Last weekend, I re-discovered the key to excellence in a high school meet.  Within the Oregon HS State Championships, they had one elite women’s and one elite men’s 1500.  There were some really good people in it, including (Kipyego, Flanagan, and Yoder-Begley) but the vibe I got was that our presence served mostly an educational purpose, demonstrating to a stadium full of parents that their kids’ chosen sport is also participated in by professionals.  And that’s cool with me.  I didn’t even know you could be a pro runner until my last year of high school.

Outside of the quality of athletes, there was nothing professional about our 1500: no appearance fees, no basket boys carrying our stuff, no prize money, no media coverage.  But the opportunity to showcase professional sport before a captive audience was fun, and important.

The race itself was extremely important for my overall season plan and development.  As anyone who has been setback significantly knows, getting back into “race shape” is about much more than simply doing hard workouts.

Now there’s a running phrase that has abstract meaning.  What the hell is “race shape?”  People throw it around all the time.  Races, no matter how hard you train, offer a set of different stimuli and challenges to any workout you could put together.  There is no better way to prepare for a big race than to race.  Every athlete is different in how many races they need before they are in “race shape” but if you are preparing for any event that involves tactics, intimidation, and a potentially close finish, you simply gots to get out there and screw up a few times first before your big event.  The 1500 at the HS State Meet offered me the perfect chance to do just that.

It was my first race against professional competition, including athletes with whom I have a long history.  And ever since I launched my own personal comeback vision, (donning a medieval smock and walking boot in a stoney dark dungeon long long ago,) I had envisioned waiting to race tier-one competitors until I was a fully baked, frosted, and iced layer-cake worthy of a celebrity wedding. But this season I’ve had to alter my plans or else I never would step on the track.  Forward progress has required that I race other elites as a half-baked funfetti sheet cake with a soggy middle.

According to the feedback of those inside my inner circle, my performance was very good:  I placed 3rd to Kipyego and Flanagan and ran 4:12.  But I am my harshest critic, and deep inside I knew I was capable of more.  It was one of those races where, 30 seconds after finishing, I wished I could do it again in an hour.  In my mind, I had made a crucial error on the third lap.  It was the same error I recognized as a senior in college when I began giving the pros a run for their money in post-season races.  The mistake?  Self-preservation.  When the race hurts the most, the field always breaks into two groups:  those who are trying to win and everyone else.  It seems simple that you should always just go with that front group when it breaks, but its not.  That’s where self-preservation kicks in, one of the most ingrained evolutionary behaviors of all animals.  Unless you are literally running for your life, your mind protects your body from unnecessary pain and utter exhaustion.  That’s why its so hard to break through into that top group; you have to learn to trick your body to that highest level of performance in a non-life-or-death situation.

The pshychological component is just as powerful, if not more so.  Even if you can trick yourself into physically killing yourself on the third lap, you have to be willing to risk failure.  If you go for it and come up short, it will have all been a waste (at least that what it feels like).  Its safer to stay in the chase pack, where your results are good but never exceptional.  All of these thoughts happen while the race rapidly unfolds, and by the time you process them, the moment to be great has likely passed you by.

In that 1500, I was exposed to this physical and mental battle for excellence for the first time in a long time.  I definitely didn’t nail it, but I saw clearly what I need to do.  I’ve been here before.  I’ve learned this lesson multiple times before, and I’ll have to learn it again.  My physical fitness is good (4:12 is only one second slower than I ran in that same meet 2 years ago, 2 weeks before running 14:58,) but when it comes to “race shape, I have some work to do.

I only have one more race before USA’s but it may take me longer than that to master this skill of great difficulty.  It will take as long as it takes.  I may be funfetti sheet cake now, but I’ve seen the recipe for the good stuff.