Notes from the Middle of the Pack

       Hi, my name is Jim, and I’m a middle-of-the pack runner.

       There, I said it.  It wasn’t easy to admit, but these things never are.  Now, the first thing to acknowledge is that there are more of us than there are the elite runners who inspire us but make us feel shy about ever revealing our 10k personal best.  And there are more of us than those people who walk half-marathons in seven hours (which is wonderful by itself), but then seem unimpressed by our hard-earned two-hour accomplishment.

       Before I get to the meat of this debut column, which I hope will introduce many more monthly columns to come, let’s go back to the beginning, shall we?  My beginning, that is.

        I started running in high school.  Sophomore year to be precise.  My friend Robert had run in his freshman year, claimed it was “fun,” and, well, I didn’t have any friends on the baseball team and I liked both of the track coaches, so I figured, why not?

        At the time, my attitude about running was pretty much what you see on those bumper stickers, you know, the ones that say, “My sport is your sport’s punishment.” That sounded about right.  I’d always thought of running as a component for other sports, and from what I guessed, I was decent at it.  Never the fastest, but somewhere at the front of the pack.

       Little that happened that first day of practice changed my perception.  There was lots of stretching, lots of new terminology (tempo runs, intervals, Fartleks—which to this day still sounds funny to me), and then this seemingly arbitrary splitting up into two groups, one around each coach.  I waited with a shrinking pool of kids as Robert joined in with “the sprinters.”  Just like that, I was ten again, the new kid at school, waiting as unfamiliar kids were picked for teams while I was left behind.  This time, before it grew too demoralizing, I was brought into the group with some other kids, the ones Coach Steve happily called “my distance folks.”

            “We’re going up around and back today,” the coach said.  The older kids groaned, but once again, what did I know?  How was I to suspect that “up around and back” meant two miles up Valley Road and Normal Avenue, then around the reservoir there, and back to school?  Six miles total.  Six miles?!  Had I known that at the time, I might have quit right then and there.  Maybe that’s why Coach never did get around to telling us how long it was.

            I looked over at Robert and the sprinting crew.  Maybe today’s temporary, I thought.  Then I noticed the height of the sprinters.  Some were muscular, some were bean-poles.  But they all had long, very long legs.  I inspected the kids around me, frowned at my own boringly average frame.  Nothing close to a sprinter’s body there.  No, I was a distance runner.

            I followed a group of runners that included this razor-thin kid Paul that had been in several of my classes.  He knew what he was doing.  Paul acknowledged me with a nod.  So, I shadowed him out of the parking lot, down the street, toward the first hill.

            The first half-mile was fun.  Running was easy!  My legs ate up the ground.  I loved the wind rushing past as I left the road behind.  I was going to like this track thing.  A few younger kids had slowed behind me, but I was still there on Paul’s heels!  Then the hill hit me, hard.  My dash through the city turned to a shuffle as we headed toward the top of that very long hill.  That’s when I realized there was so much more to being a runner, and I hadn’t a clue what it was.  Running was hard.

            Paul turned, I guess when he recognized he was alone.  “Relax,” he shouted to me, jogging backward.  “Shorten your steps and pump your arms forward, not across your body.”  (I still do that).  I nodded, struggled on, watched Paul grow smaller as I ambled on ahead.  When I reached the top, I found Paul running in large circles around a raised flower bed waiting for me.  I made it almost all the way around the reservoir that day when Paul told me to head back and he’d catch up to me.  I was grateful for the reprieve.

            That was my first indication that I was a middle-of-the-pack runner, or MoP-head, if you will.

 

            My second was during our first practice on an actual track.  Brookdale Park, to be precise.  Back when it was still composed of finely packed gravel usually referred to as cinder (there, I’m dating myself!).  We were running quarter-mile sprints.

            “Sixty-eight, sixty-nine, seventy!” Coach Steve called out.

            One boy crossed the finish line, then a second, a third, two or three more.

            “Strong finish, Raposo!  Keep going, guys!  Seventy-three, seventy-four.  Good job, Nicosia!  Seventy-six!  Seventy-seven! . . .”

            The last runner crossed the purple line, bent over to recover.

            “Alright, folks,” Coach said.  “Half-a-lap walk.  Throw up if you have to, then we’ll try it again.”

            Seventy seconds.  That was what Coach Steve had said.  Four hundred meters.  Seventy seconds.  That was the target time for us middle-distance runners.  I knew nothing of the 400 then.  I figured 70 seconds was a good time, wondered whether I could shave off the four seconds Coach required.  Mostly, I was just satisfied to not cross the line last.  That freshman—what was his name, Franklin Peters?—had that dubious honor.

            “Alright, folks.  Line it up.  We’ll try it again, target time, seventy seconds.”

            I lined up with my teammates, looked over at Robert practicing his starts with the sprinters.

            “Go!” Coach Steve called.  Right away, the taller, older kids sprinted to the lead, leaving me to chase them.  Three-hundred-eighty meters later, Coach was calling out, “Seventy, seventy-one.  Alright, Nicosia.  Seventy-three . . . .”

            It took several more attempts before I finished in 70 seconds.  Coach seemed happy.  I basked in the satisfaction of a job well done.  Seventy seconds, must mean something, I thought.  Anyone who can do it in 70 seconds must be a good runner.  I wondered what it would take to win a 400-meter race.  Sixty eight?  Sixty six?

            Seventy seconds, I rolled around in my head, at practice, during trial runs, even in the classroom. Seventy seconds.

            Skip ahead to that first meet of the season.  I was assigned to run in the second heat of the 400.  I had guessed that, with three teams there, if each had a couple of fast runners like the two blond seniors on my team, I had a chance of making the finals.  And once you make the finals, well, who knows what could happen?  Seventy seconds, I kept telling myself.

            My assignment was lane eight.  I thought little of that, but recognized that in a staggered start, I’d get a nice five yard head start.  I liked the concept.  I’d start off in the lead, pace myself, and hold off the others at the end. 

            When the gun sounded, I got off fast.  Really fast.  Faster than my short legs had ever run before.  Why, I was downright flying!  I even had a little trouble keeping control of my balance, I was going so fast.  I felt like I was flailing, but through the first turn I was satisfied.  I was in front.

            As I came out of the turn, runners entered my field of vision.  As long as they stay back there, I thought, I’m in good shape.  They can’t pass me.  I’m moving too fast.

            The surprise came on the backstretch.  Coming out of the turn, one runner caught and passed me.  Then a second, a third.  How could this happen?  Even as I adjusted my expectations to fourth place, more runners came into view.  I tried to summon more speed, but by the final turn I trailed the entire field.

            I crossed the line ages later, turned toward where my teammates were gathered in the infield.  “Sixty-seven four,” Coach Steve said.  He patted me on the shoulder.  “Good work.”

            Sixty-seven four?  Sixty-seven four?!   My fastest time yet.  Good enough for last place.  The winner was, what, eight seconds faster?

            Yes, I was a Mop-head.

 

            But I don’t plan for this to be a column about failures.  No, not at all.  In fact, while I never won a high school race, I earned my letter as a junior and senior, running the 800 and 1600 in acceptable times.  I could take handle a relay baton better than anyone, too.  After a few starts and stops through the years, I returned to running consistently about four years ago, and have been rededicated ever since.  I’ve learned a lot these past four years, a lot from intense studying (oh, did I tell you I was a nerd?), a lot from the amazing, dedicated, caring folks who are our captains, leaders and companions on the road.  Most of these things I wish I knew when I was younger, so I plan to pass on to my fellow club-members in the hope that you might benefit from the wisdom of someone “just like you.”

            But first, we have to determine if you, too, are a MoP-head.  So, with all due respect to Jeff Foxworthy, we give you:

You Might Be a MoP-head if:

            • You thought GU gels were pronounced “Gee-You.”  (Why would anything you ingest be named “Goo?”)

            • You actually use gels.

            • You dedicate almost as much time to running as the RGR’s (Really Good Runners), but because you aren’t 6-feet tall, 111 pounds, or your body just doesn’t move that fast, when you cross the finish line, Ben Teixeira and Anthony DiFiore aren’t even out of breath any longer.

            • You spend at least a half-hour a week studying your running schedule.

            • You get excessively excited to share your expertise with your friend who says she’s going to run her first 5k this year, taking her under your wing and giving her all sorts of unsolicited advice.

            • You feel sad when your friend doing her first 5k doesn’t religiously stick to the ten-week schedule you personally created for her.

            • You have to wait for race officials to post the SECOND page of 10k results on the bulletin board near the bathroom before your name appears.

            • Your team captain puts you on two teams and you finish sixth on the A team, but first or second on the B team.

            • Your PLP is somewhere between 45 and 65%.

            • You know what PLP stands for.  (For those of you who don’t, the PLP, or Performance Level Percentage is an approximate grading of runners based on age and gender.  So, someone whose PLP is 50% is right there smack dab in the middle of all runners for his or her age and gender, while someone five years younger with the same time will have a lower PLP.  It’s a bit like a golf handicap, only not as generous…  There, now that you know, you might be a MoP-head!)

            • Once a year, you earn a second-place medal in your age group in some obscure race in Middlesex County.

            • You don’t tell anyone about this obscure race in Middlesex County, because that might increase your competition, and then you might not get any medal.

            • You forget how miserable you were in the last six miles of the marathon, and one week later, you’re signing up for next year’s.

            • You get upset at all the RSRs (the Really Slow Runners) who line up at the front of races and you have to maneuver around them the whole first mile.

            • You get upset at yourself when the RGRs start passing you around mile two.

            • You get excited at the end of a race when the announcer calls out your name from your bib, because it’s probably the only time you’re going to hear your name called in front of hundreds of people.

            • You save your first half-marathon bib.

            • You don’t like the name “bib,” because it sounds childish.

            • You don’t like the term “half marathon” because when you tell someone you ran one, you see that look in their eyes that says, “Oh, only a half marathon, well, that’s not so impressive.”

            • You bite your tongue every time someone asks, “How long was that marathon you ran?”

            • You get excited when you break the top 100 in the state’s USATF points list.

            • After you break the top 100 in the state’s USATF points list, you sign up for several USATF-sponsored races.

            • Ultimately, you stop going to only USATF-sponsored races because a) they’re too far away, b) you get tired of finishing in the back of the pack at those highly competitive races, and/or c) you can’t get excited about the numbers game because it kind of ruins the experience for you.

            • You read a technical article that states, “A hundred fifty-eight pounds is large for a marathoner,” and realize that, tipping the scales at 168 pounds, you must be considered clinically obese.

            • You realize that, tipping the scales at 168 pounds, you don’t come anywhere near qualifying as a Clydesdale, either.  Oh, well…

            • You can spell and pronounce Keflezighi without looking it up.

            • You smiled every time those Ryan Hall AT&T commercials came on television.

            • You know what the words footstrike, heel-toe-drop, minimalist, barefoot running, insole, outsole and toebox mean, but you still can’t quite put them all together to find The Perfect Shoe for you.

            • You spend as much time trying on running shoes as you do trying on regular shoes (or, if you’re male, the closest female in your life does).

            • Your husband/wife/significant other bought you a 13.1 or 26.2 magnet for your car, but you didn’t put it on the car until you finished that first marathon.  Not because you didn’t think you could do it, but because you didn’t feel you earned it.

            • When you did put the magnet on your car, the whole family had to come outside to witness the event.

 

            Make no mistake about it.  MoP-heads should celebrate our heritage.  If we didn’t take pride in our accomplishments, if we didn’t reap the benefits of the running experience, there wouldn’t be so many of us.  And we far outnumber the RGRs and bucket-list runners, who try anything once just to say they’ve done it, but don’t plan to make an effort to transform themselves into a runner!

            I tend to think that maybe we, more than they, can extract the purest sense of personal pride and satisfaction that the running experience can provide.  The bucket-list runners who want to do one marathon and then retire will never know the joy of bettering a PR that they didn’t think was possible.  They’ll never know the joy of being able to do something a second time.  It was only after my second 5k when I felt I honestly could say, “Yes, I am a runner,” only after my second marathon when I could say, “I am a marathoner.”

            The RGRs, on the other hand, will never know the kind of fortitude required to keep to their running schedule when there is no chance at public recognition, an award, or even a potential for a PR perhaps.  We do it out of the sheer challenge we put in front of ourselves each and every run.  Each time there’s a doubt inside of us whether we’re going to make it or not.  And when we finish the run, hands raised or dragging at our sides, we tell ourselves, You know what?  You’re okay.  And tomorrow we put that challenge in front of us again, and start the whole process rolling once more.  It’s all for us.  Only for us.  I’m convinced it must have been a MoP-head who said, “Every run is a good run.”

            So, if you’re a MoP-head, or think you might be one, join me on the voyage.

 

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