to take the edge off, but in reality I was as anxious as I was confident. I managed to keep a cool head and stuck to my pre-race cheat sheet. With a few minutes to go, race officials ushered us out onto the track. It was a little surreal. Thousands of people, cameras, video… all about to witness me and eight other guys compete for the USATF Masters Invitational 1,500m title.

Deep breath. Stay calm.

After a few minutes, they lined us up. At that point, the adrenaline took over. It felt like every other race I’ve ever run. I took my traditional pre-race knee; the starter gave the command; we approached the starting line, and the gun went off.

Nick Berra and Christian Cushing- Murray were in the outside lanes and got out quick to gain position, as I expected. Berra’s not afraid to run hard from the gun. I lined myself up to tuck in behind him. Lance Elliot and Mike Blackmore trailed close behind me. For the next 3 minutes and 30 seconds, nothing changed. It may have looked like a boring, uneventful race to the people watching, but to me it was a 3-minute-and-30-second tour of the Nick Berra Torture Chamber.

Berra set a strong pace. He was clearly gunning for a sub-4:00 and appropriately took us through the quarter in 63 seconds and then the half in 2:08. As a 1:57 half-miler, the pace was comfortable enough to me, but a little brisk considering we had 700 meters to go.

I focused on staying positioned properly and remaining relaxed. “Chill, chill, chill. Just make it through the next 400 meters. Then, it’s a 300 meter sprint.” If only it was that easy. The third lap was very challenging. I was breathing heavy (partly intentionally, as I often do) and reaching down deep to hold it together. I knew I’d be okay if I could make it to the 1,200-meter mark intact, but that was no sure thing at that point. Berra remained intent and plowed though the 1,100-meter  mark in 3:00 flat.

The bell rang, the crowd roared, and a little adrenaline flowed. I needed that! I expected things to pick up, so I had no problem staying stride for stride with Berra as he gradually accelerated. We got onto the back straightaway and hit the 1,200-meter mark. I thought to myself, “Made it. I might have this now. Just chill, though. No need to go yet.”

Fifty meters later my body wanted to go.

“Not yet,” I told myself.

With 200 meters to go, I felt the same way and held back. Sometime before the 150-meter mark, I couldn’t take it anymore. I went and went decisively. I passed Nick and quickly dropped into the center of Lane 1. Suddenly, I felt very strong and thought I was pulling away – although considering how Nick and I raced in Albuquerque, I didn’t plan on taking any chances. I held firm in the center of lane 1 and prepared to unlock my final gear on the turn and secure the win.

Apparently, Nick didn’t read that script. He unleashed one last surge and attempted to make an inside pass. Berra is a great competitor and among the greatest gentlemen you’ll ever meet on the track. Some folks have lit him up on the running message boards, and unjustly so. If he thought he saw daylight, I’m sure it looked like fair game. I have no problem with that. Personally, I think our sport is at its best when we’re mixing it up – more exciting for the fans. (If you saw the bloody legs of Lagat and Solinsky on the awards podium after the men’s 5K on Friday night, there’s no question the guys in that race were mixing it up!)

Getting back to the race, unfortunately, Nick and I ended up in the same spot at the same time and collided. Having thought I was pulling away, I was startled by the contact. I didn’t even figure out what happened until I watched the video the next day (frame by frame, on the largest screen I could get my hands on). After extensive review, I concluded that: 1) our feet tangled, momentarily disrupting my stride; 2) that disruption slowed me for a split-second, causing Nick to run up my left shoulder.

(All 17 people on the planet who care about Masters track have certainly seen it, but here is the link to the race video just for completion’s sake.)

In real time, I didn’t even know if it was Berra. All I knew was that I was being forced outside, so I instinctively tensed up and recoiled to recover my position/avoid being knocked over. Then, I immediately and instinctively reacted like I always have in those situations… I took off.

With 60 meters to go, as usual, I went into full rigor mortis. Time for the brain training to kick in. I recalled what Paul Rupprecht said about his Penn Relays Steeplechase victory and spoke to myself in the same manner:

“Come on, come on, come on. Pump, pump, pump. Gold medal. Gold medal. Head down, lean forward. Dig, dig, dig. Don’t stop. Don’t stop.”

The mental prodding worked great. Then, with about 30 meters to go, I felt my body hit a new level of stiffening. My mind scrambled to find any remaining muscles to fire. My glutes, obliques, and calves were the only things not burning, so I called upon them… and they did yeoman’s work for five agonizing, exhilarating seconds.

And then I was across the line. On the most storied track in America, I had won. I honestly couldn’t believe it. A couple of guys congratulated me while I attempted to scrape myself off the track. Eventually, we were shuffled up to the podium, where I received a gold medal. I can’t put that moment into words. After 40+ pounds of weight loss and 871 straight days of training, I was finally standing atop a podium. I couldn’t believe it…

After the award ceremony, the event staff removed the medal from my neck, explaining that I’d get a new one in the mail. I found that very odd and more than slightly distressing, but I was too tired to argue. I was quickly distracted by Ryan Hall, who was seated in the nearby stands. He saw the race and congratulated me. Nothing ever felt more backward in my life. Ryan Hall watched me race and congratulated me? Welcome to the Twilight Zone. After that, Runnerspace.com interviewed me. Cool. More video memorabilia!

I met up with Mark Cleary, Chairman of the USATF’s Masters Invitational Program Committee. Basically, without him, we wouldn’t have been there. We talked about the Masters scene and marveled at Mike Blackmore’s incredible performance. (Blackmore finished 4th in my race in 4:03.52… at 49 years old!)

Someone came over to chat with Blackmore, so I grabbed my cell phone for the first time to talk to my girlfriend, Jamie. Unbeknownst to me, my phone was blowing up. Texts. Phone calls. Facebook posts. It was crazy. (The ringer had been off, so I didn’t know.)

This fairy tale story seemed complete… but as I alluded at the beginning of this post, the story wasn’t over. And it didn’t end well. As I gathered myself, a text came in on Mark Cleary’s phone. He looked up at me and said, “Oh no. It says here that you’ve been disqualified.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked. After the Eliot Track Club’s disqualification from a world-record attempt this winter, I thought he might be joking.

“No.”

Cleary accompanied me to the Protest area. I requested access to the official results. This request was granted, however, the results did not reference which USATF rule I had allegedly broken. (After this winter’s debacle, I’ve become somewhat familiar with the USATF process.) The violation was supposed to be referenced there, but it wasn’t – it’s USATF Rule 145.1, for those of you scoring at home.

I was verbally informed that the disqualification was in reference to Rule 163.3 of the 2011 USATF Competition Rules (obstructing the progress of a fellow competitor by not running in a straight line down the straightaway). This information was later confirmed in writing via a correspondence from Mark Cleary.

I hadn’t seen any video yet, but I didn’t think I obstructed Berra (or anyone’s) path.  When I kicked, I won by nearly a full second (a decent margin over the last 100 meters). I quickly filed – and paid $100 for – a written protest of the ruling. The protest filing was accepted. Minutes later, the USATF informed me that my protest had been reviewed but would not result in any amendment to the initial decision. Although video evidence was available, I was told that the officials did not review it, nor would they. I requested a further appeal. (Unbeknownst to me, this is actually an athlete’s  right – Rule 146.8.) Nonetheless, my request was denied, and I was informed that no further avenue would be made available.

Not long after that, friends, running club colleagues, and old college teammates starting hitting my cell phone. They had seen the RunnerSpace video of the race online and wanted to know exactly where the infraction was that would have caused me to be DQ’d. I had to tell them I didn’t know.

Hours later, at the Portland airport, Rick Miller and I grabbed a bite to eat at a restaurant outside security. I wasn’t very hungry, so I just moped for awhile. After a long while, Miller asked, “When does your flight take off?”

“10:25. Why?”

“It’s 10:05.”

“Oh, no!”

I grabbed my bag, dropped $15 on the counter, thanked Miller, and rushed off. The security line was slow. It took 10 minutes to reach the metal detector. When I got there, my bad day continued – I was chosen for a random search. When the inspection was done, I gathered my stuff, which was strewn about, tossed on my sneakers (untied), and made a break for the gate.

If you thought my finishing kick was fast… I sprinted to the gate and handed my ticket to the lady at the desk.

“Am I too late?”

“Almost… hurry up!” Again, I sprinted, this time, down the jet way. I barreled onto the plane and looked up to see how many first-class passengers I had embarrassed myself in front of… And there he was.

Sitting in his pilot’s uniform was none other than Captain Nick Berra, nearly laughing his butt off. I was on one knee with my laces untied, belt and other possessions cradled in my hands. My humiliation was complete and total, but somehow I mustered a chuckle and shook his hand. It was then that I realized that his dream of cracking 4:00 ended when we collided on the Bowerman Curve, and neither of us really ended up winners in this race.

It was a long flight home… just long enough to remember something: After 40 years, I still believe that that which does not kill me will make me stronger.

After this, I reckon it’ll take Kryptonite to stop me.

Watch…

 

Author: Mark

3 Comments

[…] Neil said, “You’re the guy who ran 4:01 in Oregon a couple weeks ago, […]

[…] 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 […]

Alternative link to the video available here:

http://www.runnerspace.com/video.php?do=view&video_id=50809

Mark Gomes

10/1/2011

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