Sunday, July 1, 2012

Don’t Look Back

In April of 2004, my dad and I traveled to St. Louis to watch the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for the Women’s Marathon.  Going to see the marathon trials was a Bucket List item for both of us.  We spent the night in a hotel near the start of the race the night before; we were both so excited that we could hardly sleep all night.  It was an early race start – 7 a.m. – but we wanted to be sure to have a good view in the crowd of spectators at the start of the race, and so we got there almost an hour early.  I thought it was extra-cool that the event started at Frances Field on the track of my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, which was also, incidentally, the site of the 1904 Summer Olympics.

Over the course of my life, I watched countless races both in person and on TV with my dad.  Because he was always much more up-to-speed than I was about the field of competitors, he typically told me which runners we should “pull for,” as he put it.   He didn’t have to tell me that day, though; we were both long-time fans of Deena Kastor and had been following her running career since before she was married, back when she was Deena Drossin.  She had run the fastest debut marathon for American women in 2001 and was the national champion in women’s cross-country.  A California native, she was a four-time SEC champion in track and field as a collegiate competitor at the University of Arkansas, which was where Dad had started following her running career in the news.  She held several U.S. records in running and was internationally ranked, twice finishing as the runner-up at the World Cross County Championships, the most important competition in international cross-country running.

Our favorite, Deena (or "Deener," as Dad pronounced her name), is sporting a #1 here.
As Dad and I sat in the front row of the stadium seats at Frances Field that day, we watched the runners stretching and milling around nervously before the start of the race.  Dad had a copy of the course map and had circled in red the points where he thought we should stand during the marathon to watch the runners go by.  The course consisted of 3.5 loops through Forest Park, a 1300+ acre park located in the western part of the city, and ended at the World's Fair Pavilion in the park.  The layout of the runners’ route made it an ideal race to spectate, and, as soon as the starting gun was fired and the athletes completed four laps around the track and then raced out the gate onto the street, Dad and I high-tailed it out of the stadium to claim our spot on the curb at the three-mile mark.

Exiting the track for the on-road portion of the race

A runner named Blake Russell took the lead early on and was about a minute ahead of Deena and four other women when they came by us three miles into the 26.2-mile long race.  Deena and a couple of the others were giving out occasional high-fives to some people standing on the curb as they passed by; Dad called out “Good pace; don’t lose touch” to her, just like he’d advised me in countless races of a much smaller scale.  She looked right at him and gave him a nod as she and the others in the pack flew by, and then Dad and I rushed to get back in the car so we could make it to stand around the 7-mile mark before the leaders got there.  

Just a few minutes after we’d staked our claim on our spot at that point, we saw the front pack racing up the hill in front of us.  Deena had closed the gap on Blake by about 20 seconds, but the rest of the leaders were right on Deena’s tail.  “Pick it up half a step, but don’t go all out yet,” Dad advised her in his regular-speaking voice volume as she sprinted by.  I didn’t think she’d heard him until I saw her flick her right hand out to the side in a quick gesture of acknowledgement and then noticed her get a little higher up on the balls of her feet in an obvious effort to pick up the pace.  

Blake (#4) in the lead at Mile 12
Our next planned check-point was at Mile twelve.  There was an aid station there with all different kinds of water bottles on the table, each marked with a different runner’s name and no doubt filled with a specific concoction of that competitor’s specifications.  While we waited, Dad and I joked around about trying a drink from the various bottles to see what was in each one, but, when he saw the runners coming around the corner, he got serious and started bouncing on the balls of his feet like he always did when he was nervous.  Blake was still out ahead about the same distance.  Deena grabbed her water bottle from the table and then side-stepped to get out of the way of the other runners coming up behind her as she stopped to take off her shoe; apparently, she’d felt a rock in there and wanted to try to get rid of it.  She quickly put her shoe back on, took a swig from her water bottle, tossed the bottle down, and then bolted ahead to get back in the race.  She quickly caught and picked off the other front runners who'd passed her except for Blake, who had increased her lead to about a minute again.

Dad and I raced to get to the 15-mile mark and were excited to see that Deena had lessened the gap to only about 20 seconds by then; “Keep it right there!  Pace yourself; you’re right where you need to be,” Dad told her in a conspiratorial voice.  She looked at him and gave him a quick nod as she ran past us.  It was so impressive to see how fast the turnover rate of all of the runners’ legs was as they went by; they made it look almost effortless, but we knew it was far from that at the pace they were putting in.

Next Dad and I positioned ourselves near the 19.5 mark, and a few minutes later we saw the women approaching.  Deena was in front this time, leading by just a few seconds over Blake, who was tailed by about 30 seconds by another runner, Colleen De Reuck, a 40 year-old South African native who became a U.S. citizen just after the previous summer Olympics.  As Deena got closer to where we stood, we saw her glance back over her shoulder a couple of times to gauge the position of the runners behind her, a move that I knew from my days in competitive running that Dad did not think was good strategy.  “Don’t look back – it shows weakness!” he advised adamantly as Deena flew by us, and again she gave him a right-handed sideways wave of recognition.  

After the rest of the front runners passed by, Dad and I decided that we wanted to go to the end of the course to try to secure a good spot by the finish line.  We parked and walked towards the big Finish Line banner, and we were thrilled to see there was room just past the tape near the media truck.  The race was being announced in a play-by-play fashion over the loud speaker, and we listened among the other spectators to hear.  At Mile 22, Deena was still in the lead by a small margin, and Colleen had overtaken Blake.  Over the next couple of miles, the crowd alternately grew quiet and cheered as we heard Deena’s lead being decreased by Colleen little by little, until #2 De Reuck became #1 and then continued to forge ahead to build her lead on Deena and the rest of the field. 

At the finish, thousands of fans holding little American flags lined the streets. Someone held out a big America flag on a pole to Colleen about 200 meters before the tape; Colleen grabbed it and crossed the finish line in first place, carrying the flag, with a huge smile on her face, setting a U.S. Olympic trials record with her time of 2:28.25.  (Her win qualified her for her fourth Olympics - pretty impressive at age 40!)  Deena was the runner-up and finished strong with a time of 2:29:38, followed by Jen Rhines, who had run in the lead pack the entire race and finished third in 2:29:57. Blake came in fourth with a time of 2:30:50.

Colleen De Reuck - winner of the 2004 Olympic Trials Women's Marathon
For the first time in history, the top three runners in this event all finished in under 2 hours, 30 minutes.  These three women were draped in huge American flags as they climbed up onto the awards podium a little while later to accept their medals and to claim their spots on the U.S. Olympic Team.

After the runners had come down from the stage and the frenzy had died down a little, Deena happened to look up and see us at the edge of the crowd.  With the flag still draped over her shoulders, she walked over and called out “Thanks for the advice!” to Dad.  “Sure!” he responded casually, as if we stood around talking to Olympians every day.  She gave us a wave and stepped off into the swarm of reporters, and we turned to find our way back to the car, tired but excited from our big adventure.

A few months later, as Dad and I watched the Olympic women's marathon on TV at our respective houses, I thought back to the Trials and to the advice he’d given out to Deena during the race.  Deena’s third place finish in the marathon in Athens was one of the highlights of the 2004 Summer Games.  She toughed out the extreme heat, paced herself just right, and made our country proud when she stood with the olive wreath on her head to accept the bronze medal.  As I watched her going the distance over the 26.2 miles she ran that day, I never once saw her looking back.  And now, remembering back to Deena's big win that day, I can’t help but think that, along with strategies of her coaches and the wisdom she'd learned along the way as a professional athlete, she also had my dad’s voice in her head, urging her on, telling her she was right where she needed to be, just as I have in mine each and every day of my life.

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