Prologue (skip this part to get to the good stuff): My race to watch the men’s 5,000m final
Last Saturday I had a race of my own: the race to drive back from cottage country in Ontario (no TV, very little Internet access with no streaming) in time to watch the men’s 5,000m final.
We couldn’t rush our departure from a cottage north of Minden because this was a big family week. There were many packing chores to be done and, of course, the obligatory group photos that had to satisfy multiple camera owners. And of course, I couldn’t face sitting in a car for three hours without doing at least a little exercise—in my case, a one-hour bike ride on hilly country roads followed by a 15-minute lake swim.
As we pulled out of the cottage at 11:45, our GPS unit told us that we would make it back to the Prince Hotel in Toronto by 2:15. We felt hopeful, with the 5,000m set to begin at 2:30.
The lovely drive through rolling Ontario famland on back roads went unexpectedly well, other than a major downpour that lasted about half an hour. We stopped for gas and other necessary breaks and still managed to stay on track for our 2:15 arrival. Then, mere kilometers from our destination, we hit the nightmare of the huge GTA (Greater Toronto Area) in the form of a massive traffic jam on the expressway only 6 kilometres north of our hotel. As we inched along through about 6 lanes of blocked traffic, my hopes of being able to watch the last distance track race of the Olympics began to ebb away.
However, we had a 15-minute cushion on our arrival time. Once off the expressway, we swiftly covered the remaining 1.5 km to the hotel. Keith dropped me at the door at exactly 2:30. I raced to the hotel bar area where three TV sets were on. One showed wrestling; another showed someone receiving a gold medal. I picked up the controller and started flipping through channels. I was in despair as I went through every channel, seeing many sports, none of them track. Finally another guest asked me if I was finished. I handed over the controller, telling him I couldn’t find what I wanted. As he started channel-surfing, I glimpsed a track. “That’s what I was looking for!” I squealed, as I watched the 5,000m pack jogging around the track with the clock reading 5-something.
He went to another TV and announced,“And here’s what I’m looking for.” I don’t even know what he was watching; my eyes were glued to the track.
The Men’s 5,000m Olympic Final
Two kilometers into the race, the whole pack of 15 men was still jogging together, including Canadian Cameron Levins, the first Canadian to participate in an Olympic 5,000m final in a hundred years! Cam had run an outstanding 13:18 in the semi-final, as well as proving he could run with the big boys by placing 11th in the 10,000m final a few days earlier, when he stayed with the pack until the final lap and finished with a superb 27:40, only ten seconds behind gold medallist Mo Farah.
Somewhere between 2.5 and 3.0 kilometres into the 5,000m, the real race began. The hotel bar was noisy and I was watching the race with no commentary, but that didn’t dim my appreciation of what was happening. The men’s numbers identified them clearly. Also, I think the absence of sound allows a spectator to focus more on the faces and body language of the competitors to better understand what they are experiencing mentally and physically.
I can’t give a play-by-play commentary of what happened in the last few laps of the race; my memory isn’t that photographic. I can only say that I was standing in front of the TV, completely entranced and hopping up and down with excitement and the energy that was pouring out of that TV all the way from London. I remember watching Galen Rupp (the American who finished an astonishing second in the 10,000m) making a brave surge at one point. (Rupp ended up placing 7th.) The lead kept changing and the positions behind the leaders kept changing as these men started showing what they could do.
A decisive move came when Mo Farah (GRB, winner of the 10,000m) took the lead with 700m remaining. That’s a long time to hold on to the lead. Farah had many challengers. But the determination on his face was unmistakeable. And unshakeable. He had his position on the inside of lane 1 and he wasn’t going to give it up. It’s rare that a distance runner can take the lead so far before the finish line and not be passed by a late surge from another runner who’s been drafting and conserving his legs for the final sprint.
But Farah was equal to all challengers. As I watched him on the final agonizing lap, I loved the fact that his face made it clear it wasn’t easy. His form wasn’t perfect. I could see exactly how he was transmitting his one thought, his one goal—the GOLD—into a laser beam of energy concentrated on every muscle of his body that would propel him forward. I saw that his leg muscles were working at maximum power but that wasn’t enough—he had to use every bit of strength in his shoulders and arms to give him additional forward propulsion. His face was clenched. He didn’t look smooth and effortless—he looked like a man commanding a superhuman performance out of his body by the sheer force of his mind.
He did the job. An incredible late surge, perhaps 50m from the finish, by Ethiopian Dejen Gebremeskal propelled him past all other competitors except Farah, but though Gebremeskal came close as the line approached, Farah maintained his superiority and even had time before the line to race his arms in a gesture of incredulity and exultation when he knew for certain that Gebremeskal couldn’t catch him.
The rest of the field poured in close upon their heels, all competitors utterly spent from the speed of the final laps. Farah ran approximately 3:56 for the last mile. Cameron Levins was second last, but kudos to him for running with the pack until the crazy sprinting of the final lap.
Watching this race reminded me that there is no substitute for watching events live, when you see every second of the race unfolding and can never predict everything that will happen. I love to see the expressions on the competitors’ faces during and after the races. Distance runners aren’t like sprinters. They usually can’t recover from their all-out efforts quickly. They aren’t ashamed to lie on the track afterwards, showing their utter exhaustion and relief that the pain has finally ended. There was some goofiness too—I watched Farah doing sideways ab crunches on the track a couple of minutes after his finish—what was that about?
I like, too, to see the camaraderie between these competitors who are all fighting for the same thing during the race—the coveted medals, the desire to place high, to set PBs or national records. After the race they share a bond, a respect for each other that only they can understand. Maybe their bodies or their minds or their tactics betrayed them at different points in the race, but they went through the same agony together. They gave it all they had.
I also love to see the joy on the faces of those who ran a race that met or exceeded their wildest dreams: whether that was a gold or less-lustrous medal or just a PB. I never had a hope of winning an Olympic medal, but I well remember the huge high of winning a road race after a final desperate sprint, or the satisfaction of suffering through 25 laps and getting a PB out of it. The joy of those achievements is a pure thing. It is a result of years of training and an unwavering focus and acceptance of pain-to-the-limit during the race. The high that comes afterwards cannot be equaled.
The Women’s 10,000m Olympic Final
Sadly, the only other Olympic distance race (other than the men’s marathon) that I got to watch was the women’s 10,000m. I was in Toronto on Friday, August 3, before leaving for cottage country. I was able to watch the women’s 10,000m on NBC. Except for a few commercial breaks, they showed most of the race, not surprisingly since there were three American women in the final.
The strategy of Olympic races can be unexpected, and in this race the surprise was seeing the three Japanese runners go immediately to the lead, and carry the field through the first 4K, with the African runners hanging back. The Japanese, led mainly by Hitomi Niiya (who ended up finishing 9th, with a PB), even opened up a gap, though I’m sure no one believed that gap posed any danger to the favourites. Kudos to Niiya for having the guts to go to the lead and set a decent pace.
After 4K, there was some alternating of the lead, with Ethiopian Werknesh Kidane doing much of the work. Tirunesh Dibaba, who had to be considered the favourite, was always close to the front but never took the lead, looking relaxed and in control the entire race.
So it was no surprise when she easily moved to the lead with about 500m remaining (my memory might be wrong about this.) What was astonishing was the speed with which she opened a large gap on the rest of this world-class field. As I watched her running down the final backstretch, widening that gap with every stride, I was struck by the thought that she almost looked like a 400m runner—after already running 24 laps at an average pace of 73.2 sec/lap. Her final time, including a last lap of 62 seconds, was 30:20.75—only the season’s leading time, not a world or Olympic record—but to obliterate the best runners in the world so thoroughly was an impressive demonstration of Dibaba’s superiority. Behind her were Sally Jepkosgei Kepyego (30:29.37, PB) and Vivian Jepkemoi Cheruiyot (30:30.44, PB), both from Kenya.
This is why we watch the Olympics: to be thunderstruck by performances like Dibaba’s.
Now that the 2012 London Olympics are over, my blog will soon focus on my 1988 Olympic experience. During this week in 1988, I was in a heavy training phase, able to do a few good running workouts supplemented by regular training on the Lifecycle bike. I still had heel bursitis, Achilles tendonitis, and intestinal problems. Nonetheless, I would be racing on August 21—at the Falmouth Road race. To be continued next week…
Olympic Training Log
August 13, 1988
AM: Did 5 x 1 mile workout with Paul at Upper Canada College track. Conditions worst ever—94% humidity, hot, felt dreadful from first one on—also still very sick. Did 1½ miles warmup, times between 5:18–5:21. Practised passing every 200m—very tough. After miles did 6 x 100m. Injuries hardly hurt at all in workout, sore after but not bad. About 7 miles.
August 14, 1988
AM: Did Kettleby time trial with George—52:08. Push hard, felt quite good.
AM-2: Weights at gym. Leg workout with bounding and running motion with dumbbells, situps. Feeling very sick after workout, for rest of day.
August 15, 1988
AM: Did workout at Belt Line with Joseph. 30 min warmup at good pace. 6 x 1 min with 1 min rest. 6 x 3 min with 1 min rest. Felt bad during workout—dizzy, no pep. Very sick after. About 9 miles.
PM: Did Lifecycle 24 min level 6, level 9, 10 min level 9, level 6. Legs exhausted—couldn’t handle level 7 fitness test. *
August 16, 1988
AM: Rode bike to gym. Did “pull-strength-endurance” workout plus leg lift on incline, leg extension. Very tired from yesterday. 64 min.
PM: Swim 1800m about 37:50 (Fitness Institute). Did easy workout because of getting shots in both shoulders [medical preparation for Seoul]. Not too sick today.
August 17, 1988
AM: Did workout at Belt Line. 20 min moderate warmup. 10 x ˜100m on trail. 2 x 400m on track in spikes, just over 1 min between, times 69, 68.5—upset because I was pushing hard. Then did 6 2-min intervals on trail and 2 more on upper part, 2:20 and 2:10. About 7 miles. Feeling better today, still not great.
PM: Lifecycle workout. 24 min level 6, level 9. 14 min level 9, level 7 (2 hills), level 6. Feeling quite energetic, worked very hard.
August 18, 1988
AM: Rode bike to gym. Did “push-strength-endurance” workout plus situps, hyperextensions, hamstring curls, leg extensions. 70 min plus 5 min bounding. Felt good.
PM: Pool workout at Fitness Institute. Did 6 x 1 min water running with rope. 2 lengths with kickboard. 800m warmup swim 16:10! Ladder workout 50m, 100m, 150m, 200m, 250m, 200m, 150m, 100m, 50m. Times 56, 1:52, 2:52, 3:53, 4:57, 3:57, 2:56, 1:55, 53. Good workout—just over 1 hr. Hardly feeling sick at all today.
August 19, 1988
AM: Ran 31 min hard on golf course, followed by 4 x 200m with 45 sec rest. Feeling a bit sluggish.
This week: 28½ miles running, 1hr 12 min stationary bike, 1 bike time trial, 2 swim workouts with some water running, 3 weight workouts.