This is a long post, but includes explanations of age-graded performance and USATF team scoring. And it is an epic tale of wonder.
The hardest part about the Twin Cities One Mile is sitting at work all day thinking about it, or trying not to think about it, trying to build up some excitement about it without letting the jitters take over. Having no definite goal time this year, I wasn’t worried about it until the afternoon slump hit and a nap sounded a lot better than a race.
A message alert pulled me out of my reverie. My teammate Willow was offering me a ride. Also, our team leader Sonya was reaching out for last-minute pinch-hitters; we didn’t have a complete team on the roster. Why hadn’t I thought of that? I’d registered the day before. Now, knowing I was needed, the old fire in the belly started to stir again.
Me and my team at last year’s Twin Cities One Mile
On my way out, another message from Willow: She didn’t think she could make it; family emergency. Now things were getting interesting.
For those who aren’t familiar with USA Track and Field Minnesota, this is an annual competition where eight races are scored for each team. Team scores are based on the number of complete teams competing at each race (usually about 8-10), and determined by adding the fastest runners’ times. To have a complete team, there must be at least five runners in the open category for men and women, and there must be three runners to form a master’s team. Masters divisions include runners in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s; runners in the older divisions can score in the younger divisions. On my team, we had two young runners, two in the 50’s division, and me. With Willow out, and only Sonya and our open runners definitely faster than me, the pressure was on. Kim would likely run about my speed, so I could pace off her.
I went into the Mill City Museum to change into my uniform and found Cheryl Paxton and her husband Bobby, who a couple years ago had the goal of breaking the single-age records for his races that year. This year, he’s working with a PT to build strength and correct imbalances, something we all have to do as we get older. I’ve often turned to Bobby for advice, so we compared notes about that.
We also talked some about the new wave starts. Last year’s TC1 put all the team circuit racers in the same wave, which made for some congestion and jostling at the start. Bobby told me he had almost gotten knocked down. I had too. Dash had lined up with me in support and caught me when I stumbled, but it cost us both precious time, and he’d just barely missed breaking six minutes. No one was really to blame; the start of a race that fast is always insane, but those of us who’ve been through it get pretty wary. Bobby said he’d start in an earlier, less competitive wave away from any potential bulldozers, and I felt glad to be in a women’s wave where I’d know exactly where to line up.
In the one mile, it’s better to not think about it and just unleash all your crazy inner-child energy at the start. Back at a Meet of the Miles when I was in my early 40’s, when I was always fretting about whether I’d go over or under six minutes, I asked one of the fastest women in my age group whether there was a race strategy that would help. She said there really wasn’t. “Just run stupid,” she said. It made me laugh, but I did run a good mile that day and I still think it’s a good strategy to just abandon all prudent thoughts and go as fast as you can. As another top contender put it, “It’ll be over in less than 10 minutes.” You can do anything for under 10 minutes, right? Not really, but you can make yourself believe you can one the adrenaline kicks in. To me, this is the absolute best thing about racing the mile. For that time, all your mental energy is devoted to pushing your body, and all other thoughts will clear out. You become wonderfully, magically stupid.
I headed out to start my warmup and soon ran into Ken Rosen, out cheering near the first turn on the race course as the early waves went through. The wave starts, while they make for a long night, are an inspiring celebration of running, the simplicity and inclusiveness of the sport. A surprising number of social runners come out just to cheer this event. Ken is highly social and knows more runners than I have ever met through a decade of racing. He offered to do my warmup with me and he introduced me around, always adding “she’s really fast.” I do miss the days when I was truly really fast, but the reputation sticks, which I guess is something. One day they’ll say I was fast and then I’ll know I’m over the hill. This hopefully won’t be until I’m so old people are also saying stuff like “Wow, I hope I’m still running at all when I’m that old.”
Back at the USATF tent, some of the usual racers were gathering. Laurie, coach extraordinaire for MDRA track Thursdays, was out talking to Steve S., who was back again for another victorious sub-5 mile after having accidentally run 10 miles the day before. I can’t be a spoiler for Steve’s race report, nor can I in any way approach the amazing detail he puts into these, but I will say I did tell him I was sure he’d go sub-5 again.
I also ran into Dash. He had also registered last-minute. Immediately I forgot everything but this one thrilling thought: “You’ll finally get to break six minutes!” He said I shouldn’t say that before it happened. So okay, I didn’t say it, but I did.
I went inside to stretch a bit. Time had slowed to a crawl. A random kindly stranger wished me luck and asked if I had a goal. “Six and a half would be great,” I said, trying to convince myself it was. “Well, I’m thinking seven and a half would be great for me,” she said.
“It is great,” I heard myself saying, and let that sink in. “It’s all great. We’re going to be great today.” Great great great great, I kept saying to myself on my final warmup.
At the start line, all the great ladies were doing accelerations, light and quick as the wind. There were only 78 of us in the Women’s Championship wave. Even in my prime, I sometimes felt like a duckling among swans in this milieu. Now, I know so many of them that I lose that feeling in their friendly recognition. Even the very fastest master’s ladies, who would soon leave me in the dust, gave me a nod and a smile. They’re a remarkably humble bunch. It’s a humbling sport.
The announcer did his best to re-inflate our humble egos. “Some of these ladies have run twice as far for a warm-up than they’re going to race today!” That was cute. But then he made a bolder point. “These are the fastest women in the state of Minnesota! They’re going to run the fastest mile of any women in the state!” That made me feel a little like I did when Ken had introduced me as really fast, but there was some truth in it; there really aren’t a lot of women in our age groups who could do what this wave of 78 swans were about to do on this night.
I didn’t have time to worry about how fast my heart was already beating before the clock started. When we took off, it felt more like unleashing my energy than pushing it. In the first minute I was so full of adrenaline that I couldn’t gauge my actual physical effort, I knew my eyes wouldn’t focus well enough for me to check my watch, and only seeing faster teammates ahead of me reassured me that I hadn’t gone out too fast. Soon, the first quarter marker showed that I was only a bit faster than my goal 6:30 pace, and still feeling good. After we turned the first corner, Dash cheered for me, giving me a much-needed boost. After a quick downhill and another turn, it would be PUSH PUSH PUSH until the end. I was starting to gain on Kim. At the start of the last quarter she was just a couple seconds ahead.
I know this course pretty well and I know not to try to put on a sprint until you start to see the crowd lining up at the finish – and not to wait too long after that either. The amazing Kim stayed a second or two ahead, but I passed another competitor and came within a split second of another.
And that was it! About as fast as I’d hoped – well, almost 6:35 by clock time, but close enough to last year’s time for me to maintain the same age-graded performance.
After a drink of water and a cough drop I was ready to watch the final wave, the men’s championship. Previous years have had us hoping to see someone break the 4-minute barrier. This would not be a year for that, but it was still breathtaking to watch them. I set my watch to line up with the clock time, and went out to look for the men I knew. They were all looking good to make their goal times. Most notably, Dash – I screamed when I saw him, which didn’t do wonders for the track-hack I’d already developed from racing in low humidity, but he was going to beat it with time to spare. His new PR is about 5:50 with many more PRs to come. I jogged up to the finish and found him exchanging congrats with teammates.
And now, the best part: Debriefing with teammates. Highlight of the day: The Amazing Amy came out in the last-minute call for a complete team, so we ended up having a complete team for the 50’s category as well. This is the best last-minute pinch-hitting stunt that my superheroic team has pulled off since last year’s Fitger’s 5K, when Amy, Willow and I made it to Duluth just in time to register. Showing up is big in the team circuit. This keeps us in the running to win again, despite fierce competition. Some of the fiercest is, of course, Run ‘n’ Fun, who gathered for their team photo also:
And, the Twin Cities Running Company angels, below:
At this point, I was too excited to notice how cold I was getting, and didn’t quite get into my sweats before I started to shiver. Dash offered me a ride home, which I gratefully accepted, and I checked in with Willow on the way. Things were okay on her end, and she was relieved we’d stayed in the running as a team. Ever supportive, she even took the time to lift my spirits about the dreaded age-related decline. “What counts is you went! You’re strong! And you place!” I didn’t place in this race, but I do feel strong, and the Brian Kraft 5K is still ahead, so Willow will get her chance to kick my butt again.
I keep mentioning age-graded performance, which I discussed with Bobby and Willow today. The AGP is shown as a percentage in MTEC results and on some online calculators. The score is a percentage of the best time on record for the distance for a given age and gender. Some calculators offer a rough interpretation, such as that over 90-93% makes an athlete “world class,” over 80% “national class” and over 70% “regional class.” When Bobby was breaking regional records, he was well over 85%, easily keeping up with many men half his age. Willow described herself as “average,” but being average is pretty honorable in either of the TC1 Championship waves (I was 48th out of 78). Her time in last year’s mile gave her an AGP of 71. Mine is holding steady at 74. Kim, just a couple seconds ahead of me but six years older, gets an impressive 80. I’ve never had an AGP over 80, so that’s as high as I’ll set my sights for now. We’ll see what the future brings.
For now, here’s to honoring the gift of fitness and celebrating the results. Hold that thought. See you soon.