As I walked into Barton Hall at Cornell University this past weekend it was hard not to be overtaken by the atmosphere of the old 100-yr+ building filled with a combination of young collegiate athletes and young-at-heart masters runners. It is home to the Hartshorne Mile, a track meet that has been contested for 50 years and draws 40-90 yr. old athletes from all over the East, Mid-West, Canada, and sometimes beyond—many making the journey to Ithaca, NY year-after-year.
In my first year of competition, I approached the arena with some trepidation. I hadn’t raced a mile on the track in over 20 years, and I was up against some great competitors. The four-hour drive home and threat of a major snow and ice storm had me a little worried as well. In other words, I was anxious, and a little scared. But within 30 minutes of entering Barton Hall, my mood turned toward warmth, excitement, and relaxation. I have to give credit for this emotional flip-flop to the people around me. The check-in clerk greeted me with a smile and enthusiasm. Meet director Adam Engst gave me a moment of full joyful attention amidst his ongoing track meet. Competitors caught up with each other like they were old friends (which I’m pretty sure they were) and openly welcomed newcomers like myself. My Greater Philadelphia Track Club teammates joked and laughed. Even the rabbit for our race (yes, we had a rabbit) was enthusiastic and uplifting.
This made all the difference. By the time I began warming up, I was all smiles. The environment in Barton Hall shifted my mental state away from anxiety and fear toward enthusiasm and excitement. It was subtle but powerful. I enjoyed cheering heats of competitors, including my teammates, as they raced around the 200 meter indoor track (one mile = 8 laps + 9 meters = 1609 meters). My heat was last and I arrived on the starting line fired up. I gave a fist bump to every competitor — something I don’t usually do. The announcer completed his introductions and the gun went off.
I immediately settled behind previous champion (and super-nice guy) Mark Williams as we both followed the rabbit through the first 400 meters in exactly the time we told him to run (67 seconds). I felt relaxed and confident. We drifted a couple seconds off the rabbit in the next 400 meters. As we approached the 800 meter mark (half way), I had to decide if I should take the lead and try to push the pace for a fast time or sit on Mark a bit longer and go for the win towards the end of the race. You can watch the race on YouTube if you want. It only lasts a little more than 4.5 minutes.
Or let’s just cut to the chase — I took the lead and held on for the win in 4:34:80.
I’m happy with the performance and feel like I grew as an athlete. Growth is a big deal for me. It’s a huge driver of “why” I run, coach, and perform. The performance at Ithaca taught me about the power of a positive mindset, it taught me to reframe anxiety as excitement, and it reinforced that we are all in this together to make each other better. It also helped me learn that I still have some work to do to reach my full potential in the mile race. I could have pushed harder the second half of race, and I think I can break 4:30 with a little more training and practice.
Perhaps even better than the performance and positive vibes at the race is the ongoing connection with athletes that continues to this day. Thanks to facebook, email, and Strava, I’ve communicated with dozens of athletes in the last few days (most of whom I’ve never met). This dialogue and connection has opened up new opportunities for me, which have in turn brought more joy and satisfaction to my life. I love the reciprocal relationship between emotions and running, especially when it creates a positive feedback loop.
I’m grateful for everyone involved in making races like the Hartshorne Mile a reality. I expect I’ll be back next year and I hope to progress my mile performance even further.