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Sometimes things don’t go as planned in a race.
That’s true if it’s a 5K, a marathon, a trail race — or a track event, as we’ve seen several times this week at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. Watching some of America’s top runners compete at the highest level, with the stress of making the 2021 Olympic team, has produced several moments that serve as reminders that remaining patient in the face of unexpected adversity is crucial.
Many times, issues that come up during a race, though they seem to be insurmountable situations at the time, are relatively small and can be overcome. In a road race or trail run, you might encounter everything from an unscheduled pit stop to a rolled ankle, a wrong turn, or an inadvertent fall. You might miss an aid station or have to deal with unexpected rain or a bout of high winds. You get knocked off your planned pace and the scope of the race’s difficulty begins to feel overwhelming, but the length of the event works in your favor: if you regroup and carry on, you often still succeed.
But on the track, the impact of the mishaps can be much more acute and devastating. Take, for example, the first semifinal heat of the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase on June 21. Not only was it scorching hot (94 degrees when the race started), but then Isaac Updike seemed intent on dictating the race with a fast pace from the start.
Sean McGorty was fine with those raised stakes, prepared to handle the increased difficulty of placing in the top five and making it through to the finals. But, midway through the third lap of the 7 ½-lap race, as he was running just off the back of Updike in second place, he had the back of his right shoe stepped on in the second water jump, leaving it precariously dangling on the front half of his foot.
The 26-year-old Nike Bowerman Track Club runner tried to continue on, but running 4:29 mile pace over 30 barriers and seven water jumps is hard enough. He hurdled the next two barriers cleanly, but he knew it wasn’t optimal, and he knew the shoe would eventually come off. Even though he entered the event ranked No. 5 in the country, he’s new to the steeplechase this year — he had focused on the 5,000m at Stanford and won the 2018 NCAA title in that event — and he didn’t have any margin for error in his attempt to make the June 25 final.
“I either had to keep jamming my foot into the front or I needed to stop and put it back on,” says McGorty, who had only one other steeplechase race under his belt before the Trials. “After two barriers, I knew I needed to try to put it back on because there was no way it was going to stay on.”
It’s a predicament that seems to happen in almost every steeplechase race. Some runners kick off the loose shoe and some pull off and try to put it back on. But given that this race was a do-or-die prelim and the track was so hot, McGorty was worried that he might mess up his bare foot or slip while trying to spring off the barrier over the water jump.
“I had a lot of thoughts in my head for about 200 meters and I knew I just had to make a decision and go with it and really rally,” he said. “I just felt like I would be the most relaxed and be the most efficient going over the water barrier with my full shoe on.”
McGorty felt he had no choice but to fix it. It was relatively early in the eight-lap race, so he ran wide and stopped, knelt down and tried to pull the rear part of the shoe over his heel. Regrettably, the shoe didn’t slip back on as he had hoped; he had to tug at it a couple of times. Fortunately, he had put a bit of Vaseline on it before the race and it eventually slipped back on.
When McGorty got up and started running, he was now about seven seconds off the lead pace that Updike was setting. He had gone from running neck-and-neck with Updike to 15th place. Only the top five and the next four fastest times from the day’s two heats would qualify.
It would have been easy to panic and sprint back to the top five, but in a moment of clarity, McGorty knew he only had to avoid overreacting, run as strong as he could and close hard.
“I was stopped way too long and the pack got farther away than I was anticipating,” McGorty says. “From then on, I tried to keep squeezing each lap and work my way back up. I think if I had sprinted the next lap, I probably would have been fried.”
Instead of trying to surge and get it all back in one or two laps, McGorty made the conscious decision to run a tad faster every lap and catch up gradually. For the final four laps, winner Updike (8:21.01), who continued to push the pace up front, ran laps of 67.3, 66.5, 64.6 and 63.0, while McGorty closed with 66.2, 66.5, 65.7 and 61.8 — thus gaining back about 4 of the seconds he lost. He didn’t make it back to the top five, but finished ninth in the heat with an 8:25.95 clocking.
It was the last possible place to get in by time. But then he had to nervously wait and watch the second heat run, hoping that his effort would remain as the fourth-fastest among non-qualifiers. But there was no margin at all. Fortunately, the second heat was slightly slower, as Benard Keter won in 8:29.04 and the sixth-place finisher, Jordan Cross, who would have had to beat McGorty’s time to bump him from the final, crossed the line in 8:35.58, nearly 10 seconds slower than McGorty.
McGorty could have easily given up when it was clear he wouldn’t catch the top five. As it got tough in the last lap, it would have been understandable to ease off and blame missing the team on bad luck. It took resolve to go to the well, push through the line and nab the ninth spot when it wasn’t at all certain that it would make any difference.
“I think around 1200 to 800 to go, I didn’t really know if I’d make it,” McGorty says. “I had an idea with about 800 to go in that heat, but you never really know and can’t really let out a sigh of relief until it’s over and you see the times posted on the board. Ideally I wouldn’t have had to have been right in the number nine spot — that’s all that I was able to work up to in my heat. I am just thankful it all worked out and I was able to get the time qualifier.”
What’s the moral of the story? Don’t panic. Even in a race as short and intense as eight and half minutes on the track, if things go wrong, you can still recover from them if you patiently play out your cards.
A lot of things can happen on the track and plenty others have happened in Trials races so far. In the women’s 1,500m final, Elle Purrier was bumped off the track in the opening lap as others were jostling for position. She was annoyed, but not only did it not negatively impact her performance, it fired her up a bit en route to a run-away victory in a Trials-record time of 3:58.03.
Women’s steeplechase favorite Courtney Frerichs fell hard just 500 meters into her prelim, got back up, worked her back to the front and pulled two other runners to personal bests. In the men’s 10,000-meter final, several runners were bloodied and nearly tripped by competitor’s spikes, including Galen Rupp and eventual champion Woody Kincaid.
That’s track, though, which can have as much contact as a NASCAR race. Champions are prepared for it and learn to handle the surprises.
What’s McGorty’s takeaway?
“I think I learned a lot and it’s good to know that I am strong,” he says. “I am thankful for all of those solo steeple workouts I have done. I think that kind of helped me and allowed me to stay relaxed. I think I tried to approach it as patiently and urgently as possible, kind of riding that line between the two.”
Riding the line between patient and urgent, that’s the key to a distance race, no matter what happens.