June 28, 2012

Midnight Pilgrimage

3000 meter steeplechase, 2001USATF Championships Eugene, OR 

It was almost midnight and I was running the streets of Eugene, OR alongside my friend and teammate Cindy. A few steps ahead of us, Jason, another teammate, had just taken a sharp left turn up a steep hill and quickened the pace. I exchanged looks with Cindy, or at least tried to since we were running by moonlight.

"You know, Jason, I just ran a race a few hours ago.  And are you sure you know where you're going?"

I had just finished my final at The USA Track & Field Championships, where I set a new PR of 10:12 in the 3000m steeplechase and finished 10th. What made that race so special was that it was my first USAs, and before that meet my PR was 10:32. I had also set a new PR of 10:18 in my prelim to make the final, which was completely unexpected. Needless to say, my legs were toast.

"We're almost there, just... you can do it," he called back. 

It had seemed like a fun idea, to make a midnight pilgrimage to Pre's Rock with my fellow steeplechaser and friend Cindy before we hopped on an early morning flight back to Virginia. But when Jason, a sub-4 minute miler and 2000 Olympic Trials qualifier crashed our party, the fun run took on a new meaning. He hadn't made the final of the 1500 so he had fresh legs.

Eleven years later, when I look back on it, I'm glad I sucked it up and didn't complain that night. Those were some of the last memories I have of Jason.

* * * * * * * * * *

When I think about Eugene I remember a few distinct moments. First, the steeplechase and how it saved my running career. I had decided after a year of running at JMU that I wanted to "pursue other interests". Truthfully, I was not happy with my progress after a year and was one of the slowest women on the team. But some time during my sophomore year, I heard that the NCAA was going to add the steeplechase to the championship meet the next year, 2001. I had run it once in high school, and fell in love with it- being a dancer- turned pentathlete- turned 400 meter hurdler- turned distance runner- makes sense right? That news sparked something in me to want to RUN again. I somehow convinced my coaches to let me back on the team, but my Junior year was rocky. I was putting in the hard work, but not seeing the results in my races. Things started to some together in time for outdoor season of 200I , so I set my sights on the NCAA automatic qualifying time of 10:20 and slowly chipped away at it. By the end of the season, I came close but didn't make the time, and missed a provisional entry by a few seconds.  Then my coach told me about USAs, and that's how Cindy and I wound up at USAs amongst much more accomplished athletes. I was disappointed because I desperately wanted to be there for the beginning of something, to say I had competed in the first women's steeplechase at NCAAs.  But I "settled" for a trip to Eugene and an opportunity to race at historic Hayward Field.

The second thing I remember about Eugene is just being completely star struck. Cindy and I were in the athlete warm up area, pretending to videotape ourselves while we "secretly" videotaped Regina Jacobs and Suzy Favor-Hamilton... and Marion Jones. This was a year before the Balco scandal, so Marion was sill competing. I remember how big she looked in person, and how powerfully she exploded put of the starting blocks. I watched one of her starts and how she kept her head down for what seemed like forever until, well, until she literally an over a girl who had just stepped out of the Port-a-John. This girl happened to be in the steeple final with me, and she was one of the favorites. She recovered in time to run, but she had definitely been injured.  I was happy to escape that fate.

And the third thing I remember vividly is that night we ran to Pre's rock. Although it wasn't the last time I would see him, it was my fondest memory of Jason. He was so excited about leading us on that adventure in the dark, and so excited to be running through the streets of Eugene.

* * * * * * * * * *

On New Years Day of 2011, I woke up with a bad feeling. I quickly checked my messages, and got the sad news: a plane crash that I had heard of from one of my grad school friends turned out to be the private plane Jason was piloting, and he had died. It was a freak accident, and a complete shock to his family, friends, and everyone who knew him. At Jason's memorial  a few days later we exchanged stories and grieved. Someone mentioned  that a few days before the crash he had just been talking about getting back into running again. It made me mad that he didn't get that chance. In fact, it sucked. I had those same thoughts and kept putting it off. I suddenly realized that I didn't want that for myself.  So I started running again, because I was tired of wasting my talent. Luckily I found Team Oiselle a few months later, which turned out to be a perfect for someone like me. Being a part of a team of such amazing women helped me realize that just because I'm not considered elite anymore, well, that's no reason to quit running altogether! 

I'm happy to be going back to Eugene as a spectator for the Olympic Trials this year because it holds so many good memories for me. In 2001 it sparked my confidence and I ended up having my best year, culminating in 3 All-American awards and a 4th place finish at NCAAs and USAs in 2002. My school record of 9:56.07 still stands. Not bad for a walk-on who quit for a year. I'm most excited to be a part of Team Oiselle this time around, and to cheer on a new generation of fast, strong women steeplers. Three of our team members qualified for the trials, and Jamie Cheever made the final of the women's steeplechase. I hope Hayward Field works its magic for you, Jamie, and everyone else competing at the Trials.

* * * * * * * * * *

I'm sitting here now at the Denver Airport, waiting for our connecting flight to Eugene. I'm laughing because I've got my boarding pass in the pocket of my sweater, and that's because of a prank Jason played on us on our way to Eugene. I asked him to watch my stuff while I went to the bathroom, and he hid my boarding pass. He let me Type-A freak out for what felt like an hour (maybe 5 minutes) looking for it, before he admitted the truth. Lesson learned, I always keep my boarding pass in my pocket. Thanks, Jason.