Andy and I have been going to the USA Track and Field Championships to watch Shannon compete since 2008. At the five meets we’ve transformed from rookies to experienced spectators. Andy loves track, he lives and breathes it and from him I’ve transformed into a knowledgeable track geek, more informed than the many less dedicated fans that fill the stands around us. For this sixth meet in 2013 we stayed home; did nothing to help fill the vacant backstretch in Iowa.
In 2008 everything was exciting and new. Alone in the stands waiting for Shannon’s race I was a bundle of nerves. Andy’s return before Shannon’s final didn’t really help. I don’t think I really relaxed until she had won the race. The race spectating nerves have subsided, but only a little. Nervous anticipation, screaming with the crowd, and celebrating; every year we’ve been there to be a part of it.
We both wanted to be there in person again this year to support Shannon, and to enjoy the meet in a way that’s not possible on TV, but we just couldn’t swing it. Other obligations were going to make the travel expensive, complicated and on a very tight schedule. Our prior experience in Des Moines didn’t help. We stayed home, made plans instead to go to Russia if Shannon made the US team.
When we started traveling to international track meets to cheer on our favorite runner I was thrilled. It was a way to get Andy out of the US and travel! However, after trips to Beijing, Berlin, Daegu and London I now just want to go camping in the desert…. and Moscow has never been on my list. I love Andy and am extremely fond of Shannon, so it was with some guilt and conflicted emotions that I admitted that I really wanted Shannon to qualify for the US team, but also really didn’t want to go to Russia. I reminded myself that I should enjoy this while it lasts, because no athletic career lasts forever.
At home in San Francisco, busy at work on Thursday I missed Shannon’s preliminary round; a first for me. Andy sent me an email message summing up the race, and I watched it later on the computer and felt confident about her chance of making the team.
The day of her final I was at an out of town event. Andy made plans to watch the race at his parents’ house, where they have cable. On the way back I used my cell phone to call Andy, eager to hear him confirm that she had made the team. Instead, over the noise of the car on my cheap phone I heard that it was the worst possible scenario as far as us making travel plans. Shannon had finished fourth, but the woman who finished third lacked a required time standard. Shannon might get to the World Championships, but we might not know until mid-July, depending on her competitor’s ability to obtain a qualifying time standard by the deadline.
I hung up and discussed with the friend I was with the complexities of the situation, both for Shannon, and for my own plans. After a short time I remembered the 5000. Would Shannon run that race? She had entered it as part of her back up plan. I called Andy back. He told me that a lot of good women were entered in the race and he didn’t know if she would run it or not.
Sunday morning Andy and I were hanging around the house, getting ready for the Pamakid’s Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run kick-off picnic at a very leisurely pace, when we decided we should go to Andy’s work, where they have cable, to watch the 5000. We picked up the pace, and made it with enough time for him to get the TV on and find the right channel. Not much later the womens’ 5000 began. The start list on the TV screen was a mess, it included the names of women who had scratched, and flashed two pages of information very quickly. It didn’t answer our question about whether Shannon was running or not. We scanned the starting line and didn’t see her. I figured Shannon must have decided not to run it. I couldn’t really blame her; terrible weather for distance races, physical and mental exhaustion from the 1500, not the event she’s been training for. Oh well.
Midway through the race, with no butterflies in my stomach for a change, Andy said something to the effect of, “Is that Shannon there, in the middle of the pack with sunglasses on?” Sure enough, there she was, in the race and well positioned. So much for the lack of nerves, suddenly I was on the edge of my seat. As the race neared the end the top six runners stretched out. Shannon wasn’t racing for first, but she wasn’t out of it either. She could still make the team. I began yelling at her through the TV. She was just as unlikely to hear me as she would be if I were in the stands in Iowa – but I felt a bit sillier. The camera began to focus on the top two runners. The race for third was obscured. I yelled loud. The camera cut away to the victor and Andy and I were left to wonder, did we just see Shannon take third? We thought so, but not without some doubt.
The internet! Andy rushed up to his office. I followed him trying to connect my iPod to the network. Then I ran back to the TV and arrived just in time to see Shannon’s name listed in third. I ran back upstairs to tell Andy. And then back downstairs hoping there would be an interview. Success with the internet! Since I wasn’t there to hug Shannon on her victory lap, I sent a Facebook message instead. I sent a text message to my colleagues that I will be going to Russia for vacation this year. Excited and happy Andy and I collected ourselves and headed off to the Western States picnic.
I’m suddenly thrilled to be going to Russia, thrilled for Shannon and impressed with her guts and determination.
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.