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The Best Moments of my Year

Year-in-Review: The Three Best Moments of my Year

Well, my first year of post-collegiate running is officially in the books. Full of electric highs and disappointing lows, of thrilling victory and crushing defeat, my first year as a professional runner proved nothing short of sensational. This series of blogs will detail the highs, lows, and the final takeaways of my first year as a professional runner

New Year’s Long Run

The first high point of my last year of running came on the last day of 2016, in the Forest Park Frostbite Series 10-mile road race. This race came less than a month after my massively disappointing performance in Tallahassee, and while I’d started to feel better about running, having cranked out a few good workouts in my last few weeks in Providence, I still lacked the necessary excitement for the daily grind of running to find any part of the entire process fun. While I’d undoubtedly moved past some of the fall’s physical fatigue, I found myself still succumbing to a mental weariness that made it difficult to get out the door, especially given the facts that I really don’t like training in cold weather and that the winter had just arrived in full. I needed something to change, to flip the proverbial switch that would allow me to rediscover my joy of running. The morning of New Year’s eve, I would find exactly that.

On December 31, 2016, Ray had prescribed me some long tempo repeats. However, I’d had a few enjoyable runs with friends and old rivals from back home, some of whom ran for Tulsa (shouts out Kirk, Del, and Adam), invited me to run the Frostbite Series 10-mile run that day. Their coach had given them something like 8xmile, so a super-long tempo would achieve what all of our coaches wanted to, right?

I’ve detailed this workout in a blog post from earlier this year, so I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice to say ran way faster than the 5:25s we intended to start out at, and ended up banging out 52:45 for what all of our watches (and mapmyrun) measured as a long ten. We had probably completed a true ten in something close to 52 minutes, or just over 5:10 pace. Not only did I surprise myself with how casually I’d just banged out ten fast miles with a couple sub-5s in there, but I also really enjoyed the experience of running with the guys, cracking jokes and smiling for cameras six 5:20 miles into a long, long tempo. And of course, nothing beats the post-run pancake binge at the best IHOP in the country on Clayton Road.

After a disappointing fall, filled mostly with the low-points I detailed in my last blog post, this run made me excited about running again, setting me off for a great winter of training that would prepare me for the next highs that would define my year.

California Love

Two of the premiere track meets in the nation for postcollegiate and professional athletes take place every year in California in May: the Payton Jordan Invitational, where in 2010 Chris Solinsky set the then-US record in the 10k, and the Oxy High Performance Meet (now named the USATF Distance Classic), where Evan Jager and Donn Cabral established themselves as two of the premiere US Steeplechasers in 2012 in a race with an an epic finish where Jager fell going over the final water jump.

While I still had a couple weeks left in my GA and in my classes, making two trips across the country, three weeks apart, would have probably drained me of the energy necessary to run fast at either of these meets. Consequently, I spoke with my bosses and professors, left work and finished my finals early, and spent three weeks out west.

Not everything about on the trip went as planned: I ran an underwhelming 8:51 at Payton and had a couple bad workouts and runs in the California heat where I felt nothing short of absolute death (and that doesn’t even include the cooldown from hell with Zap Fitness… 5 miles after a rough steeplechase that got down to 6:00 pace and included strides that bordered on all-out sprinting), but my trip to California not only provided me with a rewarding social experience, both through reconnecting with a few good friends from undergrad and making connections with some incredible new people, but it also represented my first real foray into the world of professional running. For three weeks, my only concern was to prepare myself for the two races I would run on that trip, races thousands of miles from my home, my teammates, my family, my coach. At these races, I would see athletes like Mo Farah and Evan Jager, like Hillary Bor and David Torrence— truly the class of the world. My self-concept as a struggling postcollegiate runner had to change then and there. While I’ll probably never be the athlete any of those guys are, I don’t have time to worry about that: we all went out there for the same reason. Between that realization, the fun I had on the trip, and— did I forget to mention?—  my running a PR of 8:37 just two weeks after that weak performance at Stanford, this entire trip will undoubtedly last as one of the high points of my first postcollegiate year.

Victory in Letterkenny

Was there ever any question this would be on the list? I won a freaking race. I beat an 8:32 guy who I thought had disrespected me twice, a friend who had just run 7:47 for the flat 3k, and a quality field of other athletes who, years ago, I’d have had no place beating. I celebrated for the crowd in a way that only I possibly could, and the meet director even tweeted at me with the hashtag #celebrateinstyle. Looking at the results, I could point at these dudes like, “this dude’s got a contract; that dude’s got a contract.” And me– the dude that took home the dub and the bread– I’m just excited about getting some free shoes and uniforms.

Beyond that, there’s not too much to say that I haven’t already. I may never have another race where I’ll feel as certain of victory as I did with 200m left in Letterkenny, but after this race, I can confidently say of this pro circuit, I belong here.

My three key insights from the past year coming up!

Year-In-Review Part 1: Three Low Points

Well, my first year of post-collegiate running is officially in the books. Full of electric highs and disappointing lows, of thrilling victory and crushing defeat, my first year as a professional runner proved nothing short of sensational. This series of blogs will detail the highs, lows, takeaways, and a few thank-you’s from my first year as a professional runner.

Part 1 will detail the three most significant low points of the year.

Workout Failure

To say I struggled mightily this fall would greatly euphemize my struggles during this most recent road/XC season. Split between taking classes, working my GA, volunteering at Brown, training, and, of course, trying to have some semblance of a social life, I found myself completely and utterly devoid of energy at all times. Of these activities, I cared the most about running. Also of these activities, my training suffered from my dearth of energy more than any of its counterparts. Yeah, not exactly ideal.  

I can’t find too much positive to say about any of my races this fall, on cross country or on the roads, but my lowest point of the fall came in my final workout before the CVS 5k. Out of respect for Ray, I won’t get into too many details of the workout, but suffice to say, I completed only 50% of the workout before completely blowing up, increasing my already generous rest, and and cutting the rep length in half for the remainder of the workout. As it would follow, CVS didn’t go very well, and neither did my next workout after that, in which I blew up spectacularly on long tempo reps.

At this point, I found little enjoyment in the running I could fit in my overly ambitious schedule, and a workout so poor as this one threw me into a Tufnellesque state of existential crisis– I felt nothing like the athlete I’d been the year before, when just the fact that Ray put a workout on my schedule gave me the confidence that I could complete it. Fortunately, and thanks to some advice from Benninger, this disaster served as an impetus to seriously reconsider my lifestyle going forward into the year. After a couple weeks of slow running, I started to get it together. But this workout sent me to a dark place early in my post-collegiate career.

Trouble in Tallahassee

The low point of my fall came in Tallahassee in the final race of my cross country season, USATF Club Cross Country Championships. To be fair, I didn’t exactly set myself up for success on the trip: I accidentally booked my flight to Tallahassee a day early, which, coincidentally, put it on the same day as my accounting final presentation. I guess this may not be especially surprising to any of you after reading about how Julian and I narrowly escaped disaster three or four times in Europe, but this one ended up in actual disaster. I wasn’t able to change my flight (Thanks Delta), so I had to purchase a new ticket the next day. Of course, this late in the game, the only affordable ticket I could purchase left from Boston at about 6 AM, and it arrived in Jacksonville— a 3 hour drive from Tallahassee. So I would be stressed, sleep-deprived, and getting into Tallahassee the day before my race. Yeah. Like I said, not exactly set up for success.

As you might expect, my race blew up worse than my travel plans. I intended to compete for a top 20 spot in the meet and a chance at an Edinburgh vest, and I went through the first couple miles with that in mind. While this goal may have been a bit unrealistic considering my fitness at the time and the unexpectedly high quality of the field at Club Cross, I failed in spectacular fashion. The boys from ADP went through the first couple miles at a pace I had no right to even think about, and as I came through two miles with the trail pack in a spicy 9:20, I knew it was gonna be a long day.

In my final tune-up before the race, I’d finally started to feel like that fit and confident athlete I mentioned in the previous section; 20 minutes into the race, I’d packed it in, and while I’d occasionally convince myself to make a half-hearted effort to tag along to the stream of athletes running by me, I honestly just wanted the thing to be over. It was flat-out embarrassing, getting crushed by old friends, rivals, guys I knew were barely training, and guys I knew were working taxing full-time jobs. I couldn’t wait to get home.

I did learn from the experience— I needed to plan things a lot better in the future and make flexible travel plans far in advance of each race in order to ensure my success. Nonetheless, crawling through the last 3 miles of that race freaking sucked.

Home Meet Woes

My final low of the year came at the Ocean State Invitational in February. To be honest, my debut race, in which I ran 9:04 for the steeplechase— my slowest time in the event since the second time I ran it (not including races in which I fell)—  didn’t throw me into the same state of  existential crisis as even some of my other bad workouts this season, but it objectively needs to be included on this list. Yes, there was wind. Yes, there was rain. Yes, I was probably a little bit sick going into the race, considering I woke up with a sore throat and had to take three days off to recover. But still, 9:04. For a dude who soloed 8:52 at the same meet a year earlier, for a dude who had run in the 8:30s and would run there again, for a dude who would, if only for a few minutes, have an over 50% chance of making the USATF final in that same event, 9:04 falls short of any and all standards for healthy, fit performance.

Fortunately, I kept the faith and righted the ship. But man, that run sucked.

My next post will detail the three high points of my year. Stay tuned!

Near Disasters and the OSAC Nacht Van de Personal Bests

Three times, Julian and I escaped total disaster over our last two weeks in Europe. Instead, everything worked out smoothly and we came back with new PRs (and a little bit of cash).

The first near-nightmare came immediately before Cork City Sports, when Julian forgot one of his spikes in the accommodation. I believe I’ve written about this previously, so I’ll be short: fortunately, a friend (Shouts out AAron) had a pair of flats in his size, and he still beat all of us. Turned out alright.

Our first flirtation with travel catastrophe came in the form of poor planning in Cork: While Julian and I had planned to take a flight from Dublin to Amsterdam the evening after the race, giving us plenty of time to hang out with friends and grab a couple drinks post-cork, a friend pointed out during the pre-race breakfast that we’d purchased tickets for flights at 6:30 AM instead of 6:30 PM. Fortunately, we adjusted our plans just in time to catch a 1:00 AM bus that night, and while trying to catch a full supply of Zs on the bus and, later, on an incredibly bumpy flight wasn’t exactly ideal, we made it successfully to the next stage of our journey, so we couldn’t complain too much.  

Our final foray into travel hell came the day of our competition at Heusden-Zolder. At about 3:00 PM, I was taking my pre-race nap when Julian knocked on my door to ask what time we’d go to pick up the rental car. Our race was around 10 PM that evening, so I said we’d go around 5, grab a bite in Antwerp, then make the drive over to Heusden. I’d checked online, and it’d be about a 45 minute walk/bus ride to get to the station where we could pick up our car. Fortunately, before he left, Julian asked when the rental place closed. I looked it up. 4 PM. Crap. We threw our stuff (both spikes this time) in our bags and sprinted to the bus stop just in time to catch the 3:12 bus— our last chance to make it as Europcar’s last customers for the day. To be fair, we probably could have made it to the meet without the car, as a bus runs to Heusden-Zolder, but after our race we’d have either been stranded at the track or sleeping on a friend’s floor in a nearby city. Not exactly the best way to go into the race. Luckily, we got the car, returned it with no damages, and all was well.

I guess I played a risky game that night as well, as our AirBnB in Edegem expired that evening and I had nowhere to stay the next day, but our host, Patrick (his place was awesome) let me stay the next day, and that worked out fine too.

The Races

On July 22, Julian and I both contested the 5k in the C heat of the KBC Nacht van de Atletiek (Night of Athletics). With PBs of 13:55 and 13:53, respectively, going into the race, he and I hoped to improve our marks in a traditionally quality field. We’d looked up some of our competitors beforehand, and the heat sheets promised at least 5 other sub 14 guys, so we knew to expect a high quality race.

Unfortunately, it rained a good bit before and during our competition, and in the thousand meters after the pacer dropped out (he went 2k at 66s), we slowed to 3k in 8:22, with everyone up front looking at each other, waiting for someone else to take the lead. At 3200, knowing I didn’t come out to Heusden to run slow, I took the lead and dropped the pace a bit. I definitely hadn’t planned on leading 1000m out there, but after coming through 2 miles so slow, I knew it’d be my only chance at a PR.

Annoyed at having led more than any other athlete at this point in the race, I let a few athletes go by me with 800 to go, responding to their move as soon as they went by me. With 200 to go, I was chasing down the runner in first, some tall guy who’d led about a lap before moving out into lane two, kindly imploring the rest of us to do the work for him. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the job done, and Julian came flying by me again in the last 200 to finish in second, but we both finished in around 60 seconds for the last lap for new PBs of 13:46 and 13:47. Heusden-Zolder was officially the OSAC Nacht Van de Personal Bests.

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The next day, Julian and I parted ways. While he went off to explore Europe with his girlfriend, I moved to a different location in Antwerp for the Flanders Cup Antwerp Athletic Gala meeting on July 29.

I have to say, this meet was excellent to us. They worked to provide the Zap Fitness athletes and myself free accommodation in a Bed & Breakfast in Merksem called Fiets en Slaap, and they put on a meet that had a fantastic carnival feel to it. For athletes such as myself who are balling on a budget, this sort of accommodation is incredibly helpful to the bottom line— I’ve still gotta pay rent, and don’t have a ton of money to do so. Furthermore, our hosts Cis and Lud at the Bed and Breakfast treated us incredibly well, even coming to the meet to cheer us on! They were truly fantastic, and, while it’s obviously a bit of a niche, I highly encourage anyone looking to vacation in Belgium to check them out.

The meet was a bit mediocre unfortunately. Despite perfect weather and a plan to trade off leads 600 by 600 in the race, none of us ran particularly quickly, most likely because we went out at a suicidal pace: 65-66 through a full 400. Because we were all committed to sharing the lead, we all went with it, and none of the five sub 8:40 guys in the race broke that mark. The whole race felt tough, and I definitely had some ugly hurdles and waters in that second half of the race as my body punished me for the overly ambitious start. Still, shouts out to Aaron winning in 8:40 while I came second in 8:44. I’ve definitely made progress to run 8:44 in a disappointing race in that caliber of field while going out in 66 seconds for the first lap. As for Aaron, the dude stepped on glass two hours before the race, and we had to wipe his blood off the floor. Then his shoe came untied halfway through the steeplechase and he still manages to put all of us in the locker? An impressive performance by any measure, and I’m incredibly happy for him and his fat check.

I then came back to pace the 1500 in 2:30 for the k (bang on, btw), which earned me 50 Euro for an epic night out. After being led astray by some girl we’d both matched with on Tinder and some other girls who, after we’d decided to leave the first club, sent us to a pretty lame venue in the red light district that– go figure– was 17+ and populated almost exclusively by dudes, we got a recommendation for a couple clubs we couldn’t get into because they had a summer membership. While lamenting our misfortune and almost calling it quits at a bar across the street, we decided to talk to some girls. As it turns out, “English??” is a pretty good pickup line (which is probably why any girls we used it to when asking for directions seemed to brush us off or think we were creeps), and we ended up befriending a group of awesome Somalian and Moroccan women who told us the membership fee was a facade, brought us into the club, and danced with us until around 4 am, when Brandon and Aaron had to leave to make their 6:15 cab to the airport. Even in the face of bad recommendations, language barriers, and fake membership fees, the Ocean State/Zap boys always have a good time.

Anyway, I’m now in London kicking it with my boy Davey K’s family and resting up for next year’s effort. I promised Ray I wouldn’t get fat, so nothing crazy to come in the next week. My year-in-review will come next week sometime!

Until then,

J