Monday, March 19, 2012

Life and the 5K Shortfall

I woke up at 3:45 this morning with a vivid dream that captures aspects of my current and past life. Also, I'm now within a week of the age that my dad died from heart disease. Be warned that this is going to be a rambling introspective piece about goals, success, and dealing with failure. That is if you see the world in black or white, that falling short of a goal is failure.

For college track I was a late starter to running. I only began serious training about two weeks before indoor track during my freshman year. I started out as a middle distance runner with the fairly modest goals of 53.9 for the 440 yard dash and 2:03.9 for the 880. Those were written on a piece of scrap paper on my dorm room bulletin board. I didn't approach those times that season, and ran something like 55 high or 56 low (relay splits) for the 440 and 2:08.1 for the 800 meters. Those are very modest times, even for a freshman at the NCAA Division III level. Reluctantly, and slowly (it took my entire college career to figure it out), I found that I actually got better-more competitive the longer the distance so in outdoor track my sophomore year by default--no one else on the team wanted to run it--I became the team's 5,000 meter specialist.

The only thing was, in spite of showing a little bit of promise at the 2 mile (running 9:40s and 9:50s indoors) and 10K (high 32s on the roads) I could never put it together for 5K on the track during college. With times like those I should have been capable of 15:30s/15:40s but only ran 16:14. I'd go out in low 5, 10:10 for 1600 and 3200 and then just hit the anaerobic wall. Nevertheless, at our conference meet at the University of Chicago in 1980 a younger teammate--who did want to run the 5000--ran a school record 14:49 and I thought that was pretty awesome and set out to run sub 15 post-college.

Meanwhile, career-wise during college I didn't have much of a clue of what I wanted to do (other than graduate). Not until the last semester, under a fit of introspection and pondering of what to do with my life, did I think much about a career. I took one of those interest surveys from the counseling office, and science research and forestry did come up pretty high. So over a period of a month or two I set out to go to graduate school in ecology or natural resources, preferably in the West.

The question is did I ever break that 15:00? In fact I did once, may be twice, sort of. Paranthetically, however, I hardly ran any 5Ks for the first three years out of college. Just a few months after graduating I had moved back out Colorado and there was a 5K from the Mary Jane resort to the base of Winter Park, a drop of 450 feet on a snow-covered ski slope. I ran something like 14:25 at 9000 ft elevation. A 450 drop in elevation? That simply doesn't count for a personal best.

My very next attempt, about two and a half years later in the fall of 1983, while working as an intern and then entry level Range-Forestry technician for the U.S. Forest Service in Steamboat Springs, Colorado I ran a 15:28 for a road 5K. At 7,000 feet this would easily convert to sub 15, and even though I ran step for step with a guy who had run 9:20 for 2 miles and about 31:10 for 10K, I never felt that this was a legitimate 5K personal best because the course was not certified and I do feel that it may have been short.

Career-wise, I was headed in the right direction at 25 although I still had no clue what exactly I wanted out of it other than having a job someday.

To keep things rolling along I went to graduate school that winter in Range Science at the School of Natural Resources at Colorado State University. I continued running and shifted from a distance/marathoner focus to 5K and 10K. I did that for two reasons: First, the 10 to 15 hours a week of marathon training required a level of obsession that I felt would conflict with my grad studies and research. I was getting paid by the state to go to school, which was an honor and a privilege, it took a lot of work to get there, and I didn't want to blow it on account of being a running bum. Second, the marathon training I did in Steamboat Springs (amazing open forest and range land near Steamboat Lake and the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness) resulted in a bad hip and dreaded ITBS that knocked me out of running for about 8 months and racing for almost a full year.

So I opted for a more moderate approach to training, emphasizing quality over quantity, and going 40 to about 55 or 60 miles a week. The trade off was that I did retain a fair amount of sharpness for several years (ran my best mile-1500s at 28, and actually achieved that 2:03:9 800 also at 28), but a little less endurance--my best 10K times dropped off by about 20 seconds compared to higher mileage days. At the time I was seeing a lot of peers running a few fast marathons, or trying to, and then flaming out with serious sometimes career ending injuries. I decided to stay with running for the long haul, which is likely why I'm still at it and not walking around with an artificial knee and/or hip.

Anyway, my next best 5Ks were at altitude: 15:39 or so at 5000 ft in 1985, on a certified point to point course. I consider this to be my best 5K, followed by 15:48 on a loop course in 1986, also at 5000 ft. These convert to about 15:13 and 15:18 respectively. So even with altitude conversion, I never did get there.

Is that failure? I did not reach that goal. Nor did I qualify for an Olympic Trials marathon It's a big gap from 2:34 at altitude, roughly worth a 2:30, to the 2:18/2:19 needed at the time. And I fell short for making an Olympic Trials in Nordic skiing, although I came fairly close to that level in a couple races in 1988 and maybe could have done it in 1991-92, if I'd done some qualifying races, but always fell a day late and a dollar short for that! Setting a high goal and falling short, but doing your best along the way, again, is that failure? Depends upon state of mind perhaps, and the beholder. But I'm jumping ahead here.

By my late 20s I did think about the future some more, and yes a job would be good. A natural resources job in a northern climate where I could ski for half the year (or close) would be great. A good professional position, but no so demanding that I would not have time to enjoy the outdoors and continue training for skiing and running. So I finished my masters degree in the spring of 1987--defended just a week before heading off to my first U.S. Nationals at Royal Gorge, California. Getting that stable job in a good place would be a long-long haul.

Not that there weren't good jobs and great places to live for many many years: Ithaca, NY, the Badlands of North Dakota, the north woods of Minnesota, Amherst, Massachusetts, and Colorado all had a lot to offer.

Somewhere along the way, I got diverted and went for a Ph.D., something I had never really wanted to do after seeing what my father had gone through. He had a high powered career in civil engineering at a major research university and government. He was a workaholic but seemed burned out by the time he was in his late 40s, or maybe that was his heart taking its toll. Regardless, after some discussion with one of my mentors from CSU in 1988 my career goals shifted from just wanting a regular job in a nice area to the bright lights of higher powered academia.

Fitness-wise, my last best chance for a fast 5K was in the summer of 1989, at 31, when I was working as a researcher at in natural resources a Cornell University. The plan was to work for them for year and then go on to a Ph.D. program. That first summer I qualified for the Empire State Games and would have a good opportunity for an attempt. I put in all I could over that summer. Realistically, I did feel 15:10 and a personal best was possible. However the race was on a rock hard asphalt track and the weather on that August day was in the 80s with high humidity. I ran a respectable 6th place, after running dead last for most of the first mile, but could only manage a 15:34. If it had been Bislett or Boston at springtime on a tartan track and 55-60 degrees, who knows. What is certain is that I never ran faster than that again.

Likewise, I never did enter the Ph.D., program at Cornell. I ended up working at the university for three years on soft money. It was great work, I was getting some publications and exposure, but never quite found the right fit/funding for a research program, so when an opportunity arose to study bighorn sheep in the prairie outback of North Dakota I jumped.

Ha, I never should have watched Dances with Wolves that year!

By then my career goal was to get on as research wildlife biologist at an agency or university and I pursued that fervently for another decade. The fallback was teaching maybe at a more laid back Division II type school, or industry. It took 5 years and a lot of angst to finish my dissertation. As a post doc I sampled all three avenues.

Yes, the best of those was doing research for USDA back in Colorado (again, for the third time in my life living there). In 2001 I narrowly missed getting that dream job. It was based in Colorado, but would have split time in the Yellowstone region, doing research on wolf management. Supposedly I came into that interview as a distant third because I'd only had one year of work as a predator biologist but gave it my best effort ever. The guy hiring said I ended up in a near tie for first. In a way it was like running a 15:01 5K, or placing a close fourth when the podium is top three.

But worse. Because there is no consolation for second place when you are trying to get hired.

It was weird, but I never got another opportunity like that. By then I was working with a private lab near Fort Collins, and hated every single minute with that outfit and I spent nearly a year trying to get out of there.

That's how I ended up, not as a biologist, but as an environmental planner. With a young family, mortgage, need for health insurance and stability not to mention to pay off loans and bills that had been building for years. I took a step back and more or less started over as planner.

And here I sit far far away, and a decade later, pushing 30 years past my PR 5K running days. My job is not unlike what I envisioned during my 20s, a good professional position working with a team of specialists hopefully setting up wise management of public lands. At least that's the intent.

And it sure helps to have the amazing resources, community, and infrastructure for Nordic skiing that we have here. But at the same time career-wise this is not what I had envisioned during that more ambitious period of my life from my early 30s through early 40s. This year I find myself restless, not exactly satisfied with where I've been and where I'm headed.

Running and racing can very well be a microcosm of life. You set these goals, sometimes unrealistic or arbitrary, and you expend years if not decades chasing dreams. You have moments of letdowns but also time of reaching down and exceeding levels that perhaps in your distant past you thought would be impossible.

Dreaming is where this started too and it's about time to end this ramble.

Obviously, at 54 now, a sub 15 5K is far out of the question. I could aim for an age graded sub 15, but that's something like 17:40 by now. As long as I can keep injury at bay that should be a piece of cake this spring. How about making it a real challenge? I'd like to break 17:00 this year--just for grins and for myself--and will give it a go.

This career thing, I do intend to keep it going here this year, but over these past few months I'm also re-awakening a bit, remembering that there is more out there.


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