I woke up on the morning of September 30th with a raw sore throat. I had a virus—that explained why I had felt so sluggish for two days.
Instantly I was plunged into despair. Had all my hard work come to this—having to run the race of my life when I was sick?
This happens to elite athletes a lot, though it’s not what you hear about when you’re watching the Olympics on TV. Thousands of athletes are crammed together in a foreign place. They’re surrounded by unfamiliar germs and their immune systems may already be weakened by hard training and the pressures of competition.
My throat was so sore I could barely talk, but I remember I went to breakfast and talked to Ron Bowker about my despair and panic. He was sympathetic and reassuring, and he appealed to my toughness.
I had no choice, anyway. When you’re running for your country, you have to get out there and compete no matter what happens (barring serious injury or illness, of course).
The 10,000m would be held in the evening about 7 p.m. I’ve always hated evening races: how to get through all those hours of the day when you can’t think about anything but the race? You can’t train or risk getting tired legs from shopping or sightseeing. I don’t remember how that awful day passed. I probably went to the track a little early to watch a couple of races, but I wouldn’t have wanted to burn off all my adrenaline.
Once it was time to warm up, there was a strict timetable to follow. We had a separate training track and a field where we could warm up. Sue, Carole, and I warmed up separately. It was a time for inward focus, a time to muster all of our psychological strength.
I don’t think all track competitors fear track races as much as I did. I remember hearing Diane Cummins, Canada’s top 800m runner for many years, give a speech at a BC Athletics banquet. She talked about how much she loved racing. Sure, the 800m is a much different race than the 10,000m, but I know I would fear racing the 800m too. Not only does that race inflict maximum anaerobic pain, but tactics are of the utmost importance. You have to pace the race perfectly and you have to watch your position in the pack to avoid getting boxed in at a critical time.
People who haven’t tried to run a hard 10,000m might wonder exactly what I was afraid of. Where does the nervousness come from? They might think it’s being nervous about the result; wanting to win or get a medal. But it’s not mainly that. I feared running the 10,000m because of the pain. The nervousness comes from knowing that you will have to inflict pain on yourself. Will you be able to meet this challenge? For me, in a 10,000m race the pace would usually start to feel unbearable somewhere between three and four miles into the race. The body wants to stop! —or at least slow down. You can’t allow that to happen or you won’t run a good race. You’ll lose contact with other runners; even if you’re alone you won’t run the time you’re capable of. And there are still so many laps to go! The number remaining is daunting; you can’t face it. You have to take it one lap at a time. Promise yourself you won’t slow down on this lap. Concentrate on staying with the person ahead of you who isn’t slowing down. Force yourself to pass the person in front of you if she is slowing down.
So as I jogged around the warmup field, all this was going through my mind and I was trying to psych myself up, reminding myself that I’d run many races before when I was sick or hadn’t slept well. Another mental trick I often used was to tell myself that in two hours it would all be over. I only had to survive that brief space of time. It would pass no matter what.
I looked at the serious, intent faces of my competitors as they jogged towards me, the ones going in the opposite direction around the field. I knew we shared an intense bond that transcended country or language. We had all trained for years for the upcoming race; we all feared it; we were all hoping that on this day of all days our bodies and willpower would not betray us. We shared this bond and had great respect for each other, but for the period of the race we would be enemies.
The goal of some athletes was to win or to medal. Others hoped for a national record or a PB. But we all knew the eyes of the world would be on us. Running a track race is a pure and simple thing. The clock doesn’t lie. There is no faking anything.
It was impossible to do my usual warmup. Normally, I would prefer to keep moving right up to the start of the race. However, we had to report to the “control room” something like 45 minutes before the start of our race. There, we had our spike length checked and officials made sure we were wearing numbers on our front, back, and each hip. We sat in chairs for what seemed like an eternity, with nothing to do but watch the track on TV and wallow in our nervousness. Finally we were released to the track for a 5-minute final warmup before we were called to the line to be put in position and introduced.
It was an awesome feeling to be down on the competition track with the stands rising high above us, filled with thousands of people. It was terrifying. I’m sure I’ve never been more nervous in my life. How could I not have doubts? I knew I was coming down with a terrible cold. What about the side stitch that had almost forced me to stop in the semifinal? If it happened again, earlier in the race, I would be a goner. As I looked at the other women on the line, I realized I was the fattest person there. This may seem ridiculous to those who know me, but remember, all my competitors had been running between 80 and 100+ miles a week. They were gaunt. I had only been able to run 25 to 35 miles a week—after months of no running at all. It was very tough to hold on to my confidence.
It’s strange, but I have little recollection of the race itself. I know I was running in last place for quite a while, but I managed to hold on to the back pack. The pace was quick enough for me. It’s a little embarrassing to be in last place, but I’ve always been able to pace myself properly and in distance running it’s more important to run the pace you can handle than to worry about looking good.
My sickness was affecting me somewhat; I didn’t have my usual energy or aggression, which made it doubly important that I run cautiously. On the positive side, my legs felt very good after two weeks of light training, and there was no trace of a side stitch.
I went through 5K in 16:02.59. By this time, I was starting to pass straggling runners, which is always encouraging. Ingrid Kristensen, the world record-holder, had had to drop out after 2K with a serious foot injury. This was not a surprise—everyone knew she had struggled through the semifinal with the injury.
I let my pace lag a little in the difficult fourth and fifth miles. There would be no dramatic finish for me on this day. I gave everything I had and finished, exhausted, in 13th place out of 19 finishers. My time was 32:14.05, two seconds faster than I had run in the semifinal and one second better than my PB from 1987.
I narrowly escaped being lapped by the winners. With Kristensen out of the race, it came down to a battle between the veteran Olga Bondarenko of the USSR and the young, talented Liz McColgan of Great Britain. Bondarenko got the gold with her 31:05; McColgan couldn’t match her closing speed and finished second in 31:08.44. Another Soviet runner, Elena Joupieva, took the bronze with 31:19.82. Notably, there were no African women in this field. Women’s distance running has changed dramatically since 1988.
Just over 30 seconds off the bronze medal time, Canadian Sue Lee had the race of her life to finish 8th in 31:50.51. She had already dramatically lowered her own Canadian record in the semifinal, and took another second off in the final. Sue had trained hard under the excellence guidance of her coach Doug Clement and husband Richard Lee. She peaked perfectly and put it all together when it counted.
Carole Rouillard didn’t fare so well. She was suffering from the same virus that I had, and finished 16th in 32:41.43. Carole’s best years were ahead of her. She is still ranked 3rd Canadian all-time with her PB of 31:56.74 (set in Tokyo in 1991) and ran the 10,000m again at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
After the race
As soon as I crossed the finish line, I felt an overwhelming relief. A huge psychological burden had been lifted. The months, weeks, and final day of suspense were over. Considering my sickness, I was pleased with my performance. I hadn’t let myself or my team down. I knew that George, Paul, and others who knew me well would understand how tough this race had been for me.
Could I have run faster if I hadn’t had a cold? Probably yes, a little. But my training since the onset of my heel bursitis hadn’t been sufficient that I could have run the sub-32:00 10K George and I believed I was capable of. I considered myself very lucky to have been able to train enough to run a PB at the Olympics. My peaking had been perfect.
After the race, Benoit Leduc (coach of team marathoners Lizanne Bussiéres and Ellen Rochefort) invited me to go out to dinner with the “Quebec group”, including Carole and some of the walkers on the team. I was very happy to have a group to celebrate with. Both Carole and I were feeling pretty sick, but we didn’t care anymore. The evening passed in a daze. I listened to the French flowing around me, understanding most but not joining in much. People included me by speaking English too.
When I got back to the Village after dinner, I discovered that a letter from George had arrived. He had written: “You are at the Olympics, and it will be a fantastic experience for you, one that you will never forget.”
It was true. The next day, after the thrill of watching the 1,500m and 5,000m finals, I wrote in my diary:
This experience really has been irreplaceable, and it was worth all the stationary bike workouts and swim workouts and mile repeats that I did. I’m just lucky, too, to have had the talent and the opportunity to be here.
This is the final post of my Olympic Training Log, which I started writing last November. I’d like to thank all my readers, especially those who have left comments on my blog or on Facebook or talked to me about my blog. I might have abandoned this project if it hadn’t been for your encouragement.
I plan to write a couple of posts in the near future to reflect upon the process of keeping this blog: what I learned about blogging, memoir writing, and connecting with friends in a new way. Also, I’d like to write something about the directions my running career took in the years after the Olympics.
Any comments or questions you have about my Olympic Training Log or my running experiences are always welcome.
Olympic Training Log
September 30, 1988
PM: 10,000m Olympic final. Came 13th in 32:14.05 (PB). Legs felt good, but throat sore and feeling lethargic—virus. Felt quite good during race, but had no kick—should have pushed harder 2nd 5K. Calves very sore after, couldn’t warm down because of blisters. Achilles sore but not too bad. 8 miles counting warmup.
This week: 27 miles running, 3 swims, ½ weight workout.