Bronze medals!September 9, 2007
Ready or Not…
On Thursday, I arrive in Holland to find that our small men’s team (with only four members, instead of the usual six) has essentially gotten smaller: Bob Sweeney is suffering from a severe head cold acquired a couple days earlier. Chad Ricklefs, in contrast, is healthy and ready to go, much to everyone’s surprise. This is the sixth 100K World Cup for which he has qualified but the first one that he’s actually been able to attend. Chad’s wife seems incredulous that, at age 40, he’s finally participating, and we joke about possible last-minute pitfalls. “Maybe you should just stay in bed until race day,” we tell him. “It would be a shame if you tripped on the sidewalk or something and couldn’t make it to the starting line.”
Perennial top-10 finisher Howard Nippert is also ready for action but admits to having the usual pre-race jitters. “I don’t feel like eating or drinking anything, so it must be almost time to run,” he says.
I myself am also quite anxious. Of my four previous road 100Ks, three have ended badly. Why should this one be any different? Finally I realize that, while I haven’t had much pacing help in the previous 100Ks, I might be able to tuck in behind Howard for a large portion of this one. The thought seems reassuring, so I accept it unquestioningly for the moment just to keep my head from exploding.
I’m not the type to criticize parades given in my honor, but the one in Japan two years ago suffered from a complete lack of music. Thankfully, there are no such omissions this year. To kick off the festivities, a mixed chorus accompanied by accordion performs “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” a reasonably apt selection. A drum-and-xylophone band follows with “Copacabana,” whose connection to the race is less obvious. I eventually decide that the song holds important lessons for us athletes; just as Tony and Rico became overzealous in competing for Lola’s affection, with tragic consequences, runners who get carried away in their pursuit of fast times may likewise pay a high price for their impetuosity.
The challenge before us is to complete ten laps of a 10K loop through the streets of Winschoten and a neighboring town. The loop has numerous turns, which aren’t always conducive to fast times, but in this case I find the regular changes of scenery a welcome diversion. Each street looks different thanks to the legions of townspeople who decorate the roads with archways and flagging or watch the race from their yards. Some of them even look us up in the race program so that they can cheer for us by name. “Go, Greg!!!” giggles a group of teenage girls, as if I’m a crush-worthy classmate. “We’ll see you later,” they add, possibly thinking of the next lap, or possibly thinking, “Shall we pick you up at 7?”
At about 16K, I sense the first ever-so-faint whispers of fatigue in my quads. I have no choice but to ease up on the pace and hope for a long lag before the whispers turn into screams. Instead of following Howard, who’s averaging about 39:40 per 10K, I begin following a pair of French guys who are running about a minute per 10K slower than that.
The next few laps pass fairly quickly and uneventfully. By the fifth lap, the French duo and I are overtaking some of the most overambitious runners, who are already fading. It’s still far too early to feel smug about this, however. Past experience suggests that, if I’m going to fall apart irreversibly, it will start to happen between 60K and 80K. However, if I can reach 80K in reasonable condition, I may be able to “kick,” or at least avoid further slowdowns, in the final 20K.
My 10K splits for the first five laps have been 40:00, 40:15, 41:00, 40:50, and 41:35. During the sixth lap (41:38), I creep ahead of the French guys for good. My seventh and eighth laps are slow but not horrible (41:49, 43:28). Now, after hours of patiently awaiting my execution, it’s time to bust out. With a flurry of self-directed expletives, I hurl myself into the ninth lap, and my per-kilometer splits immediately drop from 4:25 to 4:00. I finally catch up to Chad, whose level of decrepitude appears about average among those I’m passing.
Shortly after completing the ninth lap (in 39:56), my bravado and momentum start to wane. I pass a Hungarian; he passes me back and pulls away. I lurch home with a final-lap split of 42:21 to bring my overall time to an 11th-place 6:52:52, and I collapse under a table on the floor of the Klinker, the building that houses the start/finish area.
I’m in too much pain to sit up, too dehydrated to swallow, and too tired to do anything about it other than whine, “I want L!” She finds me about 20 minutes later (after initially neglecting to look carefully under all the tables in the building) and helps me get some water and warm clothes.
We eventually reach a pub located along the course. Bob, it seems, has been there for hours after respiratory problems forced him to stop at 52K. “I could run, and I could breathe, but I couldn’t do both at the same time,” he explains. Still, solid finishes by Howard (6:49; 8th place), me, and Chad (7:01; 17th place) have put our team in a virtual tie for 3rd with France. We head to the awards ceremony wondering who will be called up to the podium, and when the United States is asked to join Russia and Japan onstage, I can’t get up there fast enough. We’ve earned the bronze medal by less than two minutes: 20:43:33 to 20:45:14.
I’m especially pleased for Howard, who has led the US men at this event since 2002 but has gone medal-less during that time due to an inconsistent supporting cast. Based on his experience with the 2000 men’s team — the last one to earn a team medal — Howard has often said that the view from the podium is much better than the view from the floor. You know what? He’s absolutely right.
The American women have much to be proud of as well, placing 4th despite the absence of Anne Lundblad and Nikki Kimball. The final results show that Kami Semick was 9th individually in 7:51, Devon Crosby-Helms 15th in 8:06, Julie Udchachon 16th in 8:14, Connie Gardner 18th in 8:15, and Carolyn Smith 19th in 8:16. In all, six of our nine athletes are bringing home new personal records (PRs). Thanks are due to team managers Lin Gentling and Mike Spinnler, team physician Lion Caldwell, and all of the relatives and friends who helped us achieve these fine performances.