NumerologyFebruary 19, 2010
One of the many things I like about running is that there are so many numbers to think about — numbers with stories behind them. If I see “2:03” on a digital clock, I automatically think, “current world record in the marathon.” If I see “5:27,” I think, “my personal best for 1600 meters as of the summer of 1985.”
The weekend before the Rocky Raccoon 100, I did a solo 5,000-meter time trial at the Franklin High School track. My time of 15:59 was unremarkable except that it brought to mind another 15:59, one that I had run 18 years earlier. The first 15:59 of my life, literally half a lifetime ago.
I was a freshman at Williams College, still getting taller and heavier and quite uncertain of my capacity for further improvement as a runner. After an acceptable fall season of cross-country, I plunged into indoor track. I loved it. The laps went by quickly on the small tracks, the tight turns made me feel like a speed demon, and even sparse crowds of coaches, teammates, and opponents were enough to create some atmosphere and excitement in cramped facilities such as Williams’ Towne Field House. There was only one problem: the races were too short. As someone without a single fast-twitch muscle fiber to his name, I was too slow to place highly in races lasting less than 20 minutes.
Then something very odd happened. As March 7th, 1992 approached — the date of the East Coast Athletic Conference (ECAC) Championships at Bates College, the last meet of the indoor season other than nationals — I was granted a spot in the ECAC 5,000-meter race. The qualifying standard for a guaranteed entry was 15:30 or so, but, for whatever reason, only seven other runners in the whole conference signed up for that event. And so I was let in, even though my best 5K time up to that point was 16:40. I was seeded last.
At this meet and many like it, the top six people in each event score points for their teams: 10 for 1st, 8 for 2nd, and so on down to 1 point for 6th place. In a race with only eight people, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I might be able to earn a point for a change. I went out fast — 2:29 at 800m, 5:04 at 1600m — but remained in last place until 2400m or so, when I passed two guys. I reached 3200m in 10:16, still way ahead of my usual splits. I passed a third guy with a bit less than 800m to go, kicked the final 400m in 70 seconds, and crossed the finish line in 15:59. 5th place! No, wait, 4th place — a guy ahead of me was disqualified! In addition to improving my personal record by 41 seconds, I had contributed 4 points toward the team’s total of 89. I had helped us win the meet!
Should sequences of digits on a watch really inspire such sentimentality? If you have to ask, you’re probably not a runner.