In the winter of 2008 - 2009 I was in some of the best shape of my life. In the fall I had not raced much as I was prepping for the New York City Marathon. I did do some of the best workouts of my life but I was constantly fighting my coordination problem in longer efforts that meant some days I did amazing full marathon workouts and others I was done after only a few miles of running. In retrospect my overall the trajectory had been bad and it finished that way. Despite feeling great in the lead pack through 10k at New York I lost control my right leg at that point and hobbled along to a 2:26 finish. Knowing I had been running 10seconds per mile faster on my marathon workouts compared to my Olympic Trials finish the year before on the same courses this was a crushing disappointment. I decided to run some indoor races and do shorter workouts that didn't bother the coordination in hopes that it would fix itself if I left it alone, while obviously pursuing other treatments.
My stated goal for the winter was to qualify for the USATF National Indoor Championships being held in Boston. I needed to run either under 8:03 for 3000m or under 14:07 for 5000m to qualify for the 3000. I was relatively certain it would have to be the 5000. I had only an 8:20 3k best and my mile best of 4:17 was just about 8:03 pace. In December however I surprised myself with an 8:11 3k leading pretty much from the gun. This after only a few quicker workouts and a mile race or two left me feeling that there was some real room to improve over the 3k.
I entered the 3000m at the Dartmouth relays and got an old college teammate, Kevin Alliette, to pace set the race. Kevin wasn't in his best shape but he has some of the best pace sense of anyone I have ever met and he figured he could lead the first K without too much trouble. I like to joke Kevin has a Bulova in his head so I was certain the pacing would be perfect. Ruben Sanca, one of the up and coming kids at Umass Lowell where I was an assistant coach at the time had run the race of his life hanging on to me in the mini meet 3k I mentioned and had run 8:12 and he was going to take another crack as well so I had every expectation that someone would at least be hanging on me into the very late stages of the race.
In the week prior to the race I went up to Maine for a few days of ice fishing and hill workouts with another Umass Lowell runner, Joey Dewitt. Joey a 4:10 miler who still managed not to be the fastest miler in his family is a great guy and like me a story teller. Joey like me has his favorite subjects. For him one of those is the legends of Maine distance running. To hear Joey tell it Maine is the forgotten Kenya and that if not for a few twists of fate the world would have 3 running super powers, Kenya with its great depth out front and than closely behind the equally strong up front but not quite as deep Ethiopia and Maine.
In these days before going up to the dartmouth relays I surprised Joey by being able to go toe to toe with him during some fast hill repeats. Joey new darn well I didn't possess very much speed and understood the amount of strength it took for me to match him on something short and fast like that given his much better speed and the fact that he wasn't exactly a slouch in the endurance department himself, he had run under 25 minutes for a cross country 8k.
After this workout Joey was a bit more receptive to my general story line, those who know me well will tell you I rarely shut up and my favorite topic tends to be my running, which was I was in great shape and that I was going to go up to the Dartmouth Relays win and get my qualifier for USATF out of the way nice and early. There was however according to Joey still two problems. The first was Joey's belief that the flat Dartmouth college track was the slowest track around. He felt that in a 3k it was at least 10 to 15 seconds slower than running on a track like BU or Reggie Lewis. I'm not sure exactly why Joey felt this way. I know he had never run that well at Dartmouth. I think it was a combo of him being much better late season racer, he had only run Dartmouth early in the season, and he was a very unique runner. His stride made him the greatest treadmill runner I have ever met. To him the treadmill was a video game where he seemed able to do just about anything he wanted that the machine would do. I think this same stride struggled on the flat almost circle dartmouth track.
Far more importantly Joey said there was a second much bigger problem. I could not possibly win the race because of an almost mythical runner I would be going up against. Ben True. Now to be honest I had heard of Ben. I knew he had been a cross country All American that fall for Dartmouth, I knew he was from Maine, I knew this was his first indoor track season as he had been competing in, and All American in cross country skiing during prior winters. To hear Joey tell it Ben was a sort of north woods Kenenisa Bekele and now that he was running year round it was only a matter of short time before he became the finest runner in all the land. Joey would admit I was strong but he said we were not racing a marathon we were racing a 3k and at that distance True would eat me alive. Joey did feel that having True there might help make the race faster and that I could possibly get under 8:20 which he said would be like running around 8:00 at BU.
I must be honest. I found this all a little fun. Ben was a good enough runner that I had heard of him but he was hardly an NCAA champion or title contender. I had over the last couple of years collected much bigger scalps and I was running well. You must remember this was not Ben True of today. He probably had a faster mile and 1500m best than I did but I would have had faster PB's at every other distance. He had not run 13:02, he was not a regular on the diamond league circuit, he had not finish 6th at World Cross Country the most competitive race in the world, he had not won major american road races. All that would come later.
From my point of view it would be nice to have Ben in the race to add a bit of depth and if I was lucky he might foolishly take the lead around the mile or 2k and help do the pace work that would get me a fast time. Was I cocky? Yes. Was I dismissing Ben out of hand as being below my current level? Yes. I have a big ego and it has enabled me to run some great races and beat some folks I had no business beating. But as we all know 'Pride cometh before the Fall'.
The Dartmouth Relays are one of my favorite events. It is the best possible combination of big and small meets with an unbelievably great history that takes place in the perfect winter wonderland of Hanover, Nh. This year was no different. We spent Saturday at the high school meet recruiting. I did my runs in the gorgeous hills and dirt roads outside town and we stayed at the historic Hanover Inn. I enjoyed watching UML compete over the early part of Sunday and entered the 3000m with great confidence.
My goal time was 8:00, 32seconds per 200m lap. Kevin asked if I wanted him to run 32 flats or 31.9's for the first kilometer he was pacing. Like I said he has a Bulova in his head. I was confident. I said 31.9's so I could be just behind running 32 flats.
Gun goes off and all goes to plan. Kevin is perfect and I tuck in behind and feel pretty good at the very fast pace, don't forget my mile best has only been dropped to 4:15 at this point which is like 31.7's. Ruben and True are there and it all seems perfect. Kevin is smooth and clicks the 5 laps of the first K off like the perfect swiss timing piece that resides in his brain. I hit the K in 2:39.9 perfect pace. As we went by the 1600m 3 laps later I was starting to feel the weight of the effort a little bit and we paced in 4:17 high, a bit of a slow down but an expected one. To my delight Ben True did exactly what I had hoped and he jumped into the lead. I couldn't believe my luck! I would now follow him as he held our pace in this touch middle laps and I would rebuild my mental and emotional stores for a roaring last k or 800m. As we pushed through 2k I was now working very hard but still in my head this was perfect. I needed to run a 2:38 or 2:39 for the last K to get my USATF qualifier and Ben had taken the burden of the lead off of me so I was prepared mentally to make a drive for the line and on top of that I would have this foolish college kid to use as a gauge my speed so that when I moved I didn't just work harder I actually would get instant feedback on whether I was moving faster or not. 400m later my feelings were 100% different. 600m to go and I needed to get by this kid, NOW! My pride not withstanding a man has got to know his limitations and I am not going to kick anyone down in the last 200m of a 3k! Instead of roaring on my long drive I'm in a world of hurt and Ben seems to be getting away from me. I tried everything in my book over the last 3 laps. I was 100% out and playing with every trick I knew to try and fool my body into going a bit faster to catch the green singlet in front of me. Instead it eased away. In the end I came closer to getting caught by Ruben, oh the shame that would have befallen me if I had lost to a UML athlete!, than I did to catching Ben. I finished in 8:08.98, Ben won in 8:05.55 and Ruben nearly nipped me at the line in 8:09.05. A great race for all three of us on a flat track that is undoubtably a little slower than the banked raceways of Boston, though I don't know about Joey's 15 second conversion!
Writing this now it is very funny for me. My pride! How could I have been so dismissive of these guys! You need to remember we live in the present and we define people by their past not their future. Ben True was just another decent All American who needed to be respected but certainly not feared! He was not a 13 flat 5k running savage. Ruben was just a hardworking nice kid who ran for UML. Not the world championship marathoner and Olympian he would become. On this day we were all pretty close. I was in my prime the others on there way up and at that distance at that time we were all fairly well matched.
I have run better races, but not too many, but I have rarely enjoyed one as much or looked back as fondly on one as I do that one. For me the race, the weekend and indeed the days ice fishing and running with Joey before the race all sort of melt into one winter wonderland memory. The sort of perfect little window that I will tell my kids and grandkids life was always like 'back in the day' even though that isn't really true.