Since 2008 Andy and I have spent pretty much all vacations, certainly all major vacations, traveling to watch our favorite Olympian compete. We’ve been to Eugene, Oregon countless times, and Des Moines, Iowa to watch the national championships; China (not just Beijing) for the Olympics; and Berlin, Germany, and Daegu, South Korea for the World Championships. We’re planning to be in London for this year’s Olympics. From all this track related travel, and because I live with the Chanman, I’ve learned a thing or two about professional athletes. This holiday season I learned a bit more by spending a week at elevation at “Fantasy Track Camp.” At some point when Shannon was planning her winter elevation training she invited Andy and I to come visit her in San Luis Potosi, we took her up on the offer.
I arrived in Mexico already knowing that professional athletes are focused individuals, that being the best in the world requires a lot more than just running – and that those things are very time consuming. I didn’t feel a need do any serious sight-seeing and expected that wouldn’t be on the agenda. Shannon has traveled the world to compete but her job is a lifestyle, one that doesn’t often include taking in the sights. I’m sure that Andy and I have seen more of every city we’ve traveled to, to watch her compete than she has. I arrived in serious need of some real down time, so it was easy to come without any expectations, with a fat book, and let the week just flow. Even so, I learned a couple of things from our week with the professionals.
Part of what I love about running is the adventure. I love exploring new places. I enjoy the beauty and challenge of a trail run. I don’t want to run in the same place too many days in a row. I want to see new things. Even though I understood that structure and routine are important for a professional athlete, I was still startled to discover how important. We ran eight times, in only three places – and one of those places while familiar was obviously not a regular part of the routine. We visited a very large park a number of times. I explored a different route with each visit. The others focused on accomplishing their specific workout goals on the flattest most convenient route. We went to a familiar although out of the way place for a long run. I enjoyed the scenery (as much as I could while searching for foot prints to make sure I didn’t get totally lost – since the backsides of everyone else were a distant memory). The others focused on their pace and how to run a course that minimized running into the wind. The hills I love to challenge myself with at home were something the group drove to avoid. We went to La Loma Altitude Training Center and I mixed in swimming. Bolota Asmerom was perfectly content, and consistently fast, running lap after lap after lap on the one mile trail woven between the pool, track and tennis courts.
This all makes sense. For me a run is a break from work, a physical challenge, a release from sitting in a chair, a reward in itself. When you’re training to win, and training involves: running, generally conditioning, strength, treatment, mental preparation, and recovery your goals and objectives are to get it done, done well, maybe with some free time left.
For the first time in my life, mystical “Double Days” make total sense. Since I first heard the term some fifteen years ago I’ve associated it with really hard core runners working to rack up the miles. But I lined that up with an ultra-marathoner or marathoner type of hard core. Tough. Really long. It turns out a few miles here, a few miles there, a few miles later in the day. All on the same one mile loop can add up to a substantial run. One that was less challenging and exhausting than those miles would have been all strung together. I might try this again.
The last thing that startled me was diet. I expected the group to be somewhat uptight about their meals. While I would say that everyone in the house paid attention to their diet, the pros ate more meat and eggs than I do. Not uptight. They’re worried about getting the right amount of protein and other nutrition; I’m worried about keeping my cholesterol low. I felt that we all want to be the appropriate weight. The pros consistently ate small portions slowly and stopped. To win they need to; There is some pressure with this profession. I struggle with that one; I’m working on it again.
I’m so glad that Shannon, Pablo Solares, Bolota, and Nick Alvarado worked us into their routine for a week. Andy enjoyed the San Francisco and track talk. It was a gracious, generous, interesting group. We had fun, really relaxed, and I will take an even deeper perspective with me to my next professional track meet to watch my favorite runners tear it up on the oval.
When you’re at a track meet there is a lot to look at, not only are there running, jumping and throwing events, there are also volunteers all over the place. I don’t really envy most of these people, I genuinely appreciate that they give their time to make the events possible, but I wouldn’t want to spend my day in the sun raking the long jump pit. I’d get really stressed out flipping over the lap counter, especially in a long race where some contestants get lapped. I am fascinated by the work they do, mundane tasks over and over, essential to the competition. (Editor’s Note: One job is calibrating the javelin, hammer and discus for meets.) You don’t usually see their work when watching a meet on television or the internet – however the volunteers and the job I’m most fascinated with do play a vital role for TV.
Running events are timed by an electronic and photographic system. In a close race the officials analyze a photo taken at the exact finish line and determine who has won the race. Before this system was in use some other method was necessary for determining close races. When I imagine a classic photo of a close race, I imagine a string across the finish line. What I suspect was once a very functional low tech tool to help call close races, is today a television moment.
If you’re at a big track meet, only some events are part of the television broadcast. While race after race has been run relying simply on the electronic finish line technologies, the TV time races are different. Prime time races have sponsors, and those sponsors have their logo printed on a finish line tape. Not a simple string, these wide sturdy finish lines are marketing in action.
When the television broadcast begins, a couple of volunteers are suddenly on duty to hold the finish line tape (a step or two away from the actual finish line where it would interfere with the real electronic timing system and finish line camera). If it’s a windy day the volunteers have an extra challenge. Here are some photos of volunteers successfully and not so successfully in action.
This must be a sprint race. Look at the determination on the volunteer’s face. They are working hard to keep that heavy plastic finish line across the track with the printed side clear and readable to the camera.
For a distance race it’s not necessary to lug that puppy full across the track – a good thing in difficult conditions. You can tell the wind is blowing and they’re working hard to keep the short tape steady. Also, I understand that while it’s exhilarating to be the person breaking the tape it doesn’t feel so great when you hit it. Those arms raised in victory may also be up to help with the sting. Notice the volunteer timing her release of the tape.
Sometimes, even with a short tape the volunteers have problems.
When the logoed finish line ends up on the ground for a high profile race, and not visible for the television camera, it is not good for the sponsor. When problems like that occur, reinforcements are inevitably called in to help.
The next time you see a runner head on coming down the straightaway on her way to victory, remember that the logoed tape she’s about to run into is being held up by people working almost as hard as the runner.
Now that I am back home from the USA Championships and back into routine, I am hoping to post some blogs about the meet.
Over the next week you can expect to see a blog or two about the distance runners who qualified for the 2011 World Championships in Daegu and other things that caught my attention and prompted me to come home and do some further research.
You can also look forward to the blog’s first guest blogger. A blogger by the name of Track Widow was also at the USA Championships. You have seen her photos (and she edits all the blogs that I post) but until now she has kept her observations of the meet to herself. Not anymore. While I tend to tell the story about the meet with numbers, statistics, and coach-like observations, the Track Widow will provide a different perceptive that should be just as, if not more, appealing. She isn’t a coach. She got her start by going to track meets so she wouldn’t be left home all alone while her other half went to the meets. Ah? Does the name Track Widow now make some sense? She started as a track & field novice with little knowledge of the sport but now she’s the winner of the 2011 Pamakid USA Championships Prediction Game Contest. I introduce to you the Track Widow. I think you will enjoy her blog entries.