In my experience, the word ‘Stanford’ is always said in hushed tones amongst athletes. This race adopts a mystical quality where athletes are almost certain to run times faster than they are capable of running elsewhere. And so it was, late, last Sunday evening that I found myself standing on the startline of the iconic Stanford track. Twenty five laps and a whole lot of pain lay before me.
My April blog finished with me rushing out the door to get to the airport in time for my flight to California. Since then, I’ve been based at altitude, in a mountain range just outside San Diego. To say there are no distractions would be something of an understatement. The nearest supermarket and resemblance of civilisation is over a forty minute drive away from our wooden lodges. There are no Jelly Babies to be found up here, no ice cream nor any cake. The runs are tough, tougher than what I had imagined. The surface is uneven and riddled with rocks which makes every run a game of ‘Am I going to roll my ankle today?’. I imagine it being akin to running through a quarry or building site. And though I know it’s impossible, every single step seems to be going uphill. Believe me, this is not an easy place to train and any niggles will become a major problem very quickly. In terms of getting fit however, it’s ideal.
Coincidence is by its very nature a funny thing. For those who read last month’s blog, I mentioned a Swedish guy who I shared the pacing work with during the World Half Marathon. Imagine my surprise then when, while I was waiting to board my flight to California, who should walk up but the same Swedish runner, Mike. It turns out he was part of the group I was coming out to train with. The majority of the group are runners that are part of the famous Melbourne Track Club, a collection of world class runners from 800m up to 10k. I remember looking around the dinner table one evening and counting at least six sub 4 minute milers sitting there – needless to say this is not a bad group to train with!
The three week build up to Stanford was near perfect. The sessions were hard, the recovery runs were necessarily slow. I was nearly down at race weight and with no distractions I was getting all the rest I needed. I was heading to Stanford stronger and fitter than I’ve ever been in my life. This was to be my first 10k track race and at the very least I needed to hit the Commonwealth qualifying time in order to make sure my summer plans worked out. The race was at ten in the evening to ensure that the wind had died down and the heat of the day had cooled. Waking up nervous on the Sunday morning, I knew I had a long day of waiting in front of me. Time ticked on as it tends to do and a number of hours and many stops to the toilet later I was warmed up and ready to go on the startline.
The plan was to do steady 67s per lap (13.58 for 5k) and then try and pick it up the last few laps if I had anything left. Given the training I had been doing I was confident that I was at least in sub 28minute. After sitting in for the first lap in a slow 70s, I tried to get back on pace. As each lap went by however, I wasn’t gaining ground. The plan had been to sit in until 5k in 13.55/14minute pace which should have felt reasonably comfortable. I went through in 14.03, not disastrous but having been bumped around and surging here and there I had wasted a lot more energy than was necessary. I was getting tired and the negative thoughts started to creep in. Each lap was getting tougher and I was starting to panic. I had just ran 5k faster than I ever had before and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by coming last in my first big race. Any thoughts of a quick time had evaporated by this stage, it was pure survival mode. I started looking at the clock, trying to work out was I inside the qualifying standard. Simple addition was beyond me however and at one stage I was convinced that I’d be lucky to break 30minutes. I struggled through the last 10 laps, mostly by myself, and finished in 28.32.18 (I’m adding the hundredths as I finished 0.03s slower than the Northern Irish record – if only I had dipped for the line!)
Maybe it was Stanford’s reputation as a fast meet that lured me into a false sense of security about how easy the race would be. Whatever the reason, I’ve come away from my first experience at Stanford all the better for it. Yes, the time was disappointing but I know I’m much fitter. I now know what a 10k on the track feels like and next time I’m hoping for much better. On the upside, I managed to get inside both the Commonwealth and European Championship qualifying standards and so can start planning my summer accordingly. Provided I regain the use of my legs after last weekend, next up is a 5000m track race next Thursday in Oxy, LA before flying back to London. After that is the European Cup 10k at the start of June, following which it might be nice to go for a third win at the Lisburn Half Marathon back home! In the meantime however, it’s time I put down my iced drink, put on some more suncream and went out for another run in the sun! Until next time, happy training!