My first event was the 5000, midday on Thursday. It was hot, and I didn’t know what to expect, except that the 5k was my strongest and most familiar distance. While we were competing for medals with those in our own 5-year age groups, a few of the races consolidated some of the smaller divisions. My heat of the 5000 included men aged 30-39, so I had some “youngsters” to contend with as well as my close peers. As an aid in identifying our direct competition, USATF provided us with age-group bibs to pin to our backs, creating a “target” for those of similar vintage.
I managed to run a very respectable time and a solid race, and was excited to take 3rd in the 5000 in the 35-39 age-group, behind the usual Oregon suspects Damian Baldovino and Lawrence Merrifield, Jr. As the proud new owner of a largely unexpected bronze medal, the pressure was off, and I figured anything else I did at the meet was gravy.
My next race was the 10,000 on Saturday morning. I had run only one other track 10k before, freshman year in college in the Conference Championships, and despite knowing better, here I was 20 years later, lacing ’em up for another 25 laps of torture.
This time our heat consisted of masochists aged 30-44, so the age group bibs on our backs really came in handy. As I settled into my pace and braced myself for the long effort ahead, I began to scout out the age groups of the runners around me. Some of the 30-34 runners began to pull away, as did some in the 40-44 age group. But as I stuck to my guns and ran my own race, I became aware that only one runner in my own age group was ahead of me, and not far ahead at that.
Somewhere in the final third of the race, I realized that I still felt pretty strong, and I decided I could pick it up a little. I gradually caught up with the 35-39 guy I had been trailing, eased past him, and began to pull away, feeling the age group “target” symbolically burning a hole in my back. Now leading my age group, that 35-39 bib seemed like a neon billboard screaming “Come and get me!”
But I pressed on, lap after lap (after lap!), and in a rare case of a well-paced 10k, I managed to hold on for the age group win, and earn a completely unanticipated gold medal. I was the 2003 10,000m National Champion in the 35-39 age group! Of course, there was a lot of luck involved, as there were faster times in both younger and older age groups, but as Woody Allen once said, “90% of life is showing up!”
I had one race left, the 1500 on Sunday morning. I was bushed, and finished 8th out of 12, but it truly was “gravy” (and my legs felt like biscuits). It was like a victory lap (3 3/4 victory laps to be exact). I had come into the meet just to compete and give it my best shot, not expecting to medal at all. Instead, I left with two medals, including a gold, and great memories that remain near the top of my list of running highlights.