Skip to content

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!

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

My First Pro Win!

To be honest, if someone had told me I’d run my entire post-collegiate career without a win in any professional race, I’d have probably been totally content. It would have been totally reasonable to think I could have had a long, fulfilling, and successful career without ever breaking the tape in a competitive field.

That’s why I’m so ecstatic about my win in Letterkenny, my first international track race, and my debut on the international pro circuit. While only a one second PR, for 8:36 in the steeplechase, I felt as good as I’ve felt going those seven-and-a-half laps over the barriers, and I closed probably better than I had in any steeplechase at that pace. Coming off the last waterjump, I had a feeling the race was mine: I remember thinking, if anyone else felt as good as I did, they’d have gone by now. Fortunately, they didn’t, and I was able to bring home the W. Of course, as I remarked earlier, I may never get another one, so I celebrated accordingly, to the point where the local paper remarked not only that I’d won the race, but also that I’d celebrated in style. You can catch glimpses of it at the end of the race video, linked here.

I was also happy to see my good friends Aaron Nelson (my mane [flow] brother) and Brandon Doughty (my main brother) come in second and third, respectively, with 8:37 PRs of their own. We’re undoubtedly a group with a lot more in the tank to show out next year, as well, so keep an eye on the #Zaplads as well as your favorite Ocean State Boys!

win

No one I’d rather finish with! 

The rest of the next few days have been nothing short of epic as well. After a wild night in the bars of Letterkenny with fellow anime aficionado Elliot Slade— thanks for having friends who have friends mate it almost worked out great for the both of us— and some awesome Hillbilly Fried Chicken with the Zap Lads, Slade, Will Gray, and Brian Schrader (shouts out), I ended up with somewhere between 2-4 hours of mediocre sleep before heading out for my morning run. 

Unfortunately, due to some combination of the hours of dancing and a few awkward water pits the day before, I twisted my ankle a bit in the morning run, and limped mostly through the rest of the day. Of course, instead of resting it like a rational person, I hopped in a car with the Mayo man himself, Hugh Armstrong, who’d driven over from Knockmore to watch Julian and I run, and we headed to Ennis to watch the Mayo GAA match against Clare, where county Mayo came out victorious in the single-elimination match for their Gaelic Football livelihood.

The match exceeded all expectations: Mayo fans travel so well and bring the same unbridled passion for the sport I’d previously only seen from Hugh that while the match was held in Ennis, on Clare’s home field, it felt like watching a Mayo home game, as chants of “Mayo! Mayo!” drowned dissonant Clare county voices during the Red and Green’s furious second-half comeback. Beyond that, even to uninitiated observers such as Julian and myself (though thanks to Hugh and his family’s Mayo kits we looked the part as much as anyone else… well, as much as I can look the part of an Irishman anyway) GAA football is incredibly intense, a sport with no stoppages played at breakneck speed whose excitement is only amplified by the fact that all of its players have day jobs— you might watch a man play in front of 20,000 on Saturday and buy shoes from him the next week.

20170708_184138

Martin I swear if you comment on this hairline

After the match, we went back to Hugh’s. I skipped my afternoon run that day on account of my ankle, but after some ibuprofen and ice (read: bag of frozen peas) and loads of sleep, I’m rested and back to normal.

Our next competition is July 15 at Le Cheile International, where Julian and I will run the 3k, and we will follow that with Cork City Sports on the 18th. A full summer racing schedule can be found here. Talk to you soon!

J