Track on the Road: The Final Stretch
Andrew Wise has been a contributor to CITIUS MAG for a year and recently graduated from Western Washington University. He decided to take time after wrapping up his studies to live out of a van with his girlfriend Brittany Grant for a few weeks and chase personal bests on the track. We published his quest a few weeks ago and the running community has rallied around to welcome him with open arms. Here is his update midway through the trip. The following is the conclusion of Andrew’s travels.
The eighth heat of the men’s 5,000 meters at the Bryan Clay Invite started at 10:20 p.m. Team buses stacked up near the entryway and the bleachers sat mostly empty. The firework show for the night was already a memory: Evan Jager clipping off steady laps at the front, one challenger hanging on to the end and Sydney Gidabuday putting all of Division I on notice with a sub- 13:30 NCAA lead.
When the gun went for Heat 8, I found myself shuffling laps around the infield, trying to wrap my head around having tanked the final mile of my own race in the fourth heat, struggling, stumbling, sputtering to a time more than 30 seconds off my personal best, and even further from any kind of relevancy in the track world. I felt embarrassed, angry at myself for having put any of this out there, for letting down the CITIUS MAG Track Club singlet in its 5k debut, feeling like I’d ruined the whole trip by building it around this moment that wasn’t guaranteed to work out. I’ve never felt closer to giving up on running altogether.
(Editor’s Note: He didn’t let us down)
Which brings us to Heat 8, and a kid named Edward Kiolbasa (yeah, we make a lot of jokes), a sophomore transfer who’d shown up out of nowhere going into my final cross season at Western Washington University.
I spotted Ed’s navy kit near the front of the race with a mile or so to go, looking strong, smooth.
It’s been a complicated transition for us to figure out how to move on from our collegiate careers to the next phase. Bellingham was a proving ground for both of us, and we grew a ton as athletes and people over the last four and a half years. But we both felt strongly that the health of the program depended on passing the torch to the next generation on that team, and finding a new venue to pursue our goals moving forward. A big part of this trip has been the painful process of cutting ties with our college town and finding out what’s out there in the real world.
And yet, here I was, yelling at Ed like any teammate at a track meet. With 2k to go, I yelled “You’re going to win this race, Ed!”
He surged, dragging the group of three at the front back on pace. They responded, he covered the move, and with 300 to go, He went for it, powering away in the home stretch to take it in 14:54.
I know, probably a couple hundred kids had run faster that day in LA alone. But when Ed and I talked on the phone the first time over last summer, he was a 29:00 8k, 15:50 5k guy with a strong Midwestern accent who’d already spent a year running collegiately without a ton to show for it. Watching him control a race from the front, then cruise to a win, all while blowing away his PB, brought me back from the brink.
We cooled down together, spending as much time talking about his race as we did making predictions for the stacked 1500 on deck for the next night. We ate at a taqueria, then as he and the rest of the Western squad piled back into the rental vans, we realized it was 11 p.m., Brit was entered in the 1500 the next night, and we had no idea where we were going to sleep.
The van is fairly stealthy in the city, and we’ve gotten away with a couple of nights on quiet city blocks or at trailheads, but east LA felt especially hostile toward vans like ours. Azusa has strict resident parking rules, which had pushed us far up into the San Gabriel mountains for the past few nights, but suddenly that seemed like a long, dark, forbidding drive.
We ended up in a lot where a teammate had spotted another van the night before, just off a busy boulevard in Pomona between a hotel and an abandoned Chinese restaurant. We awoke after an hour or so to the oscillating orange lights from a private security patrol car, passing slowly in front of us in the lot. We held our breath, waiting for a knock on the window and bleary-eyed drive around the city looking for a new spot.
But the knock never came and sunlight was streaming through our curtains a few hours later.
I’d entered a steeple at the Beach Invite when I thought I was in shape and ready to race, imagining that it would be worth getting two races in as long as we were going to be around for this week of track. It turned out that had been a mistake, and the final third of the race was another desperate, floundering experience. It probably means my iron levels are low again, a battle I’ve fought consistently over the last few years without ever learning my lesson. In the week or so since these races, I’ve gone back to a stronger iron supplement and already feel a lot stronger. Take your iron, kids.
Just like that, my opportunities to race were used up. The lack of sleep, and the emotional and physical fatigue, hit all at once. We parked the van at the beach and napped deeply through the middle of the day.
There’s something about the sunset over the Azusa Pacific track that makes it feel like something big’s about to happen. We found ourselves back in those bleachers, watching teammates and former rivals throw down fast times in heat after heat of the 1500, counting down the hours until Brit’s race.
Before that, though, we got to witness what has to be considered one of the finest races in the history of collegiate distance running. Every guy in that heat was hell bent on running a PB, and it took all of them to set the stage for Josh Kerr to do what Josh Kerr does in the last 200. I kept an eye on David Ribich, who I used to get to race with in the GNAC and who has been putting on an absolute show over the last two years, with a strained glide to the finish line not far behind, grabbing a new Division II record to go with Kerr’s collegiate record.
The crowd gave the entire heat a standing ovation, recognizing a rare moment in which aggression and ambition triumphed over ego, where everyone pushed the guy in front and dragged the guy behind, no one was asking for a free ride. And the result was historic.
Brit tends to thrive on a less-than-ideal 24 hours before a race. She ran her steeple PB after all her luggage, uniform and spikes included, was stolen out of the rental van in San Francisco a year ago. Her 5k PR came on the back end of a steeple-5,000m double at conference. And now, after a month of hit and miss training (only four 400’s on the track at race pace) and just a couple hours of sleep somewhere in east LA, she was going to try to pull it off again.
A hot first lap had her hanging on to the back, but running the right pace. She hung on through the middle and saved just enough to close hard in the last 200, picking off a few people in the heat. The clock read 4:31, and just like that this whole thing was vindicated. The van, the gas and food money, the strange workouts on random flat stretches of road up and down the west coast, the singlet, had culminated in a successful set of laps around the track.
It’s not an unbelievable time. It would barely qualify for Division II Nationals. It’s still 20 seconds from the USA’s standard. And Brit always gets really self-conscious about how where she sits in the continuum of distance athletes. We both regularly wonder whether we’re kidding ourselves to even imagine that we could work our way into that echelon. But we wouldn’t be doing any of this if we didn’t think there was a chance. Most importantly, I think we both recognize there are no shortcuts and there is no secret.
We contemplated these things over bowls of Ramen in Japantown before rolling out on a late night drive from LA to Joshua Tree.
We spent the next few days running early in the morning and late in the afternoon through broad, sandy washes amongst the strangely contorted, infinitely variable little trees, catching dramatic sunsets. We dodged lizards and spent a lot of time thinking about rattlesnakes. After the constant barrage of humanity and noise that was LA, the desert was especially silent. I could hear my footfalls again, feel my heart thudding blood toward the ends of my limbs.
We took some time to plan this final leg of the journey back to Colorado, to start outlining our training between now and Portland Track Fest. I started the process of trying to get my iron levels back up. But mostly we looked at the stars.
So now, after catching up on laundry and cable television with my Aunt in Sedona, we’re staying with another former GNAC athlete, Shannon Porter, in Flagstaff. The Mt. SAC bib from her newly minted 15:49 5k is on the coffee table in the small, tidy apartment. She and her two sisters, Sarah and Georgia, all of whom had stellar Division II careers, are living in the area, going all in to try to become the first trio of sisters in the U.S. to make the Olympic Trials in the same cycle. They’re well on their way.
The truth is, there are tons of world-class athletes in this country who should be generously sponsored household names with frequent, lucrative opportunities to compete at a high level. It feels strange that we should have any kind of a platform at all when guys like Eric Avila are out there throwing down sub-4 miles every weekend in their high school singlets. More than that, we know there are tons of people with much more talent and much better resumes than we have, that quit the sport because there is such limited support for post-collegiate athletes out there.
We have been pushed and dragged along by so many people during our short time in this distance running universe, and we don’t want that to stop. That means we want to see more people doing what we’re doing, in some form, making it less of a novelty to live simply and train hard during this short chunk of our lives where we can. We obviously think CITIUS MAG deserves more readers and contributors that are cooler and faster than us, (Like John Mescari, looking good in that singlet!)
In a week or so, we’ll be settled in Colorado working and training in a little town called Grand Lake. And, realistically, training will probably be much more consistent and we’ll feel a lot less broke. But I know I’m going to miss this life, the constantly evolving view out the window, the rapid transition from moss and rain to beach and surf to rock and sagebrush. If we could have everyone we’ve met on this trip together on one big group run every single morning, we’d be truly happy, but that seems logistically complicated. So we’ll just wait for you to visit.
We have been completely humbled by the generosity of the running community over these last four weeks, from laundry machines to driveways to cool down partners after rough races. None of this would have worked if we hadn’t decided early on that we’d consider all CITIUS MAG twitter followers to be trustworthy people. The fact that most of them own nice dogs and cats has been an incredible bonus.
It feels like this is the first of many trips training and racing from this little spaceship. That’s partially because it’s a rhythm of existence that we’re really starting to connect with, and partially because we have so many people left to visit and so many beautiful places left to run.
Thanks to the good folks at CITIUS who agreed to let us spout our nonsense. We hope you’ll hit them up with a pitch to spout yours.
Until next time.