In college I spent much of my time injured. As such my development was slowed, both in terms of my fitness and in my learning about running and racing. So it was that on the Umass Lowell spring break track trip my Junior year to San Diego I was set to run only my 3rd track 5000m.
This trip was a great time and as any New Englander will tell you the chance to get away to warm sunny weather in the late winter feels like a new birth just when you are ready to give up. It was a wonderful week but as I approached the 5000m I was racing that weekend I was even more focused and concerned than usual.
I had been healthy for my longest stretch in a few years and I was feeling fit. I had super high goals for the spring season we were about to start. These out of touch goals had run into a road bump as George Davis, the long time Umass Lowell coach, had laid down the law. I was going to run this 5000m smart and by his rules. If not I was going to get kicked off the team. Now George kicked guys off the team pretty regularly and he would usually let you back the next season but as a guy who was rarely healthy I couldn't afford to lose a season just now that I was getting healthy.
Now before you get thinking good old George was out of line you need to understand I am not the most coachable guy and back in my youth I lacked the self control to keep my objections to myself and think about something for a bit. I was a know it all and ready to tell everyone. George also felt, pretty much correctly, that my stubbornness was the reason for my injuries. I think he saw this race as a chance to take control of my training and get me to start listening to him.
Whatever the reasons the rules had been set. I had a 15:40 track 5k best and I was going to try and break that but I wasn't going to go out and try to run the 14:35 I wanted to go after. It was made very clear the first two miles would be no faster than 5:00. When I pushed for some flexibility the response was "if you got through the mile in 4:59 you best enjoy the rest of your race because it will be your last one in college."
Now I have one heck of a good sense of pace but I played it safe and hit the mile in 5:02. I was pissed. Conditions were perfect and two guys had blasted out in 4:40, the pace I wanted to be running! Here I was stuck jogging 5min pace. Every race I had ever run to that point was a test of will from the gun. In my real first 5k I had hit 800 in 2:17 and the mile in 4:38 en route to a 15:40 you can imagine how bad some of those final laps were!
I still felt strong and easy, I was breathing heavier sure but this was no acid bath of pain, as I hit 2 miles in 10:02. I took off like I was shot from a gun desperate to get as much 'lost time back as I possibly could. Soon the familiar acid was coursing through my veins but there was something new… A strength, a feeling of power and speed. Instead of fighting to stay on my feet I was driving to the finish. It was exhilarating.
Still I was not running nearly as fast as I thought I would. I ran a bit under 4:50 for the third mile and set a large PB of 15:22 but I had not run close to the 4:40 pace I had thought I could hold the whole way even off the much slower 5:00 per mile start.
Instantly, even before my vision had come back following those last acid soaked laps, I knew what George had been saying was true. When you go out too fast in a race and you fail all you really learn is that you aren't ready to go that fast. You don't know what speed you could go. However if you go out a bit too slowly you can look at your speed in the late stages of the race and see very clearly about what you could run in a perfectly paced race. You also tend to finish much closer to your best possible time then if you crash and burn.
I also had learned a lesson that was for my future development much more important. George was smarter than me. I should listen to him. Was he infallible? No of course not but was he a great coach who could teach me if only I let him? Absolutely. It was time to stop being a thick skulled ass and to open my mind.
This later lesson would be invaluable over my running career. Not just in how it pertained to George. But how it pertained to running in general. I learned to look to all those who had ideas. To TRY new things and see if they have merit. There is no need to do everything you are told but you should give everything some play. You should never discount an idea out of hand particularly if it comes from a source that has had some success.
This was not the first thing I learnt from George. It wouldn't be the last thing but this lesson may have been the most important that I received from him.