Last year when coach / friend Michelle told me she was hoping to break the Canadian Master's W40 indoor track record for 5000M, I told her I'd come cheer her on. (Recap here). I walked through the doors at the Toronto Track & Field Center that day and felt like visiting another country where things looked similar, but everyone is speaking a different language. I'd learned a whole lot about road running since the summer of 2013, but as I stood on the sidelines trying to not get in the way (tip: the cushioned wall at the end of the 100 meter dash is not a good spot to linger if you don't want to get bowled over), I realized this was no road race environment. The bibs and running where the similarities ended. While road races have hundreds or thousands of participants, on the track you can count on one or two hands the number of people you are running with. Even though I heard it multiple times that day, the sound of the starter's pistol startled me every single time. Some races were being run in lanes. Some started in a line and made their way to the center. And there were so many races happening all afternoon!
I wound up going back to cheer for Michelle a couple times over the season, slowly absorbing the subtle differences. One thing that really stood out at each of those races was the camaraderie. During every race people were clapping, cheering, and congratulating friends, strangers and competitors. People were running to better their own time, not necessarily to beat a competitor. Not to mention the most amazingly inspiring part: the list of competitors went from eight-year-old kids right up to runners in their eighties.
How could I not feel inspired? Over that year, I had it at the back of my mind to join. It was the email from the OMA talking about the early bird annual membership that said, 'just do it' at the end that got me. I did it and texted Michelle to let her know she'd inspired me and I was going to be joining her this year!
EEK! As the days got closer, I started to get both excited and a little nervous. Although I'd done workouts at the local track, I'd never done a race. I know I'm not fast. I know I'm far from a model of perfect running form. A track meet was going to risk being in the spotlight more than being just another participant hiding among the crowd at a road race! Questions started filling my head and I had visions of doing messing up big-time, doing something like blocking a runner from beating a world record as I made some stupid newbie move!
Michelle very kindly picked me up on race day. I was glad, as it was one less thing to think about. My duffel bag was packed with everything I could think of to bring. She had suggested I try the 1500 and 600 meter races to get my feet wet. Given they were in the middle of the distances, I thought that this sounded like a good plan versus races at the other ends of the spectrum like 100 or 5000 meters.
We arrived at the track and picked up our bibs. My first track bib! After plunking down our gear, we did a warm up. I have to admit that prior to training with Michelle, I thought that a warm up would use up all my energy to race later, which I now know is not the case. We did about 3K on the outside of the track as many of the 'field' events (shotput, long jump, high jump, etc) and short sprint races were underway. With so many events in a day, it is almost inevitable that schedules get delayed, so our 1500 start was to be about 25 minutes late. We did more easy loops around the track and Michelle showed me how to do striders to get my legs ready to go fast.
Soon they announced that the 1500 meter participants were to check in. Check in? Everyone who was registered for the 1500 meter race gathered around one of the staff members with a clipboard. It was somewhat like elementary school attendance with her calling out the names and letting each person know what heat they were in, which was based on seeding. Track lingo lesson learned: When I registered for the races I needed to give an estimate on my race finish time, similar to how we list for road races to determine which corral we will run in. If there are too many registrants for one race they use your seed time to determines who you will run with to keep the competition closer. Each running of the race is called a heat. I was to run in the first heat, which spanned ages eight to eighty!
We lined up on the track for waterfall start. Another term! This meant that instead of staying in the lane you start in all the way around the track, we were to make our way as soon as safely possible to the inner lane once the race started.
1500 meters is 7.5 times around this track. Michelle told me what times I should see on the clock at the finish each time I passed. She said I'd also see a 'laps remaining' sign, but to beware that this was based on the leader, so if you get lapped, don't get too excited that you are almost done as you may still have more laps to go!
We were spacing ourselves out along the start line and someone commented that the eight-year-old boy needed to have some space so no one crashed into him. He was beside me and looked up and said, "It's okay, I'm small." This was a great way to ease my stress with a laugh.
Before I had a chance to think, they were saying "On your mark..." and the starters pistol went off (it didn't scare me this time!) Everyone flew from the line. I darted forward with them and near the curve found a spot towards the inner lane. I turned the corner and eyed the clock ahead. Oops. I was WAY too fast. The first two and a half laps were okay. I heard Michelle cheering me on at each pass. On the third lap I wondered if I was at three or four. Someone near the finish yelled "Four more to go Cathy," which I was grateful for...yet really wished it was only three as I was starting to lose steam. Michelle was calling to pick it up. Of all things my arms were hurting. My throat was dry. I kept going. Two laps to go. Then finally the last lap. I heard Michelle calling to me around the outside of the track but could only focus on the finish line, I honestly don't even remember anything else around me. I crossed and flopped against the high jump mattress working to catch my breath. I'd done it! It wasn't pretty. It was tremendously hard. But I'd stuck to it and got it done!
After the other heat of the 1500 which Michelle ran spectacularly, we did a cool down and I had the chance to review my race with Michelle. She was happy with the result of my first race, and offered me suggestions on how I could improve including getting into the inner lane quicker and that we would need to work on getting my knees up. The obvious suggestion was not going out too fast. I stored these suggestions away in my brain and prepared for the next race.
A banana (I was suddenly really hungry), more water and a warm up were on tap. The bunch of us were all hacking like crazy--a combination of post-flu lingering coughs and 'track hack' which I'd also experienced after the 5th Avenue Mile in New York. Michelle's mom was in charge of dispensing Ricola lozenges dug up from the depths of Michelle's packed bag. I grabbed one as I headed to check in for the 600 meter.
Again, Michelle gave me the times I should be seeing on each lap. This time when the gun went off I was in the inner lane almost immediately. I circled the track and when I crossed the first lap the clock was 13 seconds ahead of what I was supposed to be. Oops again. I heard Michelle yell, "Just go with it!" Okay. I had already done one, just two more, I could do that. I came around the corner again, and just like that it was one lap to go! I pushed and as I came around the last turn, I could hear Michelle yelling, "Catch her! Catch her!" and I focused in on the woman ahead and sped up, sprinting for the finish and hearing my friends cheering. Wow. A totally different race. I was elated, and this was 14 seconds less than we'd predicted!
I am greatly looking forward to participating in the next two mini meets and the Ontario and Canadian Indoor Championships. It's my hope that I will see an improvement on the track by the end of the season. I already know that the physical and mental skills I pick up over these next couple months will benefit my road racing.
I challenge all of my running friends to come out and try a race. You won't regret it! I know I'm definitely counting down the days till my next track meet! But first? A nap!