Mission Control: World Masters Championships Recap

July 15th, 2011 in Articles by 1 Comment

I’m crafting a detailed account of my experience at the 2011 World Masters Athletics Championships for the forthcoming Faster Than Forty book (due out this fall) – it was truly an amazing and inspiring experience – but here’s a quick & dirty recap of the week just to bring everyone up to speed.

You Have to See it to Believe It

After an uneventful flight from Miami into SFO, and an uneventful drive to Sacramento, my girlfriend Jamie and I arrived at Sacramento State ’s Hornet Field – where I would be racing three times in the four days to follow. My nerves  kicked into overdrive when we entered the stadium. Athletes representing every Masters age-class were already there, and you could tell immediately this was a world-level event.

All athletes were required to wear age-class designations on the back of their uniforms. I’m sure there was a competition-related reason for this, but it served a more immediate purpose for viewers: to marvel. For Jamie and me, the marveling commenced immediately, as two ripped 70-something guys jogged by. I don’t mean ripped for 70-years old. I mean ripped for any age! Another athlete approached the pole vault pit in full stride, pole in hand. He only got a few feet of air, but when we saw the “M-90” on the back of his jersey, our jaws nearly hit the pavement. Pole vaulting at 90. Add that to my bucket list.

We found a decent spot in the stands next to a spectator wearing an athlete’s badge. He looked about 40, so I couldn’t help but take a peek at his name: Neil Fitzgerald. He was registered to compete in the 800-meter run – my event. I introduced myself.

“So…” Neil said, “You’re the guy who ran 4:01 in Oregon a couple weeks ago, right?”

“Yeah,” I said and promptly changed the subject.

“How’s your season been?” I asked.

“It’s going well,” he replied. “I ran 1:56 last weekend.”

“1:56?” I thought to myself. That’s a full second faster than my best time this year… which was the fastest in the U.S.

I did my best to shrug off the envy, congratulated him on the effort, and asked about his background.

Like most Masters athletes I’ve met along the way, Neil was clearly a great guy. He had gone to high school in California where he ranked among the best all-time 800-meter  runners with a 1:50. It was hard to contain my envy at that point. As a high-schooler I only mustered a 1:55, despite being very well-coached. Natural talent comes in levels, and Fitzgerald’s was obviously a step or two ahead of mine.

Don’t confuse envy with intimidation, though. I didn’t feel my competitors’ pedigrees affected my training and preparation. Jamie and I wished him good luck and excused ourselves. I made a mental note of Mr. Fitzgerald and got back to the task at hand…

Time is Torture

We had driven through San Francisco, Napa Valley, and Old Sacramento (whose “wild-west boom town” has been fantastically preserved); however, none of it was for us to enjoy. To me, sightseeing would only expend energy, divert focus, and expose me to Sacramento ’s sweltering days (or chilly nights). I felt terrible for Jamie, but she fully understood.

And so the torture began.

For most track meets, I have a fixed regimen that  involves a lot of rest, specific foods/supplements, and specific activities… all carefully timed and coordinated to get me to the starting line prepared for a 100% performance. This routine has served me extremely well. And for most meets, I continue to be myself. Jamie is largely unaffected. We talk, laugh, eat, watch TV, etc. However, this was not “most meets.” This was rarified air and would require rarified preparation and rarified mental concentration.

I don’t know how many eBooks, HBO-Go episodes, and Netflix movies Jamie perused while we were in Sacramento, but sainthood awaits her. Like an FBI agent on a protective custody case, she dutifully sat silently in our hotel room for five days. As for me, I did little more than lie in bed, nap, eat, and do warm-ups. We occasionally engaged in light banter when the mood struck me, but that couldn’t have provided much consolation for her. In my mind, I ran the final straightaway of Sac State ’s track over and over. Each time, I led. Each time, I won. Each time, Jamie sat across from me, virtually alone. I owe her a very nice present and a real vacation…

Showtime… (Times Three)

The World Masters Athletics Championships are organized such that an 800-meter runner has to advance through a quarterfinal race and a semifinal in back-to-back days. The final is run 48 hours after the semifinal. Three nerve-wracking races in four days, with no room for error…

The quarter-finals were on Friday in the mid-morning. There would be four heats, with 12 runners in each. The top three finishers in each heat would automatically advance to the semis. An additional 12 competitors would also advance based on time. My goal was to be one of the lucky 24 while conserving as much energy as possible.

With 20 minutes to go until the quarterfinals, the meet officials gathered us under a tarp with folding chairs, Gatorade jugs, and a couple of Porta-potties. There, they took a roll call, reiterated lane assignments, and issued our race numbers. It was just as it was at the USATF Nationals in Eugene. The only difference was there was no room to do strides. As such, everyone just sat around or did drills to remain warmed-up.

I scanned the seeding sheet, which disclosed everyone’s declared times. After counting out the no-shows, I started counting the entrants from slowest to quickest. I wanted a sense of how fast I’d have to run to make it past the first round. The number I came up with was pretty close to 2:00. At that point, I was officially intimidated. I kept myself calm, but prepared for a dogfight. I also noticed that I’d be battling against Neil Fitzgerald.

As it turned out, we wouldn’t be “battling” in the quarterfinal. In the first three heats, we witnessed several competitors succumb to the rigors of travel, the Sacramento heat, or simply the pressure. In general, the times were awful. By the time our heat was called, I determined that a 2:06 or 2:07 would suffice.

Being cooped up under the tarp made me wonder what it must have been like to be a gladiator waiting to be sent into the coliseum. Soon enough, it was coliseum time. An official herded us onto the track and granted us time to run a stride or two before heading to the starting line. Once we got to the starting line, we were given another few minutes, and finally, they ushered us into our lane assignments. Since there were 12 runners per race and only eight lanes, some runners had to share a lane for the first 100 meters.

When the gun went off, Fitzgerald and I held back. Pascual Morcillo of Spain took the early lead, but he wasn’t exactly scorching up the track. We hit the 100-meter break point and converged on Lane 1. Pascual maintained the lead. Fitzgerald and I settled in behind him. I moved comfortably and efficiently as Morcillo led us through the 400 meters in a pedestrian 63 seconds.

The next lap was uneventful, but down the final straightaway a few guys got spunky. I immediately assessed the threat as minimal in nature, kicked into third gear and cruised in for third place and an automatic trip to the semis (2:07.15). Neil finished just ahead of me in 2:06.76.

The stage was set for round two.

The semi-final heat and lane assignments were released on the Internet while I rested in my hotel room. There would be two heats with 12 competitors in each heat. Half would move on to the finals and half would go home.

According to the rules, the top two finishers in each heat would automatically advance. The final eight spots would be awarded based on time. I determined that I would probably be best served by finishing 3rd or 4th with a time of roughly 2:02. By finishing 3rd or 4th, I would beat eight or nine of the 12 people in my heat. By running 2:02, I would likely have a faster time than four or five guys in the second heat.

Near race time on Saturday, the meet officials once again herded us under the tarp, ushered us onto the track, and paraded us past the gathering of spectators – which had grown larger and rowdier since Friday. In one respect, I was just as nervous; in another respect though, it all seemed a bit easier – having gone through the same routine the day before.

Just before the race, I was made aware of change to the lane assignments. Instead of getting Lane 5 to myself, I would have to share Lane 4 with Neil Fitzgerald. As we awaited the start, I decided that I wasn’t going to waste energy fighting him for the lead. I figured he might be thinking the same, so I came right out and asked him.

“Hey Neil, do you want to take it out or should I?”

“How do you plan to go out?” he asked.

“Sharp,” I replied.

“OK,” he said. “Go ahead.”

Seconds later, the starter called us to our marks and fired the gun. We were off.

I got off the line quickly. I assume Neil was right on my heels, but I couldn’t tell you for sure. I stuck to my word, and he stuck to his. One-hundred meters later, we hit the break-point and everyone headed toward the first lane with an eye on their ideal position.

Jamie Heilpern, an American, made it clear what position he wanted… the lead. He sprinted ahead, while Patrick Robinson, another American followed close behind. After that, there was a nice juicy gap, so I slid right in.

Heilpern took us through the 200 meters in 27 seconds. “Fast,” I thought, “…but fine. I’m down with it.”

As we rounded the turn, Heilpern decided that 54 seconds would be a little fast for the first 400 meters and eased off. We still cruised through in 56.3. I felt a little lactic heaviness in my legs, but my lungs were still fine. Uncharacteristically, the next 200 meters were a blur. I usually spend the third 200 meters of an 800-meter race telling myself to hold it together. That wasn’t the case today. I was moving fast, but it didn’t feel all that fast. We went through 600 meters in just under 1:28 and I knew I was good to go. Even if I kept my pace steady I’d finish around 2:00, well under my 2:02 goal time.

I decided not to take any chances, I shifted into fourth gear as we rounded the turn and started passing Robinson. By the time we hit the straightaway, I had pulled even with Heilpern and was happy with that position. There was no need to turn on the jets.

Fitzgerald had other plans. With about 70 meters to go, he flew by me and Jamie in what looked to be high gear. I didn’t give it a second thought. I remained in fourth gear and cruised in, just behind Heilpern and just ahead of Robinson.

I looked up at the big board that loomed over the track. Fitzgerald’s finishing time was already on display: 1:58.31. Then, Heilpern’s name popped up (1:58.59), immediately followed by mine… 1:58.75.

“Wow,” I thought, “1:58 without breaking a sweat.” Literally. Not a bead of sweat could be found on my body. A layer of mist, yes. But no beads. My confidence shot through the roof. Strutting off the track I made eye contact with Nick Berra.

“You guys weren’t messing around out there,” he said.

I leaned over the fence for a look at the second heat. Mathematically, I could still be eliminated, but 10 of the 12 runners would have to go under my 1:58.75 for that to happen. I knew it wouldn’t. I was more interested in seeing who was who and how hard they’d have to push.

They went through the quarter in 58 seconds. This was going to get interesting. Seven guys had broken 2:00 in my heat. A 58 first 400 meters meant that they would probably have to sprint for the finish. They didn’t disappoint. Three guys finished within three one-hundredths of each other — Nick Berra, Brian Sax (another American), and Rich Tremain from Canada , respectively. Nick’s time of 1:58.81 led the group, which meant that I had run the third-fastest time of the semis. It also meant that I would get the third lane all to myself in the finals. Most importantly, as I scanned the competitors’ faces, I saw several sweaty brows.

The Finals

The semis were a great confidence booster. Having run an effortless 1:58.75, I figured that a 1:56.25 was possible. I conversed with my old teammate Erik Nedeau, Coach Dave Barbato, and Miami runner Moses Washington for advice. Ned and Moses had the most experience in big meets. Dave knew me best. After the three calls, I knew what I would do.

I figured that the finals would feature a number of tired bodies. I didn’t feel I’d be one of them, so I wanted the pace to be fast. I didn’t like the idea of leading most of the race, but I would if I had to. That being said, I figured that someone would take it out.

I hoped for a 56-second 400 meters, so I could take the lead sometime during the next 200 meters. That way, I would own Lane 1 during the final turn and hopefully the final straightway. This would give me the best chance to win… For the first time, I felt that I actually had a chance to win a world championship!

During the next two days, my stress level was high. My newfound confidence may have been the only thing that allowed me to hold it together. My preparation for the finals was the same as my preparation for the semifinals. Jamie and I slept at the same time, for the same number of hours, and ate the same foods at the same places.

Despite this, at race time, I felt different. My warm-up quarters were faster. Scratch that. My warm-up quarters were fast. One was a very comfortable 63 seconds, which made a 56-second opener in the race seem very reasonable. On the down side, I was very uncoordinated during my drills. I chalked it up to nerves.

One last time, the officials ushered us onto the track, paraded us past the gathering of spectators, and set us in our lanes. I felt a little out of sorts, but couldn’t quite put my finger on how or why. All I knew is that I had run a strong warm-up and was ready to execute my game plan. I took a spiritually-inspired knee on the track and readied myself on the line.

The gun went off and I rounded the turn quickly and comfortably. I wanted to be among the first to reach the breakpoint so I could pick my spot among the leaders. As I suspected, a few contestants started fast. I think Jamie Heilpern was among them, but this time I wasn’t really paying attention to who was who. I was laser-focused on running a perfect race.

We reached 200 meters in 27 seconds and I was satisfied with my position — hanging in fourth off of Nick Berra’s right shoulder on the inside line of Lane 2. The pace was fast. That was all I cared about. But as we rounded the turn, the leaders proved less enthusiastic about the 27-second start. Things slowed noticeably and I was faced with my first dilemma. Making matters worse, a decent gust had developed on the straightaway. If I took the lead, I would also have to take the wind. But if I stayed there, the first 400 meters would surely be slower than I wanted.

I decided to save my strength and held my position. We went through the 400-meter mark in 57.3 seconds, a notable slowdown. By the time we rounded the corner, Berra had taken the lead and I knew exactly what I was going to do.

We hit the back straightaway and I took a step to the outside. The wind was now at our backs and it was time for me to take a shot. As we headed down the straight, I was careful to exert just enough energy to pull ahead and grab Lane 1 before the final turn.

For the first time in the entire 2011 World Masters Athletics Championships, I had the lead. There was no time to enjoy it though. Only 200 meters remained.

I composed myself and focused on executing a flawless final kick. Having learned my lesson in Eugene, I clung tight to the rail, so nobody would attempt an inside pass. Then, with 150 meters to go, I turned on the afterburners. Fifth gear.

With 70 meters to go, a lactic acid tsunami crashed upon me. My legs slowed and my face tensed. I had been there before though.

“You can win this. Just. Keep. Moving.”

And moving I was.

But out of the corner of my right eye, I saw a tall figure come into view. Then another… and another.

It was Neil Fitzgerald, and he had two guys hot on his heels — Rich Tremain and Brian Sax.

I reached deep to hold my lead, but it was no use. These guys were going by and there was nothing I could do to stop them. My long shot at a World Championship was gone. I quickly came to grips with the moment and focused on finishing as strong as I could.

I crossed the line fourth and clapped my hands in futility. I looked toward Jamie and my mom in the stands and shrugged my shoulders like, “I did all I could.”

And I had. I looked up at the big board and saw that I had run 1:56.20, the fastest time I had run since my young-stud days at Northeastern University. I was going home without a medal, but plenty to be proud of.

I congratulated Fitzgerald on his victory. Someone had to come out on top, and this time it was him.

My times continue to drop, and my plan to peak on July 30 remains on track; 888 days ago I was just another 38-year old guy – more than a little overweight, enjoying a cocktail or a smoke now and again. Today, I am #4 on the planet among Masters 800-meter runners.

In 18 days, I’ll take my shot at the goal I’ve been eyeing from the beginning — the USATF Outdoor U.S. National Title.

Don’t touch that dial…


Author: Mark

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