Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Corporate Track Nationals

As summer kinda sorta starts to slow down, I can't help but think what an amazing summer this has been. It all started off when my fiancé and I closed on our first house in mid-June. We were thrilled and nervous all at the same time as owning a house is a major responsibility. Were we actually becoming adults? Who knew?! Then, a few weeks later, I was promoted at the Y, moving from group exercise instructor and personal trainer at the Greater Portland YMCA to Wellness Director at the Northern York County YMCA in Biddeford, Maine. This truly was exciting in a bittersweet kind of way--as excited as I was for new challenges in my new position, I was really going to miss a lot of the good friends I had made in Portland. Nonetheless, the promotion was the right move during what was already a busy time with house-related things.

Of course, all this life excitement was happening during corporate track and field season. As some of you know, Tessa and I both compete for Team Unum. Before this year, Unum has had a rich track and field history with 5 national championships and 20+ state championships to its name. Although they have won many titles, they hadn't been to a national meet in quite some time...until this year.

Even though Unum is a Fortune 500 company, they don't give a dime to their track team. Funding, as I understand it, ended sometime around when the economy started going south. So it has been up to us as a track team to raise the money we need for the things we need. And this year we needed to go to Nationals because in its 37th year, it would be the events last year.

So, huge fundraising efforts lasting the better part of nine months included bulb/plant sales, a silent auction, a bowl-a-thon, and a garage sale. A lot of money was raised through a lot of hard work and generous people, and we were able to fund our trip to San Marcos, California for the 37th and final Nationals meet!

Recruiting people to take time off from work to fly across the country for four or so days was harder than expected. We ended up with only seventeen people, six men and eleven women, compared to twenty to thirty something for the other teams in our division. Nonetheless, the people who had committed were true rock stars: Nationals record holders and Hall of Famers, a just-out-of-college distance freak, team leaders, former college athletes, up-and-comers, and solid weekend warriors. Overall, you couldn't have asked for a better mix of people. Maybe, just maybe, we were the little team that could...

The meet was a two day event and started with a 5k on Saturday, July 12th. My specialty! The course was a fast cross-country style course that looped twice to make it a hair over a true 5k. Three men and three women ran this event, with the men taking 1st in the 0-29 age group, 1st in the 30-39 age group and 3rd in the 40-49 age group, respectively. The women took 1st in the 0-29 age group, 2nd in the 30-39 age group, and 1st in the 60-69 age group, respectively. These finishes, while seemingly impressive, netted us a 2nd place 5k win for both men and women. The scoring at Nationals is very bizarre; they score based on how you do against the best overall time or distance in your age group. Head-to-head relays were scored straight up based on finishing place. Each athlete was allowed to compete in only four events all weekend.

Not exactly the start we had hoped for but not a bad start either. As the day moved along, we lost one of our men to a lower leg injury. Our seventeen strong were now down to eleven women and five men. We collected a number of medals though and just as many laughs as we really began to gel together as a team.

The first day, July 12th, ended with us in great position. Our tallied the estimated points and said we had a decent lead on the field, which included defending champion SCVAL, which I believe stands for Southern California Valley Athletic League. They had some extremely impressive athletes on their team!

As the second day came, the weather remained So Cal hot with dry, blazing heat and not much shade. Eric, the guy we lost to a lower leg injury, carried the Olympic torch that was used in the 1984 Olympics partway around the track as part of the opening ceremony. That in itself was a really cool experience!

The second day, July 13th, started terribly with a third place finish and three fourth place finishes, and we lost two more men to hamstring injuries. Our six guys were down to three, but our eleven women were holding strong, albeit with a few bumps and bruises. Things were not looking good for Unum capturing its 6th national title.

Seeing that we needed some team adjustments due to the injuries, our coach did what he does best. He started moving people around, taking some out of certain events and plugging them into others. It was like watching someone put together a puzzle that just didn't want to fit. But somehow he made it fit.

What happened at the end of the day was truly awesome. Tom, our coach, had tried calculating the team scores with two events left. We had just won the crucial Women's Relay and were prepared to run our last two events; two events that I was in. Feeling pretty fresh from the previous day where I had run the 5K and a very slow 1600 meters as part of a relay (we were the only team to enter the event, so no need to go all out here), I was ready to roll.

I had told Tessa the day before that I was hoping for a challenge. I wanted to be tested. I wanted to be pushed. I wanted to have to work hard to achieve glory. I didn't want it to come easy. It shouldn't come easy.

Well, I got my wish. Tom had calculated that we needed to win the last two events in order to win the meet. No second place or third place finishes from either event. They were must wins.

The first event was one of my favorite relays: the Pyramid Relay. It consisted of a 400, an 800, a 1200, an 800, and a 400. The first 400 would be run by a woman, Shelby, the first 800 would be run by a woman, Lauren, against men from the other teams, the 1200 would be run by our just-out-of-college distance freak, Sam, I'd run the second 800, and the final 400 would be run by Regina, who was just coming off of another relay and who still had a final relay to run afterwards. The goal of the race was to win by getting Regina a huge lead that she could play with.

Well, we did just that. Shelby ran a very good 400, Lauren didn't give a whole lot to the competition and held her own with a really strong 800, Sam blew the doors open in the 1200, I distanced the lead in the second 800, and Regina had a nice cushion to work with as she closed with the 400. Mission accomplished. Now we needed to win one more relay to maybe win Nationals (the points were so screwy that nothing was guaranteed at this point).

The next and final event was a little more out of my comfort zone. It was the sprint relay and who ever has seen me sprint knows that I'm not a sprinter. The 800 is one thing, but anything less made me a little uncomfortable. The relay was set up as 200-200-400-400-200-200. Lots of lots of speed, lots of baton exchanges, lots of things to go wrong. Gulp.

I was running the first of the two 400s. It was to go Laura, who was a little banged up but a gamer and former collegiate jumper and sprinter, followed by Lisa who had to run against the legendary Steve Scott, followed by me, then Sam, then Leo, who was more of a mid-distance guy who has shown great 200-5k range before, and finished off by Regina, who, by the way, was a former collegiate sprinter. We had a solid team, for sure, but there was no doubt, when looking at the competition, that I was going to get my way and have to WORK to achieve the dream.

We practiced a few handoffs prior to the race. Being a distance guy, we could get away with semi-good handoffs in pyramid relays or distance medleys. But not here. The incoming handoffs would be too quick and if any one of a number of things went wrong, well, I didn't want to think about that...

Laura lined up at the start and the gun went off. She burst off of the line and immediately got us into a great position. Next was Lisa, who had to fend off Steve Scott. As she received the baton on the far corner of the track, I took my position and waited for the hand off. I looked back at the guy who I'd be racing: About 6' 3", strong, athletic, and about 19 years old. "Don't run too fast," he said as I looked at him. I gulped. "You too," I replied.

Lisa came cruising down the homestretch and extended her arm. I took the baton and was off. One lap. 400 meters. Mike Martin, our leader who was down with a bum hammy had told me the night before that he wanted me to run a 54 second 400 in this race. I was not a sprinter. My legs and lungs and heart and shoulders were built for hills and distance and slow, torturous pain. Not fast, Band-Aid like pain.

As I passed through the first 100 I felt good. I felt like I was at 95%, wanting to run a negative split at the 200. But then I heard the cheering that wasn't for me. People on the outside track of the backstretch were cheering for the 6' 3" athletic guy. He was running me down. Laura and Lisa had given me a solid lead, and this guy had already cut into it significantly by 150 meters. He was going to toast me. I didn't know how the rest of the relay matched up, but it might not matter. If I gave way to this freak then I would let me team down. Simple as that.

As the 200 meter mark approached, I dropped the hammer. I heard Laura screaming something and Coach Tom yell, "This is your year, Nate! Make him work for it!" More people were screaming. I couldn't hear the guy behind me but I knew he was there. He was on my ass, no doubt about it. He was going to take me in the final 100 when my lame sprint form fell apart.

But that didn't happen because I ran, no doubt, the fastest 200 time of my life. Adrenaline took over and I felt like I was the roadrunner. There was no pain. There was no form to think about. There was just me, the straightaway, and the zebra-cheetah effect. I ran for my life, extending the baton out to a waiting Sam Seekins, hoping he, also a distance runner, would put some distance on these guys.

As Sam took the baton and made his way around the track, I watched as he was able to create a little separation. He came in with a slight lead and handed off to Leo, who showed how valuable he was to this team by running a 27-second 200. Not bad for a 40-something-year-old mid-distance runner. He handed to Regina who gave it her all as she came down the straightaway, giving us a 14 second win.

But was it enough?
Sprint Relay Team
L-R: Sam, Regina, Leo, Lisa, me, Laura

After the hugs and the high fives and the smiles, Sam and I took off for a cool down run as the officials tallied the points. We went through the race, detail for detail, reliving the excitement from minutes before. When we came back to our team, the results had been announced. Our team looked sad. Well, everyone looked sad except Eric, our Olympic torch bearer. He was grinning and holding his index finger out. #1. Sam and I looked at everyone. Then Coach Tom made the announcement.


By 2 points. 450-448 over defending champ SCVAL.

We really were the little team that could.


National Champs!
L-R, back row: Regina, me, Rylan, Leo, Sam Seekins, Coach Tom, Kasey, Sam Kane, Laura, Juliet, Judy
L-R, front row: Laura, Tessa, Shelby, Alice, Mike, Lisa, Eric
As we took our victory lap around the track, it hadn't really sunk in yet. I mean, we only had seventeen people, with three healthy guys. How could this be?

When I had time to actually sit down and think about what we had accomplished, and after talking with my teammates, it was completely evident that this was 100% a team win. If any one of us had not been able to go, we would have lost. Plain and simple. We had just the right number of people to be able to move people around to cover injuries. The people who did go had just the right skill sets, meaning we didn't have too many jumpers or too many throwers or too many of any one thing. We had the perfect amount of skill, the perfect number of people, and the perfect amount of chemistry.

Some of the veterans who had been to Nationals before explained that forty-plus people would often go, but by the time the weekend was over you might not have had a chance to talk with them or even really see them. With seventeen people, the chemistry was just right.

Even though this is said to be the last Nationals, we at Team Unum are dedicated to bringing Corporate Nationals back to life in 2016, possibly in Maine. Until then, there is more hard work to put in, more races to run, and most importantly, more laughs to be had and memories to be made.

I can't think of a better group of people to do that with.

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