Friday, July 6, 2012

Trials and Inspiration

The big stories from the track trials may be all about Galen Rupp (won both the 5k and 10k, beating Bernard Lagat for the first time) and Ashton Eaton (broke the world record in the decathlon), but there were so many more inspiring stories, besides those of the superstars. Like the guys who slowed down at the end of the 1500 so Eaton could have a clear path to the finish and his world record glory. Or the guys that dove, sometimes heartbreaking so (Bershawn Jackson), over the line to try and clinch a spot.  Or Bryshon Nellum, who was shot twice in the leg in 2009 and told he’d never be a world class sprinter (he made the 400m team.) But not surprisingly, all my favorite moments came from the distance events.

1. Dathan Ritzenhein and Amy Hastings
Both finished in the most heartbreaking spot in January’s marathon trials—fourth. They moved past their devastation and headed to the track, eager for redemption. Ritz came into the 10k trials without the A standard (to make the Olympics you must have beaten a specific time, the A standard; if more than 3 people have run the A, then the top 3 at the trials go.) He got help from his training partner Rupp and set a quick pace to make sure he not only got the top three spot, but the standard as well. 

Hastings had the A standard, and, conveniently, so did only two others (besides Shalane Flanagan, who would give up her spot to focus on the marathon.) All those girls had to do was show up and finish the race; as long as no one went out hard and got the standard, those three were the team. No one went out hard, but Hastings didn’t just settle and accept her spot. She wanted top three, saying later that she didn’t want to get on the team any other way. She fended off a late surge from Natosha Rogers (see below) and won the race, her first national championship.

2. Natosha Rogers
In what was only her 4th 10k, the Texas A&M junior fought her way through the whole race. She tripped and fell early on, but came charging back to the front, in a move the announcers thought was suicide. (She should have saved energy by slowly working her way back to the pack.) Regardless, she stayed in contention the entire race, and despite not having the A standard and not having a chance of making the team, she went for the win. She edged out Shalane Flanagan and battled with Amy Hastings, ending up second. There’s a bright future for this girl.

3. Lauren Fleshman
Fleshman has been battling an IT band injury for months and only able to run 11 (!!) miles a week. She’s been furiously cross training to stay in shape, but she lined up for the 5k semi-finals without having run an entire 5k in months. She fought through the pain and managed to get sixth, edging her way into the final in what was an exciting and excruciating moment to watch. She went on to run the final, again showing her fighting spirit, despite no real chance of making the team.

4. Kim Conley
No one expected her to be a threat to make the team in the 5k. But just before she raced her coach gave her a note with this advice: “Rely on your instincts tonight, and at the end of the race, do something heroic.” In her post-race interview she admitted thinking at 3k that she wouldn’t make it, the pace wasn’t fast enough for the A standard (which she needed.) But she kept pushing, and in the final lap saw the other girls fading and went for it. She got both 3rd place and the standard by a hair. It was heroic.

I feel like I can’t write a wrap-up of these trials without including the Tarmoh/Felix 100 meter fiasco. I don’t find it inspiring, but sad. Tarmoh was originally declared the third place finisher; she celebrated, Felix left in tears. Later, they retracted the decision, saying it was too close to call, even with photo-finish technology. The story brought track and field to mainstream sports headlines—a great thing to happen, except it didn’t put us in the best light. No one understood why there was no existing rule in place for this type of thing, but obviously this is incredibly rare—it hasn’t ever happened before! The fact that a coin flip was one option was plain ridiculous. These are runners; they should earn their spot by running. In the end, a run-off was chosen, but then avoided when Tarmoh pulled out and gave her spot to Felix. That was the sad part. Tarmoh is on the brink of her life long dream and the whole process was too overwhelming and emotionally draining for her to seize it. (She will likely run the 4x100 in London, but it is not the same as making it as an individual.) Some people ripped her apart, saying she was just too scared to lose; others sympathized with her, saying USATF screwed her over. I was selfishly disappointed; I enjoyed watching the trials so much, I was excited when they got extended an extra day for the run-off. I can’t believe that someone would give up something they have worked so hard for, which makes me realize what an incredibly difficult situation Tarmoh must have been in.

I wondered what I would have done in her spikes. Granted, I run marathons, which are slightly different than 100-meter sprints, but let’s go with this unrealistic thought experiment anyway. If I ran the trials and finished in a tie for third, I would certainly run again for a chance to make the team. It's the Olympics! Obviously, I am not even close to being an Olympic caliber athlete, so it’s easy for me to say I would run because I’ll never be in that situation. Tarmoh obviously is Olympic cailber, and hopefully she’ll have many more opportunities in her future. But just thinking through that silly analogy made me appreciate how difficult it would be to run an extra race. In a marathon, it’s obvious how painful and miserable that would be, so soon after an all-out effort. But even in sprints, there are rounds (heats, semi-finals, finals) for both the 100 and 200 meters (Tarmoh finished 5th in the 200.) Mentally, you set yourself up for those, and only those, races. You carefully ration out your energy, and in the final, you give it your all, knowing you don’t need to have anything left when it is over. Unexpectedly adding another race would be incredibly hard to wrap your head around. Particularly if you have had the emotional roller coaster of a week Tarmoh had. For now, we just have to understand that the decision she made is hers and only hers. It’s just incredibly sad that it played out that way.

The trials were so full of inspiration, drama, and awesome racing, I cannot wait for the Olympics! Only three weeks to go!

Dream big,

1 comment :

  1. "Rely on your instincts, then do something heroic." Great coaching for running a race, and living a life.