Maybe I’m prone to hyperbole, but I think this might go down as the best race I’ve ever run. How do you define best? That is the question. I’ve certainly run more interesting races, races I’ve enjoyed more, races I’ve suffered more, races in more scenic surroundings and so on. But when you pare it down to the bare bones of performance-based assessment, this one must be right up there.
Back in 1994, Nelson Mandela was poised to become the new president of South Africa. The Springboks had yet to win their first world cup. OJ Simpson was being chased down the highway by the police, and Ayrton Senna and Kurt Cobain were still alive.
Also at that time a group of Wits Athletics Club university runners ran a 5000m race in Durban in the now defunct SAU’s. I was in that group and ran 16:13 in a memorable “additional compromise 5000” which deserves a blog entry of its own. Team mate Hendrick (Ramaala) won the A race that day in 14:31. Also a story for another time.
That 16:13 PB stood from back then until Saturday 24 August 2013. 19 years.
During the period immediately after that 1994 race I was confident I would get under 16 minutes. Young and keen and on an upward curve, it was surely simply a matter of time. But it never happened. Months then years passed, I got close with a few sub 16:20’s but that was all. When I left Wits I gave up running (temporarily). My time to break 16 minutes had come and gone.
Fast forward to the early noughties. Back to running regularly in the new millennium, a new country and a new family. I stuck with the running, it became once again a way of life. Week in week out, month after month year after year.
So we arrive in 2013. This track season has been a good one. I’ve run decent times in all the distances I’ve raced and was hoping it would culminate in Saturday’s 5000. I was confident of a good time but not of breaking 16 minutes. That was out of range. Inside 16:20 for the first time since the 90’s and I would go home very happy.
Time to Race.
We did a three mile warm-up where Ed showed us his old stomping ground around the Warwick University campus. The pace felt disconcertingly hard for a warm-up, but I pushed the negative thoughts aside and reminded myself that I was fit and that nine times out of ten it was fitness that determined how well you race, not how you feel on the warm-up.
A group of five runners, Ed, Dan, Tim, Chris and Sarah (superfast friend of Tim’s) were targeting 76 seconds a lap for kilometre splits of 3:10 and a finish time of 15:50. Ed, being capable of comfortably quicker than this, had volunteered to pace the group from gun to tape. Which he went on to do admirably.
My plan was not to commit to running with this group for the whole race but to try and stick with them for the first km. I thought I was capable of 16:15 and was happy to get there with a blow if necessary. Hence a first km of 3:10 suited me perfectly. After that I could run my own race, assessing how I felt as it went.
The gun went and we were off. Even though there is no entry standard for a BMC regional race, it does not attract all-comers. It tends to draw in the serious athletes who know their way around a track. So it was that when I tagged myself onto the back of Ed’s group, I was also at the back of the race.
After two laps our group swallowed up a pair of runners who popped straight out the back and I was no longer in last place.
The first km split was 3:11.
So far so good. It hadn’t felt particularly easy but it was manageable. I carried on. I focussed on maintaining as small as possible a gap to the back of the group so that I never felt disconnected. Once a gap appeared I knew I would struggle to close it.
2km in 6:20.
This was a good split. It meant I had run the second km in 3:09. It hadn’t felt any tougher than the first. Keep it going. More of the same. Keep calm and concentrate. I wanted to get to 3km before I lost touch.
The 3km mark came in 9:31.
A 3:11 for that one. At this point I worked out that even if I bombed to 3:20’s for the final 2km I would still run a 16:10. That gave me encouragement as I knew it was a time I would be happy with. So anything under that became a bonus. I pressed on. Things were getting tough now. The girl I had been running behind dropped off the group and I suddenly found a gap appearing between us and the group. I made a snap decision and went around her and surged to close the gap back to the group. It was hurting a lot now. Every lap that I could stay with them was bonus material. Ed was shouting out encouragement and splits to all of us, he had been doing it all race like a legend, but now it was all becoming blurry. My head was fuzzy with the pain and the concentration. I was determined not to tie up. The group was pulling away. I could not stay with them but we were only 3 laps from the end. I had stuck to them for 9 laps.
I hit the 4km mark in 12:46.
A 3:15 for that km, my slowest of the race. I knew I needed a 3:14 to get 16-flat. I was hurting so much I couldn’t think any more than that. I got to the start/finish line with two laps to go. I was totally on my own now. The group had splintered as Dan finally cut loose and Tim, Chris and Sarah stretched out behind him. Ed was still shepherding us but it was each to his own.
Two laps to go. Come on Mark. When will you ever get a chance to be in this position again?
I don’t know what my penultimate lap split was but I hit the bell in 14:38.
I needed an 82 second final 400 to do it. I didn’t feel confident. I kept waiting for the blow but I also kept pushing as hard as I could. Down the back straight. The timekeeper at the 200m mark had been calling times each lap. I heard him calmly announce 15:14 as I ran past him. I had 46 seconds to run the final 200m. Damn I was going to do this! I knew it was in my grasp now and I kicked as hard as I could down the home straight. The number I feared was 16:00. To be that close and miss it would be hard to take. I sprinted down the home straight and over the line. I looked down at my watch.
I had done it.
The next few minutes were a blur.
Dan (15:39), Tim (15:42), Sarah (15:45) and Chris (15:51) had all finished ahead of me. That meant every single one of us had achieved the sub16. We all stood around in mild disbelief. What just happened?
A magic day.
I want to end with an awesome paragraph from Ed’s blog on the race.
Everyone in our training group has been training really well this summer so it was satisfying to see it all come together for them. Moments like that are rare, and in an individual sport like athletics, feeling like part of a team effort is unusual but very enjoyable. My personal highlight was seeing my good friend Mark holding his arms aloft in disbelief after breaking a PB that had stood since his teenage years in 1994. It was inspirational to see him run the perfect race after training so hard this summer, and to see him not give up on running a time he ran half a lifetime ago. I will bear that in mind next time I complain about having PBs that are more than one year old.
See his full post here. Definitely worth a read. Mate you were a pacing rock for us all to lean on that night. Thank you.
Our club website also reported on the race.