Personal best

Olympic park in Melbourne Australia has been the scene of many running triumphs over the years –   from Ron Clarke world records to victories by distance legends Robert de Castella, Sonia O’Sullivan and Steve Moneghetti in the annual Zatopek 10,000m.  More recently Josphat Menjo, Bernard Lagat, Nick Willis, Asbel Kiprop and Chris Solinsky have graced this iconic venue.  The track and stadium are austere, concrete stands on the straights and open terraces on the bends.  As you look towards the first turn you can see the trees lining the Yarra River, the gap in the stadium providing excellent views but also easy entry for occasional headwinds that push tiring runners backwards up the home straight.  Melbourne turned on its famous fickle weather this night in late 2009, sunshine during the day, but now a humid threatening atmosphere punctuated by the odd rain shower.

The smaller grandstand along the back straight is the meeting place and favoured seating for distance running aficionados, it is also the location of the start of the 5000m event where a group of athletes are lining up in their club colours, they’re not thinking about past history and glories.  One runner has only one thing on his mind – apprehension and a small amount of excitement for he is trying to run a personal best, he’s not after a small slice, it’s a big one, he wants to lower his best time by more than a minute.  This means lapping in 86 seconds, 5 seconds per lap faster than he’s run before.  This is a big race for all of the athletes toeing the line this warm, humid November night.  Every one of these runners has pride in his performance, there’s veteran runners trying to hold off decline, juniors on the rise and a 34 year old man wondering if he’s kidding himself about running 3.35 kilometer pace for 5000m for the first time in his life. That man was me.

This is the C grade race on a night that will culminate in the running of the 2009 men’s and women’s Victorian 5000m championships.  There are no medals on offer for these competitors though, just personal satisfaction at running the best race possible – I can guarantee you that every runner here is as nervous and focused on their performance as the elite competitors that will be on show later in the evening.  One thing that has always surprised me is the assumption and attitude of many people around athletics that only good runners care about their performance, that somehow regular club runners and fun runners just do it to make up the numbers.

If you’re like me you care – a lot.  I cared enough to spend three months trying to change my technique after sustaining an injury and realising that I was never going to be able to run any faster with my bad technique.  Tonight I was about to find out whether these changes would make any difference, I’d been faster in training, but this was the big time, the C grade Victorian Milers club 5000m.  The pressure was on; the last thing I wanted was to blow up and be lapped multiple times.  I knew from the entry times that I’d be at the back of the field, even if I ran a big personal best, that would be just fine, but if I ran my old times I’d be likely to be severely embarrassed.

The pace what hot from the gun, the first 200 was over in 40 seconds – fast by my standards, but it had me languishing at the rear of the field.  Not a bad place to be as it turned out, I could run free of obstruction and concentrate on executing my shiny new technique.  I tried to ease back on the throttle, just relax and let the pace subside.  I’m a big fan of Jack Daniels – his words were ringing in my ears from my recent reading of his book Daniels’ Running Formula, just let the pace slow naturally if you find yourself out ahead of your goal pace.  The next 400 passed in 84 seconds, still a bit quick but getting into the right groove, I was still dead last as the field attacked an impetuous first kilometer.  I kept ticking over on the new technique and keeping an eye on my watch, the pace had started quick but it felt comfortable, my breathing wasn’t laboured, as I passed the 1000m mark I checked my watch and found I was through in 3.31.  I’d done a little speed work on the dirt road outside my house near Daylesford Victoria, the footing there isn’t perfect, so running on the springy Olympic Park surface felt like luxury – the track was giving not taking, oh yeah but I was still last.  Veteran runners are a killer, when you line up against old guys you’d better get prepared to have your butt whipped, they might look easy pickings on the start line, but watch them turn back the clock when the racing begins.

After the first mile I settled into a good rhythm, my pace had slowed a little to 87 seconds per lap, but so had the rest of the field so they weren’t disappearing as rapidly and I was starting to pick up one struggler who was now regretting the early pace.   By 3k I was still on target 10.48 was on my stop watch, a then 3k best, but I was going to need a fast last two kilometers, I’d let the pace drift a little, but the realisation that I was in with a fighting chance of breaking 18 minutes kept me clicking off those 87 second laps.

In 5k running I’d always found the three kilometre mark something of a barrier, the pain would kick in, the breathing would be laboured and most times the pace would slow dramatically towards the finish.  I kept waiting for the moment when I’d “blow up” but it never happened, sure I was breathing harder, but I still had something in hand and, another runner was in my sights and that helped me over the closing stages – in the end he’d kick away from my in the final lap, but he gave my something to chase in the no man’s land of the later stages of the race.

It had taken me 13 weeks of training coming back from an injury caused by my old technique – 6 weeks of jogging trying to get a feel for running with my hamstrings and butt engaged and 7 weeks that included harder sessions.  With three laps to go I was closing in on vindication – my local physio had warned me about changing my technique, he was firmly in the fatalistic, you run the way you run camp.  But the lap between 3800m and 4200m was covered in 86 seconds; I was finding something and with 800m to run I really cranked it up a level as I approach the bell.  I realised I was holding off the winner who was coming up to the finish – cool I wasn’t going to be lapped!  I was so in the zone I forgot to take my split with a lap to go but it didn’t matter, the last 800m was run in 2.45 and by the time the big digital clock came into view in the home straight for the last time I knew I was going to make it – 50 meters of ecstasy before I crossed the line in 17.56.

You’ve never seen a happier guy finish second last in a race!  The excitement of setting a big new personal best time pushed the implications of improved running technique to the back of my mind; I gave my mate Greg a wave in the grandstand and trotted around for a warm down and sort of, victory lap.  I’d run this super fast time on almost exactly the same training volume and type – I was running about 60-65 kilometers a week, a decent amount of running, but nothing like what serious runners log in their training diaries.  There wasn’t any doubt in my mind; technique was the answer to such a big leap forward in performance.

Your goal might be to run faster than this, or you may just want to start running for fitness with the confidence of being armed with some knowledge that will help you avoid getting injured; you may want to train for and complete your local fun run, half-marathon or marathon.  Whatever your goals in running, knowing how to run is just as important than your training plan.  Better technique can help you run faster, but also to avoid sitting on the sidelines injured or worse being confined to the gym and swimming pool.

A few weeks later in Ballarat I was kicking down against a Steve Moneghetti easy progression training run at another 5000m track race, he came past me with 150m to run and I thought here’s my chance to beat an Olympian.  As I turned on my modest after-burners, more like cigarette lighters, he sensed the danger and easily put a couple of seconds into me over the last 50 meters, I wasn’t surprised, he might be in his late forties now, but he’s still winning open championships in Victoria and capable of nudging 15 minutes for 5000m.  I have that result sheet somewhere, my name just behind Steve Moneghetti, it’ll be the first and last time it happens I reckon, most times he steps on the track he’s there to race not train and if he’s racing I’m being lapped – most likely at least twice!  But he’d helped lower my PB again to 17.52 so thank you Steve.

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