In what was a somewhat spur-of-the-moment quest, I again donned the Eliot TC singlet with a couple of mates to take a stab at the Masters indoor 4 x 800-meter relay world record — a record held by the Greater Philadelphia Track Club (set by a team that was anchored by my greatly esteemed nemesis, Nick Berra).
The record, 8:07.48, may sound easy — until you realize how hard it is to find four 40+ guys, in relative geographic proximity, who can still muster up something close to 2:00 half-mile legs. Then of course they all have to be healthy on the same day. Trust me, it’s harder than it seems. The Eliot team and I tried this before, last year to be precise, and failed on two occasions.
The meet was the Roxbury Community College All-Comers — essentially a Northeastern University tune-up meet, and indeed NU fielded a squad to pace us through the 4 x 800 because there were no other entries. Competing against my alma mater’s current squad (although to be fair, this was not NU’s ‘A’ squad) provided some incentive to run hard; add to that fact my old NU teammates Jayme Fishman and the legendary Erik Nedeau joined Eliot TC’s Chris Simpson to round out our team, and I was pretty excited to race.
We had two distinct challenges coming into the meet:
1) My training has been minimal (to say the least) since contracting sciatica at the 2011 Outdoor Masters National Track & Field Championship, over 5 months ago. I ran 2:05.9 for 800 meters on Christmas Eve off almost no training at all since Nationals, but I’d need to be much quicker than that to give the team a shot. I embarked on a hasty tune-up program for this race starting the week after Christmas — and everything I researched for the Faster Than Forty book said that a 2:03 would be doable, but it was no guarantee. (And a 2:03 would still put a lot of pressure on my teammates.)
2) We learned just the day before the race that Erik Nedeau would be running on a stress fracture in his foot. The instant his relay leg ended, his 2012 indoor season would be over.
At the meet, everything went as smoothly as we could hope. It was a bit behind schedule, but nothing crazy. We were the last event on the docket. After a version of my Faster Than Forty warmup (more about that in the book), I joined my teammates on the infield just before the race went off.
Sticking to the plan, Chris Simpson led off against NU’s first leg — a 1:56 800-meter guy. The NU team established a quick pace, but Simpson ran to his own beat and rattled off series of 29-31 second 200-meter splits. It was a solid leg. As expected, NU held a comfortable lead as Jayme Fishman took the baton. The Huskies’ second runner was no slower than Fish, so he was stuck running all four laps alone before yielding the baton to me.
I couldn’t sense the pace, but the rush of air around me gave a hint. As I crossed 200 meters, I’m sure someone yelled out a split, but I was deaf to it. All I heard was something like driving through a tunnel alone at night. Radio off. No cops in sight. I have run the 800 meters countless times before. I could do it on feel alone, aided by the slow-rising burn of lactic acid and swelling gasps for air. Through the 400-meter mark, the crowd noise gave no quarter. I heard no split. At the end of the third lap, I looked up and saw I had gained good ground on my young opponent from the NU team. I caught him on the back straightaway of the final lap and gave the stick to Erik Nedeau with our first lead of the night. Brian Moore read my split: “two flat.”
The decades had taken no toll on Ned’s gait. He appeared as powerful as when he won a bronze at the 1995 World Championships. But I could see the anguish in his face. The pain of the fracture was inescapable. He pushed valiantly to the finish line, comfortably fending off NU’s anchor leg. But as he crossed, the clock read 8:08. We were a little over one second short. (Video here.)
Chances at world records are few and far between, so obviously we were disappointed (although outrunning a bunch of young punks was still somewhat satisfying). But a few important findings came from the effort.
I’ve been honing some unusual training techniques — adaptations of the culmination of what I researched over the 3 years leading to my Masters Outdoor National Championship in July.
During the previous 5+ months, I hadn’t done much running. In fact, in the first month after Nationals, all I did was gain weight – 20lbs to be precise. Part of this was spurred by an extended celebration, along with the end of my 906-day training streak. But the weight gain was also part of an experiment, meant to test some of my Faster Than Forty weight-loss theories. That experiment was an unequivocal success. I dropped the 20lbs in less than two months, doing nothing more than making some simple (but-oft-overlooked) dietary shifts and taking a daily walk.
The daily walks are a far cry from the training regimen that led to my success during the 2011 Spring season. In fact, I only hit the roads for a total of 15 miles since July. Included in that tally were two all-out 5K tempo runs where I averaged 6:30 and 6:25 per mile, respectively. Last summer, my pace was 45-seconds faster at much higher temperatures. Needless to say, my fitness level had tailed off substantially.
I saw this as a great opportunity to put some FTF training theories to the test. So, with minimal training, I raced the aforementioned 2:05.9 for 800 meters on Christmas eve.
Since then, I ramped up my unusual training techniques. I designed the regimen to include no intervals over 200 meters and no distance running (not even a quarter mile)! On the flight home, I reflected on my performance. Through a bit of science, physiology, and psychology, I had programmed my body to run 800 meters five seconds faster than it could just 10 days previously.
Two minutes for half a mile. It’s the old man’s equivalent of the four-minute mile. At my age, there are only a handful of people in the world that could equal that time. During my first comeback, it took nearly two years of uninterrupted training to perform that feat on an indoor track. In stark contrast, the months leading up to this world-record attempt were characterized by weight gain/loss experiments and a defiant shunning of traditional training. And yet, I equaled a two-year task with just 10 days of carefully calculated exercises, dietary intake, and supplementation (along with a few other critical rituals).
I no longer wonder how world-class runners get there. Legendary coaches like Arthur Lydiard and Peter Bompa paved the way. Talented athletes simply walk the path, guided by coaches who carry the map. It’s not about running your heart out every day. To an extent — as I learned — it’s not even about running at all. We will be fully documenting and sharing the details of my training program through this Web site and through the Faster Than Forty book in the coming weeks and months. I hope what I’ve learned will help other runners to get the most from their efforts.
Mark Gomes is the co-founder of this Web site, co-author of the forthcoming book Faster Than Forty, and the 2011 USATF Masters Outdoor 800-meters National Champion. E-mail him here.