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It meant over eleven hours of travel, but I didn’t really care. The line-up of professional athletes at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix made it worth the trip. Plus, I’d get to spend a good amount of that time with my Green Mountain Relay teammate Mike, the Connecticut half of the twin set that is completed by my friend Matt, podcaster of the Dump Runners Club. Mike picked me up at the New Haven train station and drove us to Boston, and we watched the track meet together. I’ve never run track myself–didn’t start running until my mid-20’s–so I love going to meets with people who have competed on the track themselves, as their commentary help me learn more about the sport. Plus, Mike’s pretty hilarious (don’t tell him I said that).

Here are the superstars I got to see on the track yesterday: Jenn Suhr, Maggie Vessey, LaTavia (!) Thomas, Matt Centrowitz (in his pro debut), Andrew Badderly, Silas Kiplagat, Galen Rupp, Mo Farah, Jenny Simpson, Sara Hall, Shannon Rowbury, Meseret Defar, Kirani James, David Oliver, Tirunesh Dibaba, Lauryn Williams, Morgan Uceny, and Delilah DiCrescenzo (perhaps just as famous for the song written about her by The Plain White T’s as for her running).

Mike and I had seats just inside the finish line, and the Reggie Lewis Center is a small arena–it’s a 200 meter track, and the bleachers are maybe 10 or 15 rows deep. We felt like we were right next to the action. The first event was the Men’s Masters Mile–the winner, Charlie Kern, was totally cute (hey, I only blog about the most essential details of the race here). Apparently, he’s a big deal at the distance for his age group.

The amateur races are adorable–the youth relay, the junior miles, and the high school 4 x 400 and 4 x 800 relays. Mike gave the race analysis and I provided the color by critiquing the kids’ hairstyles.

It seems like every track meet I attend, there’s Jenn Suhr trying to break the American Record and the World Record. I don’t understand how she gets so many tries over the bar, and honestly if I was a pole vaulter I’d be so discouraged by her dominance I don’t know if I’d bother to show up. But last night she broke the American Record again (which she set in 2011). So that was cool to be present for.

I was enjoying myself so much that I had great pangs of remorse I have to miss the Track and Field Olympic Trials in Eugene, OR this year.

The Women’s 800 meter race was exciting not only because of Maggie Vessey in bumhuggers and a racing bra (who Mike thinks is so hot. What’s the consensus here?) but because first and second place both finished with the same time of 2:02.37. Apparently The Maggster had a more aggressive lean at the tape and got the win over Erica Moore (so, less was Moore this time?). Mike was also all jazzed about David Oliver, who ran for his alma mater. When Oliver came to sign programs for the kids, Mike couldn’t help himself, he told me five times what a great guy Oliver was–perhaps the sole criteria being that he’s a Coloradan.

The Women’s 2 Mile race seemed to be more of an exhibition race, a chance for Tirunesh Dibaba to run a low-profile race as she kicked off her season. She won by 30 seconds and lapped most of the other racers by the time she crossed the finish line. Both she and Meseret Defar were like hummingbirds on that track, so slight and sprightly.

So, the men’s 3000 meter race was not at all what I expected. Or rather, Centro’s race was not what I expected. Perhaps I was looking for too much based on the hype of his 2011 performances. But watching him race, I just did not see the zip and ambition in his effort that I’d been hoping to see. It looked like he was just out there looking to hang in there with the pack but at no point did it seem like he was trying to make a move to move up, or flash out towards the finish. He came in seventh (granted he set a PR and beat Badderly, so no doubt I’m being harsh on the kid). The win-place-show was an exciting duel, though. Silas Kiplagat, hot off his win at the Madison Square Garden Open the weekend before, was the favorite but he was bested in battle between Caleb Njiku and Dejen Gebremeskel. 1-2-3 went to Kenya-Ethiopia-Kenya.

The appeal of sprint events is lost on me, but the little girl in me loved the 60 meter race’s post-finish. The women cross the finish line with so much speed that they cannot slow down before they reach the end of the arena, so they run headlong into gigantic mats placed along the far wall. Pow Smash Pow! Now that looks like fun to me–just turn your head so you don’t break your nose.

Talking about hairstyles–not one woman ran in pigtails, though a few kept their tresses unfastened and flowing. Anna Pierce had her hair all entirely hot pink for the Women’s 1000 meter (yeah yeah Mike I know she’s a steeplechaser. Yeah I know you were, too…). Morgan Uceny came in second after having a provisory lead during the middle laps.

In the first lap of the Men’s Mile, Mo Farrah (Mo fucking Farrah!) took a startling tumble, and even though he popped right back up, it took him a few laps to get back in the mix and after tracking in the top 3 for a lap or two was ultimately outkicked by Ciaran O’Lionaird, Taylor Milne and Galen Rupp for 1-2-3. I’d voted (through the text messaging game New Balance sponsored) for Rupp to win. Hey, I’m a sucker for a wonderboy (e.g., Ryan Hall, Alan Webb). In this video on Flotrack, Mo talks about the fall. Mike was so psyched Ciaran won the race, because he’d texted him to win–and Mike ended up winning a pair of New Balance sneakers for choosing the winning racer.

By now you will have all read about Jenny Simpson’s stunning flame-out in the Women’s 3000 meter race. After holding second place and trying to take down Meseret Defar for most of the race, she completely burned out and finished dead last. Sitting in the bleachers, Mike and I could see her strain starting to build in later laps–her face even looked kind of pale and pasty–and to say she faded over the final 4 laps would be an understatement. To her credit, Jenny completely owned up to her performance (how could she not?) in the press conference afterwards, saying, “that’s what it looks like when someone dies in a race.” I was a total fangirl to see Meseret zoom by, basically agog each time she pranced past. I cheered enthusiastically for Hall and Rowbury, too–it seemed like all the Americans (except for Simpson) were happy to hang back at least a half a lap behind Defar, and then ultimately be lapped by her. Hall came in fourth and Rowbury in fifth; again the thrill in this race for me (well, the battle for second place was interesting) was seeing such talent in action just 15 feet from me.

On the drive back to New Haven, Mike got lost (instead of heading towards Rhode Island we ended up by Salem, MA) so I didn’t get home until 2:30 AM! Admittedly, he drove much better than I remembered from the relay in 2010, and I was grateful for his company. Despite the crazy travel involved in getting to the track meet, I am so glad I went. I saw some of our nation’s and world’s best runners do their thing, live and in the flesh, right in front of my eyes. Track meets of this calibre are hard to find around the country, so we’re really lucky in the New York area that we get a few each year. The SuperBowl is tonight, but as far as I’m concerned the Grand Prix was much better entertainment.

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As I sulked my way to the subway, I thought, this feels eerily familiar. Then an uptick: that means it will end well.

With no speed training and nary a week over 20 miles this month, I decided I’d be happy to end up a few seconds south of seven minutes in today’s Fifth Avenue Mile. I was okay with that, because I’d also get to see friends today, run 6 with ET, gawk at the elites, and be outside on a gorgeous day.

My race is nothing to brag about. I ran the first quarter mile stupid fast, in 1:25 (or 5:50 pace). Then I hit the hill, and had my slowest split at 1:45. I barely managed to pick it up for the last two quarters. My legs and even my arms were heavy and burning, I could not believe how quickly my body rebelled. 1:42 and 1:41, yes, that seems about right. Once again I was struck with how the shortest distance on paper feels like the longest to my mind. My watch and the mats clocked me at 6:37, just one second slower than my PR of two years ago. Crappity crap–what if I had actually trained? (Thanks to all my Twitter buddies who quickly looked up my PR on my blog for me, since my publishing person’s brain finds numbers too slippery to hold onto.)

Afterwards though I could not stop coughing from the effort. There was a clutch of us sitting at the base of the golden statue, there, at the southeast corner of Central Park, all coughing as if we were some sort of avant-garde musical quartet. One of us quipped, “This must be the smoker’s lounge.”

Once I’d caught my breath, ET and I slowly trotted off to do a loop of the park. It was a seriously perfect day for running, and I was grateful for her company. ET is a Galloway runner, so in a decadent twist of my normal workout, we walked up Cat Hill, Harlem Hill, and that really annoying little hill on the west side.* All in all it took us over an hour to run 6.24 miles, but who’s counting. We were just icing the cake, we’d done the work earlier when we deliberately forced all our bodily functions to go into the red zone for six to nine minutes.

Then we got a quick snack, and watched the elite races with a few other friends. Wow, Erin Donohue really worked hard for that third place finish. She is audacious. And the men’s race, I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be Lagat’s day but I do admire his cheer on the podium. Were Manzano, Webb and Willis even in the field, because I didn’t notice if they zoomed by or not from my vantage point on the sidelines. It’s interesting listening to the little speeches the top athletes give, because they are all so gracious. Truly, runners have to be among the most articulate, friendly and humble athletes out there. But, we couldn’t help but joke about what they would really say if they could be babies about it…

Shannon Rowbury
What she said: The competition in this field makes her a better athlete.
What she wanted to say: Look at my abs! I have fabulous abs!

Sarah Hall
What she said: it was inspiring to run by members of the Steps Foundation and hear them cheer us on at 400 meters.
What she wanted to say: Don’t you people know who my husband is?!

Erin Donohue
What she said: There is no shame in placing behind Rowbury & Hall.
What she wanted to say: Next time I’m using elbows, and grabbing pony tails. This race is mine, bitches!

Amine Laalou
What he said: This city is so beautiful, and I’d love to come back and race here again.
What he wanted to say: I won! I won! I beat you all!

Bernard Lagat
What he said: I’m going to keep competing in the Fifth Avenue Mile until I win.
What he wanted to say: Maybe I came in second place, but the fans love me the best.

Andy Baddeley
What he said: I definitely wanted to come back and defend my title this year.
What he wanted to say: I know you all forgot who I was but see? I’m back on the podium.

*You know the one, when you’re running south down the west side, you think the worst is over after Harlem HIll but then there’s that little guy. Does that hill have a name? If not, let’s just call it Ralh Hill, as in “Really Annoying Little Hill” Hill.

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This year has been the year I learned how to withdraw. My nature is: when I want something, I hammer away until I get it. But this year, for reasons of health, happiness and situation, I have had to step away from projects, from people, and from races. (Put the hammer down, TK. Now step away from the hammer. Perhaps it’s best if you even avert your eyes from the hammer. Here, have some red wine.) Saturday’s Fifth Avenue Mile is the fifth race this year I’ve signed up for and then had to scratch from my calendar due to my not-quite-right body. Not-Quite-Right; or maybe, Just-Wrong-Enough. In any event, my right hamstring was so tight and achy after Thursday’s strength exercises at PT that I didn’t dare run the Fifth Avenue Mile. All that race asks of us is to run as fast as our heart, lungs and legs will allow; I knew I would be asking for [hamstring] trouble merely by toeing the line, since I’d never be able to resist running at max effort. 

I went anyway, though, to cheer a few friends and then gape at the elites. EN ran a PR, blazingly breaking 6 minutes (5:44–see what track workouts can do for you?), and MDC (my relay teammate) streaked towards the finish, also under 6 minutes (5:37). MDC, more than anyone else I know, runs with visible joy. I recognized the glint in his eye, and was glad for him (though also suddenly impatient for the moment I could ecstatically dash towards a finish line—any finish line– myself). 

I now had a two hour wait for the first elite race, so I stowed my bag and headed out for my long run–10.5 miles through Central Park.  The morning was crisp and cool, the sky an improbable blue. Everyone was out; I was grateful to slip anonymously among them. With my iPod dialed to the M’s, I headed off. I ran one upper loop and one lower loop; tacking on the spit tail that leads to the fountain at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. All told, I ran 10.69 miles. At a certain point the overture from “The Marriage of Figaro” hit my ears, and I was immediately elated. There’s something about this song that makes me feel strong, graceful, and fast. I picked up speed, yet I breathed easier. I had the chills, I felt like running in es-curves, to glide and swoop. I was overcome with an urge to shut my eyes, to block out every perception apart from the music and the pulse of my body; I turned up the volume instead, now completely shot through with Mozart’s piece. All too soon the instrumental was over, and it was as if I’d been shook awake from a glorious dream. 

Immediately following “The Marriage of Figaro” was “Mastermind” by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. A different kind of tune to be sure, but the uptempo kept me running hard and fast for another 3 minutes or so, as did the next song, “Maybe It’s Just Me.” (I love Butch’s first two lines of lyrics, “Maybe it’s just me/But you seem finally happy.”) Ah, there is always such brilliant serendipity in the alphabetization of the My Top Rated playlist. 

The last couple of miles hurt a bit, my right leg’s muscles were tight all the way from my hamstring up to my lower back. But, it wasn’t an injury sort of pain, it was just a tight, sore ache that I knew would be relieved with stretching and a good rubdown at PT on Monday. I was happy with being able to run the distance without backing down. My slowest mile was the first, in 9:20, and my fastest was the seventh, in 8:47. I ran the entire distance in 1:36:33, for an average pace of 9:02’s. I swear I wasn’t trying—I would have been happy with 9:30’s! 

Afterwards, I stretched to little effect; my right leg still felt like poured concrete. Then it was time for nine (combined) minutes of glory—the women’s and men’s professional races. I stood at the finish line this year, so I didn’t get any of the cool pre-race photos of the elites warming up like I did last year. I was so excited as the announcer introduced the women. Shannon, Lisa, Sara H, Erin, Christen! Ooh, it was a grudgefest between Rowbury and Dobriskey; was Shannon going to vanquish Lisa this year? And oh yes, yes she would—with 0.6 seconds to spare. Times overall were much faster last year (because it was an Olympic year?), although I am happy to see third-place finisher Sara Hall improved her time (4:23.9 against 4:32.6). 

The men’s race had me jazzed with its stacked field. I was rooting for Lagat of course, but you know I am a big fan of Nate Brannen, and think Tegenkamp, Manzano and Solinsky always keep things interesting. I really believed Lagat could win it, now that he had the experience road running, and knew the course. But no, he finished fourth, with a Brit taking first place (compensating for Dobriskey’s loss?), a Kenyan in second, and Leo Manzano taking third. I was psyched for Leo. Nate, who was third last year, came in 14th (still breaking 4 minutes, but just barely). 

Run Blog Run covers the professional race, and Cowboy Hazel reports from the pack (funny I didn’t see him in the park).

Songs I ran to: “Made Me Hard” by The Whitlams, “The Maestro” by The Beastie Boys, “Magic Carpet Ride” by Bedlam, “Magic Number” by De La Soul, “Make Believe” by Matthew Sweet, “Make Me Smile” by Chicago, “Make Out Alright” by Divinyls, “Make the World Safe” by The Whitlams, “Making Out” by No Doubt, “Mama’s Got a Girlfriend Now (live)” by Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, “Mama’s Got a Girlfriend Now” by Ben Harper, “Mama’s Trippin'” by Ben Harper, “Mama Help Me” by Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians, “Man” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Man’s Final Frontier” by Arrested Development, “Maneater” by Hall & Oates, “Manic Monday” by The Bangles, “Mannequin Shop” by Paul Westerberg, “The Marriage of Figaro Overture” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “Mastermind” by Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, “Maybe It’s Just Me” by Butch Walker, “Me Myself and I” by De La Soul, “The Me that Was Your Son” by Poi Dog Pondering, “Me Van a Matar” by Julieta Venegas, “The Meaning of Soul” by Oasis, “Medley” by Gipsy Kings, “Merry Go Round” by The Replacements, “Message in a Bottle” by The Police, “Michael” by Franz Ferdinand, “Mighty Mighty” by Charlie Hunter, “Minneapolis” by that dog, “Miss Thang” by Monica and “Misty Mountain Top” by Led Zeppelin

Shannon Rowbury winning the 2009 Fifth Avenue Mile

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I’ve been waiting for these track and field trials since November, when I watched Hall, Ritz and Sell win their tickets to Beijing as they steamed around Central Park. Even though not every event provided for surprises, there were enough dramatics at the finish lines to make me happy. As you could guess, I’m  not so interested in the sprint events (all that work and training for less than a minute’s worth of running? I just don’t get it), and the filed events fascinate me the same way the giraffes do at the zoo. But the middle- and long-distance events are what get me cheering and on the edge of my seat. Herewith, snippets with links to my favorite moments of the trials.

6/27 Galen Rupp owning his home track in his heat of the men’s 5000m semifinal… Shalane and Kara living up to expectations in the women’s 10,000m final (kudos to the organizers for kicking off the meet with an exciting final on day 1)… and Amy Begley leaving it all on the track as she pushed herself to not only come in third, right behind her training partner Kara, but also to make the A-Standard time for the event in the same go. I admit it, I got a little choked up on her behalf. And I loved how she and Kara jumped up and down together like excited high schoolers who were going to the prom with the football star.

6/30 The decatahlon is insane. I never truly realized the endurance and versatility that is needed for this two-day event. All I know is if those athletes ever decided to pull a Scarlet O’Hara, I’m leaving the scene…. Both Kara and Shalane won their semifinal heats for the 5000m… and Bernard Lagat, Matt Tegenkamp, and Ian Dobson comprise the men’s 5000m team (I root for Tegenkamp, who Runner Matt calls the “Brian Sell of the 5000m”); Mr. Kara Goucher dropped out as he was off the “A Standard” time…. but really, what beats this dramatic finish, that sends three Oregon Ducks to the Olympics in the 800m? How can you not love these guys? Nick Symmonds, with his dramatic move to get out of how he was boxed in, moving like greased lightening to the finish, and Andrew “It’s All You Guys” Wheating too kicking like mad, propelled by the crowds, plus Christian Smith literally diving across the finish to take third and simultaneously make the “A Standard.”  Fabulous craziness! Sportsmanship and showmanship, it’s what the Olympics are all about. I’ve watched the clip on NBC’s Olympic website like five times, and each time I have to cheer. 

7/4 Feeling patriotic? Yeah, me neither… In the 1500, despite my doubts, Alan Webb pulled it out to advance to the finals (what, no food poisoning??); Gabe Jennings runs like a determined hippe; Leo Manzano shines; Shannon Rowbury gets a lot of attention; Sara Hall moves to the finals, too; and my dad was rooting for the high schooler who broke the HS AR (Jordan Hasay)… My crush on Kara turns into full-blown unrequited love as she powers through like a warrior woman to beat Shalane in the 5000m. The Olympic team for the event is Kara, Jen Rhines, and Shalane. Notables: the face of victory Kara makes as she wins, and the pigtails Jen styles as she flies through the race. Adorable and fast — see, they are compatible!…. The evening warpped up close to 1 AM (if you were watching the TV coverage on the East Coast) with the men’s 10,000m final. I didn’t know who exactly to root for; I so wanted Mr. Kara Goucher to make it, but I couldn’t help but root for Mr. Personality (Abdi Abdirahman), Senor He’s Not Heavy He’s My Brother (Jorge Torres) and Kid Rupp (Galen, duh).  It’s always fun to cheer for Ritz, and I was still pining for Andrew Carlson, wishing he’d made it to the finals. I wonder how cold the steeplechase water pit was…

7/5 Three afternoon Sierra Nevadas had me snoozing through this afternoon’s OT’s, but I did go back and watch the men’s steeplechase finals on NBCOlympics.com. Love how Fam told Ed Eyestone that he was hoping to emulate Ryan Shay, and give the spirit of Shay’s performance to the crowd…

7/6 The final day of the trials left the men’s and women’s 1500 to be determined.  In the women’s, I was rooting for Sara Hall, but it ended up Rowbury, Erin Donohue and Christin Worth-Thomas.  Rowbury and Donohue train with Shalane (sounds like a workout video: “Train with Shalane”), so it’s cool they’re all going to Beijing together. I saw Erin Donohue at the Women’s Invitational 8k earlier this year…. and, in the event everyone’s been talking about for the past two weeks, the men’s 1500 held little surprises as Lagat won it, Leo Manzano (they kept calling him “the little guy“) and Lopez Lomong coming in 2-3 to also make the team. No Alan Webb, no Gabe Jennings.

I’m sad it’s over, but at least the Olympics are right around the corner.

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Sara Hall Is Adorable

This video on NYTimes.com makes me wish I was a track star, and that I had Sara’s abs.

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