Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Welcome to Track!

"Dad, let's go to the track tomorrow morning," Eli 11.0 said. Fired with enthusiasm from the seven minutes of coverage NBC gave nightly to track, he wanted to time himself in a few events.

We had talked about doing this after the spring track meet--working on track twice a month--but with three days of hockey a week, three days of tennis, and three days of golf, there really hadn't been time.

We went to track at 9 a.m. Sunday morning, and even though it was early, it was still hot. August in Austin is 100% miserable, and there's no reasonable time to run, unless you happen to be awake at 3 a.m.

No matter, though. He was up for anything. That's why I call him The Enthusiasm Engine.

"So here's how we'll warm up," I said as we walked onto the track. "We'll jog two laps, then you'll do some striders--"

"What are striders?" he asked.

"Shorter distances, like the 100 or 200, where you're not running full out, but you're running faster than a jog," I said. "They help get your body ready to run fast."

He made it through the two warm-up laps and one strider. "Dad, come on," he said. "I want to run the 400."

"All right, then let me explain something to you about the 400," I said. "At your age, it's all about pain."

His eyes widened. "What?"

"Pain," I said. "You'll run fast for the first 250, then it's going to hurt. Really hurt. And learning to become a real runner is understanding that it's pain, not injury, and that you can push through it."

"I'll just start off slower," he said.

"Nope. Doesn't work like that," I said. "That's how most kids run it, and that's why they're not fast. And that's why you'll beat them next spring, because when they feel pain, they're going to slow down. You'll feel pain, but you'll just keep running."

"I think I can do that," he said.

"I'm not going to lie to you and say this won't hurt. It's going to hurt plenty. But you go through this process where you learn about how it feels, and it starts to become familiar, and then one day you feel it and you just run through it. And that is one of the greatest moments you will ever have as an athlete. Ever."

If you've ever run track, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's impossible to just watch and understand how painful the running events are at the longer distances. Certainly, it's the most painful sport I ever participated in, because lactic acid is the devil and it cannot be denied. The only way I can describe it is that at a certain point, your entire body seizes up--but you have to keep running.

For a kid Eli's age, the "longer distances" start with the 400. And as long as he wants to do this, I want to be honest with him about what it takes to be good, because he wants to be good at everything. So we had the pain discussion up front.

"I'm ready to run, Dad," he said.

There were other people on the track, all grown-ups, and I told him about watching out for other people and to stay in the inside lane when he could.

Then he took off.

I thought he would slow way, way down in the last 100, but he didn't. He was struggling, and I know it hurt, but he was battling.

He ran past me at the finish line. "Seventy-nine seconds," I called out. "That's really, really fast for your first time. How'd it feel?"

"Terrible," he said. He stopped, leaned over, and put his hands on his knees.

"Don't stop," I said. "Keep walking. That last hundred is just awful, isn't it?"

"Oh man," he said. "It really, really hurt."

We walked a lap around the track, and then he wanted to run a 100. Which he did, and it was fast (I messed up starting the time, so I don't know how fast, but he was motoring).

He still wanted to do the long jump, so we walked over to the pit, and we talked a little about fundamentals.

"Dad, I don't feel good." Eli took a few steps away from me, leaned over, and put his hands on his knees. "I think I'm going to throw up."

"Okay, don't lean over like that," I said. "Stand up and tilt your head back. Walk slowly."

"Ugh, this feels terrible," he said.

"Welcome to track!" I said, brightly.

"Oh my God," he said, completely miserable. "You think this is funny."

"Only because I remember the first time I threw up after a race," I said, smiling. "I know you feel terrible, and I'm really sorry, but it's not injury--it's pain. It will pass."

"You threw up after a race?" he asked. He looked very, very pale.

"I ran a 10K road race when I was in high school, and I had three doughnuts for breakfast."

"Oh, no," he said, laughing.

"I thought I was flying, but all these old people were running faster than I was," I said. "So I ran as hard as I possibly could, every second, and I sprinted at the finish to beat some old guy who was probably using a walker. I stopped right after I crossed the finish line, and about five seconds later--BAM."

"You threw up?" he said, laughing.

"Oh, yeah," I said. "That's how I learned to never lean over and put your hands on your knees. That's an almost guaranteed way to hurl."

"I don't think I can do the long jump today," he said.

"That's probably a good idea," I said, smiling. "Let's go home. You'll feel fine in a little while."

We started walking across the field, my arm around the little boy who is already so, so strong.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I ran in an 800 race and felt like I was carrying a refrigerator for the last 300?" I asked.

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