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Monday, August 25, 2008

Race day reflections

It's been a few days now since I raced, but let me take you back to the morning of the 22nd and recreate what I was thinking and doing as I prepared for the race and walked my Olympic 50km.

Normally I have a rough time sleeping through the night before a big event and the Olympics is as big as it gets. Surprisingly, I slept fairly well. I only woke up three times to check that my alarm was set and turned on, another couple times because I was well-hydrated, and the few odd times to toss and turn and realize "Tomorrow is race day. Wow, it's almost here!" That may sound bad, but I've had much worse pre-race insomnia.

At 5:15, I was up and trying to open up my PowerBar Harvest bar as [CRUNCH] quietly as I [CRACKLE] possibly could. Washed it down with some water and chased it with a banana while double checking that I had all my gear packed and my race shorts on. Coach Joe Vigil and I walked over to the stadium shuttle bus at 5:45am. He's great but he wanted to spend the whole ride over to the Bird's Nest talking about developing racewalking in America. "Yes, yes, we gotta get more walkers and put the racewalk in high schools and colleges but I'm trying to focus on today. Big day today." By the time we got to the warmup track, I thought we had moved on but Tracy Sundlun was there and we got started again on solving America's racewalk problems. Anyone who knows racewalking knows that this conversation could easily last longer than any 50km race, so I went off to start my warmup at 6:30am.

At most track meets, there is a clerk-of-course where each athlete checks in, shows his number and gets assigned a lane or timing chip. The Olympics are no different, but the system of controls, double-checking and micromanaging everything you do is incredible. 40 minutes before the start of your race, you have to check in with the clerk and then you are sequestered for 25 minutes with little opportunity to warm-up. There's a short 50 meter patch of track that 60 guys are pacing on back and forth like restless tigers at the zoo. There's a bathroom, and a line. And volunteers that come by every few minutes to triple-check that you tied the timing chip onto your shoe properly. The best thing to do is get in your warmup out on the track, relax for 25 minutes in the call room, do some light stretching, practice some deep breathing, and lube the armpits to avoid chafing. Suddenly, the volunteers are frantic again and round everyone up into a line to head out the door, through the tunnel and on to the track.

The OLYMPIC STADIUM track and it's race day! It's hard not to think about how hard it was to get here, how many hours of training and nursing injuries, and getting up early and the list goes on.... And it's here, and I am here in the Olympic stadium and I'm getting goose bumps and have to remind myself to just breath and relax and focus. We walk half a lap around the track in a long line with our gear and wave to the couple thousand people who have already gathered in the stands. My brother is on the rail by the starting line so I go over to talk to him, find comfort in a familiar face and pose for some pictures. It's so nice to have him here practically at my side as I start this incredible race.

We are called to the line in no particular order. Fast starters position themselves on the front line. I find a spot in the middle in lane three or four. People are already sweating with the heat. It smells like a locker room. People mutter "Good luck" to each other in several languages, some to their countrymen, others to athletes from the same region. We're all in this together.

Bang! And we're off. Three-and-a-half laps around the stadium. Each lap is a little faster than the previous one until I'm hanging on to the back of the pack with a couple Lithuanians behind me and I'm already walking faster than my planned race pace. But I don't want to be the last one out of the stadium. Not this time. The field has already separated into several bunches and we head into the tunnel, echoing cheers from other athletes and volunteers bounce around and follow us out into the bright sunshine of the Olympic Green. "24 laps to go," says the sign as we hit the 2,000mt loop course. There is a white, steel barrier surrounding the course that keeps the spectators back 15 feet. At 7:30am, there are already thousands lining the fence. By the time we leave and head back to the stadium, there are several places where fans line the fence four and five people deep.

"Jia yo! Jia yo!" is what the Chinese scream at their athletes. "Go, go!" Soon, the locals are screaming it at everyone. "Jia yo! Jia yo!" The night after the race, I could hardly sleep because "Jia yo!" was echoing around my brain ad nauseum. It was like that feeling you get after having been on a boat all day and you close your eyes at night and feel the whole world rocking back and forth. "Jia yo! Jia yo!"

By 8km, I had caught up to Roman Bilek from the Czech Republic. I've probably raced against him before, but I don't really know him. He doesn't speak much English and my Czech is a bit rusty. But we formed an informal alliance and walked together for the next 20km. We took turns handing each other sponges and water depending on who was closest to the aid station. We walked shoulder to shoulder and the only thing we really said to each other was, "Water?" or "Sponge?" He pronounced "sponge" with a hard 'e' at the end so it sounded like "spongy," but we were communicating. It's easier sometimes to walk with someone than to walk alone and it was nice to have the company. There were a few times when I thought, "This is just like a training walk with John Nunn... except this guy doesn't talk very much or tell good stories." It made me kinda sad for a moment because John and I had talked a lot about how we would both be walking at these Olympics.

Shortly before 30km, my new friend Roman started to falter and I maintained my steady sub 5:00/km pace pulling away from him. He ended up ten minutes back at the finish.

People sometimes ask "What do you think about for four hours?" When I'm racing, I try not to think about too much. I spend a lot of time focusing on my technique, reminding myself to stay relaxed, and I repeat a lot of positive affirmations to myself. In the weeks leading up to an event, I might find something that helps keep me motivated in training and so I invariably come back to that during the race. "Get your foot under you quickly" was one of the things that I was thinking in recent speed workouts, so I thought of that a few times if I felt myself slowing up or feeling a little less-than-smooth. I often will get very short snippets of songs stuck in my head and they will just get stuck on a replay loop. I have no idea where it came from, but at some point in the race the lyrics "... disappear into the groove..." popped into my head. I'm not even sure if it's a real song, but it was stuck in my head, in a good way, for several laps. I did a race in Spain a couple years ago where they had a sound system playing throughout the entire 50km. At first, I was worried that it would be a distraction, but I ended up enjoying it. Whoever the DJ was did a nice job, too. For the first hour, we were grooving to some really mellow songs like "Dust in the wind," which was perfect for the first section of a 50km when you really want to keep your emotions in check and stay relaxed. Later, the DJ started to crank it up a bit with some disco tunes. By the end, we were in a euro-discoteque rave party with some thumping beats that helped get me pumped up for the last 10km.

Here in Beijing, the conditions didn't play as big a factor as people had feared. The air was fairly clear after the heavy rains the day before. The temperature rose throughout the morning while the humidity (97% at the start) dropped. It was hot, yes, but not so bad that everyone in the race suffered. The winner, Alex Schwazer, managed to break the 20 year-old Olympic record, so it couldn't have been too bad. The granite surface was covered with 4mm of Mondo, as promised, so our legs got a slight break (though they still took a beating - it's a 50km race!) The heat would have been a much bigger factor if there hadn't been aid stations set up on either end of the course. There was no shade on the course at all, so a regular dousing with ice water or a sponge made a huge difference. On nearly each lap, Tracy handed me a hat filled with ice as I came through the personal aid station and I handed him the hat I had been wearing. By the last few laps, I was taking a sponge at one end of the course, a bottle of water at the other end and my Vitalyte electrolyte drink in the middle. I was so wet, my shoes were squishy with water when I took them off after the race.

Before every big race, I make a series of goals. Most of them relate to how I want to feel before, during and after the race. I also make specific performance-related goals. Obviously the number one goal is always to finish. Training had gone well but not perfectly, so I wanted to walk at 5:00/km pace and finish at 4:10:00. I also had hoped to finish better than my previous Olympics, but the problem with a goal that focuses on a place finish is that you don't have any control over what your competition does. Yes, I would like to win every race I enter, but that's not alway realistic - especially at the Olympics (unless your name is Phelps). I was able to meet nearly all of my goals: I finished (yay!), walked faster than I though I would (4:08:32) and felt strong and in control the entire way. I didn't improve on my best Olympic finish, but I would have had to walk eight minutes faster to do that.

Back to the race. At 25km, my legs started to feel very heavy and fatigued. My first reaction was "Uh-oh, this is not good." But I quickly turned it around and said, "Okay, it's a 50km, you're supposed to be tired, just work through it." It helped, I think, that my friend Roman was clearly hurting more than I was and I was able to feed off of him as he slowed. It reminded me briefly of the Prefontaine quote, "Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it." That's always a good pick-me-up in the middle of a race. I continued to plug away at a steady pace and by the last 15km, I was passing people who had lapped me and catching up to people who had been as much as five minutes ahead of me earlier in the race. My strategy of walking even splits was paying off. In the final 10km, only 16 guys walked faster than I did. With just 2km to go, I was gaining quickly on Tim Berrett from Canada and a Greek walker. I tried to accelerate but couldn't manage anything quicker than my 5:00/km pace. Tim told me later that I would have caught him if he hadn't been trying to catch the Greek walker in front of him. He ended up 14 seconds ahead of me.

Coming into the stadium for the finish was an unreal feeling. The place was packed and cheering wildly for each of the walkers as we came out of the tunnel. I would have liked to soak it in a bit longer but desperately wanted to finish as quickly as I could. After I crossed the line, I stopped and looked around for awhile realizing that in all likelihood it was the last time I would be standing at the finish line inside an Olympic stadium. How lucky am I to have had this incredible experience? I probably took longer than most, but I just didn't want to leave. It would have been silly to do a lap around the track, but if my legs had allowed it I might have tried.

One of the more agonizing inventions of the Olympic media moguls is the post-race mixed zone. After having walked for over four hours, stumbled across the finish line, in some cases collapsed in a heap, they expect every walker to go through the mixed zone. Stairs. They make you climb up a flight of stairs so they can get the best angle for a post-race interview. Oh, it's agonizing. At least they have the good sense to put hand rails all the way up and back down again. So I pulled myself up to the second level, talked to a nice reporter from NBC (don't know if any of that got aired or not), and then stumbled back down the stairs on the other side. Print media from all over the world were waiting down there. The Italian champion who had finished well ahead of me was still talking to some Italian newspapers as I went past and talked to someone from an Oregon newspaper and the USATF media representative.

Out of the mixed zone and into the post-race recovery room where there were lumps of athletes scattered around on the floor, draped over chairs, or moaning in the corner. Some were changing into dry clothes, some were just staring into space. I chatted with Tim Berrett for a bit and then walked, slowly, out to meet the USATF coaches and medical staff that were waiting for me. Coach Vigil had my phone, so I was able to call Liz and the rest of the family and arrange to meet them in the stands. Thankfully, there was an elevator up into the stadium seating. Stairs and I were not going to get along for awhile.

Okay, it's late here in the Village and I need to pack up my bags. I'm moving out tomorrow and then spending a few more days here in Beijing touring around with my family. I'll try to blog some more, but it may not be until I get back to San Diego at the end of the week. Check back if you like. Peace.


Jack and Kathy Garry said...


Excellent description of your thoughts, conditions and competitors before, during and after the event.

We are proud of you and your accomplishments.

Enjoy the rest of the week and have a safe trip home.

Jack & Kathy Garry

Peter said...

A great read -- thanks for taking the time to blog it -- fascinating.

Dora said...

Congratulations again! I know what you mean about stairs. At the end of the Seattle marathon, people have to get up the stairs in the stadium to get to the clothing check (because it's November and it's really cold after the race). Sometimes there are no handrails, and the stairs usually seem much steeper than usual.

NBC on TV showed you passing sponge/water to someone you were walking with. You are such a helpful guy! For the men's 20k, they showed a guy sponging inside his shorts. I am very glad that wasn't you.


Elizabeth Richardson said...

Thanks for everything, Philip. You're a class act.

Olivia said...


Thanks for the detailed descriptions! I'll be thinking of your techniques while I'm on Cycle Oregon next week!


Grimm Reaper said...

I was there cheering you on. As an old 50k man myself, I really enjoyed your blog account of the race. It was great seeing the USA represented. On the way from Beijing to Tokyo I sat next to your wife and we had a great chat. Good luck to you in the future. Neal Picken aka "The Grimm Reaper"