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Numerology

February 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.

5 comments

  1. G,Great words. I am going to print this out and share with my Valpo Univ. track distance runners' tomorrow as they are heading into the indoor conference meet next weekend. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Doogie — I stumbled across this blog a few months ago and have checked in on it periodically since then. Haven't gotten around to getting in a post, but felt this memory calls out for one. I can remember this race. Your description above is good but still doesn't do this full justice.For the unaware reader: as a young freshman, Doogie (a nickname he got for his youthful appearance — if you think he looks like a kid today, you should have seen him when he actually WAS a kid) was BAD. His performance as a freshman in cross country earned him lifetime "slow boy" status, which will never be stripped from him no matter how world class he appears to have become in subsequent racing endeavors. A crippled turtle, towing a GMC Jimmy, with Andre the Giant sitting in it, would have beat Doogie at the 1990 Little 3 X-C race. By a lot. (That isn't completely fair to Doogie, as he was sick that day, but still, we are talking EPIC slow. And not just in that race.)I was almost as slow, and so I took comfort in having Doogie on the team. As I knew that I would always have this stiff behind me, if no one else. Hey man, we all need some source of reassurance, and Doogie served this purpose.I remember seeing this race. Actually, I may have even been running in it, but can't remember now. But I definitely remember Doogie's performance. There was a general feeling on the team of "holy sh!t — was that Doogie?" after he did it. He had some good practices that winter, but nothing that would lead one to believe that a 15:59 was ready to come out. I think that in every runner's career there are at least a few breakthrough performances, where the improvement graph resembles a step function rather than a fixed-slope path. And for Greg, at least insofar as I can recall, this was his first big breakthrough at Williams. It seemed to me that he was all of the sudden much faster in practice and in races, and had transitioned into his current incarnation as a very good runner. And I don't think that I ever beat him again; so it was back to kicking the dog for me.This leap forward didn't happen by magic, of course. There were a lot of miles behind it. But it is still invigorating to know that a breakthrough may be right around the next corner.


  3. Pete I: Good to hear from you! And thanks for providing that additional context for everyone (I think). The only details I'll dispute are (A) you're thinking of Little Three in '91 and (B) you did beat me again, repeatedly, in cross country during the fall of '92. It should also be noted that your legendary tenacity in workouts provided much motivation for a lot of us, including those who usually beat you in races. To cite just one example, a few weeks after that ECAC meet, we did a 5 x 1600m workout (times: 5:12-5:14) during Spring Break that seemed utterly heroic at the time. Adding that fifth interval was your idea, and I joined in because I didn't want to seem weak….


  4. Pete, your remembrance makes a great contribution to the GC archives–it would keep anyone humble. Hope the training coaches include this "before" picture in their pep talks. How do you guys remember all this? Thank you both for the great storytelling–it's what keeps a non-runner like me coming back to this blog.


  5. Oops – yes, sorry, it was the '91 Little 3. Ah, the memories. Good luck with the racing season – if i may for the moment speak on behalf of the Williams running community – we are proud of you.



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