I arrived at the Reggie Lewis Indoor Track for day 2 of the United States Track and Field (USATF) master’s national championship just after the events began. I checked in, informed the official that I wouldn’t be running the mile as I had planned months ago, and then learned there were enough volunteers for the day. Looking around, I saw some members of Mass Velocity Track Club, my team, and joined them in the bleachers. I met several teammates for the first time and watched the events. The 60 meter sprints, long jump and pole vault were in progress.
I’m not sure what is more impressive: watching graceful, athletic and powerful middle-age sprinters fly down the track or seeing the very elderly athletes do their sprints. There were world and American records set and frequent applause and lots of oohs and aahs. Occasionally an athlete would do something really spectacular and the air would be filled with cheers. Everyone seemed to know everyone and athletes mingled and renewed acquaintances. I met people who were world-class athletes in their twenties and thirties and heard some great stories. Although the competition is fierce, the friendships are deeper.
I was sitting next to a woman who hails from Australia. Her husband was entered in the long jump and the 200 meter relay. They now live near Washington, DC and we chatted about DC, Boston and Australia. We joked about the trials and tribulations of masters athletes and she laughed when I told her about my ill-fated attempts at long-jumping and breaking my rib high-jumping. She recommended that it may be best for me to stay away from pole vaulting just as the first vaulter made his approach.
If you have never seen the pole vault in person, it’s awesome. As the athletes takes flight, the pole bends backwards under their weight. It then recoils and you can see the force applied to the vaulters as they are thrust upward and forward. Feet above head, they somehow turn their bodies around and then fall backwards onto the mat. Occasionally a vault will not go as far as planned and the vaulter will have to adjust on the fly to make sure he or she lands on the mat. Michael Jordan was noted for his “hang time” when soaring in the air for a dunk. His maximum time aloft was calculated to be 0.92 seconds. One of the male pole vaulters cleared 14 and 1/2 feet and he was in the air for a long time. I found myself holding my breath every time an athlete made an attempt.
One of my favorite events to watch is the shot put. One doesn’t throw the shot put like a ball. Doing so would probably rip your shoulder out of the socket. I’ve tried doing the event a little, mostly to help coach children. Depending on the sex and age, the shot can weigh 16 lbs. It’s a very technical event and the putters aren’t just strong but also explosive. As a distance runner, I resemble Charles Atlas before he started working out. The “weight people” are BIG. Their arms are larger than my thighs. However, they are also graceful and have great balance. I’ve seen them train on balance beams. Most of them are also very fast. I raced some high school weight athletes last year over 40 meters and it wasn’t even close.
While the sprints were underway, I started thinking of entering the mile. Although I wasn’t prepared, I was well-rested (an old runners joke). There was a chance that I would be on a relay team later in the afternoon. Our team had a couple runners interested and being a warm body in the right age group could mean a ticket to race. A couple teammates encouraged me to enter the mile and I went back to the official table to let them know. I changed into my red singlet and running shorts, put on my warm up clothes and started to jog. I had also gotten the word that yes, indeed, I would be racing on a relay team later in the day. One of the problems of being 55 is the length of time it requires to warm up. It’s kind of like starting an old car in the middle of winter. Sometimes I wonder if there will be any energy left to race after warming up. After about 15 minute of jogging I went into the gym and started to do my dynamic warm ups (leg swings, skips, drills designed to prepare one for action). I ran a series of short strides to get used to moving faster than snail pace and went over to the starting area. Unlike road races where one can warm up until a couple minutes before the start, track races require some standing and waiting for your race. The trick is to stay warm while waiting. My age group was pretty large and we had two sections. The slower one usually goes first and I was in the first group. I shook hands with a few of the runners and lined up. The gun went off and I tried to run with effort but sensibly. I was near the back quickly and went through the first 200 meters in 50 seconds or 6:40 pace. This was much slower than I planned a year ago but was hoping it wasn’t too fast for my lack of training. I stayed on this pace for a few laps and while working, I wasn’t gasping either. Some of the faster runners started to pass me but my teammates were scattered around the track and I heard their encouragement. I finished in 6:40 and walked off the track and got a drink.
Running two events is a rarity for me. The last time I tried it, the second race was torture. I decided to jog for a bit then stretch. I hydrated and had a small snack and then went to watch more runners. Inactivity can increase the muscle tightness and an hour before our race I headed back to the gym for a warm up. My muscles were already a bit tight and I thought about Bill Cosby and the can of 3 in 1 oil in his go-cart skit.* (Bill Cosby was a fine athlete who competed for Temple University.) I got as loose as I could and went back to the track.
Teams of relay runners waited on the infield for their races to begin. The wait was longer than expected for my team’s relay race and we all started to tighten up a bit, so we tried to jog in place a little. Some teammates, aware of my injuries, gave me valuable training advice during the wait. The race officials had combined two age groups for this race because seven teams total had entered. In this race, 4 teams were in the 40-49 age group, and 3 in the 50-59 age group, my group. All we had to do was get the baton around the track and we would score points for our team. I was going to run the 2nd leg. My teenaged children had arrived to watch. They both run in high school and we were doing a bit of role-reversal. As a parent and volunteer assistant track coach, it’s good to feel their “pain” once in a while. I’ve learned not to yell “Go faster!” at their races. (I’m waiting for the day when a runner stops and yells back, “If I could go any faster, I would!”)
The runners in the first leg lined up at the start. On the outside of the track near the start, the runners in the second leg formed a group. The third and fourth leg runners also formed groups. My teammate took off and stayed with the main pack through his leg. Relays can be a bit of organized chaos at the exchanges, especially for the sprints, but ours went smoothly. I took the baton (French for “stick”) and accelerated. “Don’t sprint. Don’t sprint,” I told myself, and resisted the urge to go at full speed. I didn’t see the clock as I took off and had no idea of my pace. Going down the back stretch of the first of my four laps, I smiled and thought, “This is a blast.” The first 200 meter lap went okay but a little fatigue started to develop at 400 meters. I was running harder than in the mile but didn’t know if my pace was faster or slower. My rib felt okay. A couple runners lapped me on the back turn during lap 3 and I hoped they were in their 40s. Heading down the home stretch with one more lap to go I was breathing really hard and straining and went through the checklist: “Stay relaxed, lower your shoulders, stay on your toes, don’t drop the baton.” Was my son going to yell, “Use it now!”? (His coach will do this.) I tried to accelerate in the last lap but was probably avoiding slowing down. The final 100 meters seemed to last a long time but the hand-off went okay and my race was finished.
Back on the infield, still breathing hard, we cheered our teammates. We finished 3rd in our group (10 minutes 27 seconds) but were in the same lap as the other two teams. My split was 2 minutes 50 seconds, only 2 seconds slower than my best! We took some team photos, shook hands with each other and the other teams and enjoyed the moment. I picked up a bronze medal and headed home.
Woody Allen was right. “90% of life is showing up.” I don’t care that we were assured of finishing third in my age group (assuming we finished) and that I got to run, in part, by virtue of being a warm body. I got a chance to compete at Nationals and came away with hardware.
Richard Galgano, D.O.
March 16, 2014
* “Reached into my pocket and pulled out my trusty can of 3 in 1 oil.” From the sketch, “Go Carts” on Bill Cosby’s 1966 album Wonderfulness. Go buy it. Trust me; you’ll be happy you did.
NOTE FROM KATHY GALGANO My brother, running with a busted rib and recovering from just about everything, ran the mile, not in record time for running athletes, but really fast in my book, at a beautiful 6 minutes, 40 seconds and fraction change. Then, he ran the 4 men 800 meters relay, and the team racers picked up team points, and carried away the bronze medal. How cool is that!
For a picture of Richard running the relay, go to http://johnkeklak.smugmug.com/Trackandfield/2014-USA-Masters-Indoor-Track/Day-2-2pm-End-of-Day-4×200/37776473_xNMddJ#!i=3129126944&k=3FDm8D3&lb=1&s=M