"Don't make it happen, Al," fellow race walker Dave McGovern counseled him at the starting line. "Let it happen." Al nodded. He had heard it a thousand times: Patience. Stay inside yourself. Walk the first 25K slower than the last 25K. Don't try to bust open a 31-mile race early. It's lethal, Al.
Only he and four other Americans—Curt Clausen, Philip Dunn, Sean Albert and Tim Seaman—had a real shot at the four-hour time necessary to qualify for the Athens Olympics. No more than three could go. They'd all trained together every day for years at the ARCO Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista.
Foremost loomed Curt, the reigning U.S. champ, the gritty U.S. champ determined to make his third straight Olympics, then return to law school. Philip, the quiet bookworm—Al turned inside out—had been Al's enemy a few years earlier, the two of them forever clashing for the third berth on national teams, but who could sustain anger at a puppy like Jiggy? Mild-mannered Sean seemed on the verge of breaking the four-hour barrier for the first time, nearly in command of his long legs and arms in this cruelly mechanical event. Tim, Al's fiery roommate at Wisconsin-Parkside, was a 20K specialist who had said he'd likely stay in the race for 30K and then pull out, use it for conditioning...or was he lying in the weeds, ready to pounce if he saw a chance to steal an Olympic berth at 50K?
"Go, Al!" a fan screamed as the gun sounded and the walkers took off. Who wouldn't root for him? He was the greeter at the gate, the man who popped up from his moonlighting post behind the customer-service desk at the training center dining hall and showed all the newcomers where to get their mail, their rubdowns, their grub, then helped them haul in all their belongings, thrilled to welcome one and all—Americans and foreigners, swimmers, skiers, shot-putters, shortstops—to the fantasy factory in the Southern California desert. He'd carry his lunch tray to the far table where a new arrival ate alone. He'd take the Honduran cyclist to the airport at 5 a.m., beg the outraged decathlete to make peace with the offending kayaker, concoct nicknames for them all. Hey, V-Dub! Big John Stud, my man! What's happening Apples? He turned his cramped dorm room into the campus lounge, the gathering place for field trips organized by camp counselor Al to the amusement park, beach, ball games, bars and dance clubs. He turned all these masters of abstruse and exotic athletic skills into the most unexpected thing: a family.
"You can do it, Al!" came the cries as he and the four other favorites, in a cluster, fired away from the pack. Al settled into rhythm and felt the nightmare of the 50K begin: his heart pumping hard enough to generate 3 to 3½ steps per second, equivalent to the rate of a 100-meter sprinter, pumping even harder than a marathon runner's heart because he had to use more of his body to create locomotion and then maintain that rate for nearly two hours longer. His gait requiring a gymnast's explosive strength in the hips and hamstrings, a dancer's fluidity. The mental strain unrelenting, because if he fatigued or lost focus covering those 31 miles at a 7:40-per-mile clip, he could violate one of race walking's two bedrock rules and be disqualified. One rule stipulated that his lead leg remain straight from the moment of contact with the ground till the leg passed beneath his hips. Al could usually follow that one. The other one, the rule that tortured him no end, decreed that at least one foot be in contact with the racecourse—both feet could never be off the ground at the same time.
Agony loves company. That's why most 50Ks began the way this one did. The best walkers broke away and forged an unspoken pact, one man doing the hard slogging out front for a few minutes, cutting wind resistance, then dropping back and drafting behind the next leader, each man drawing psychological comfort from the group for 35 or 40 kilometers, functioning on trust. Trust that his competitors would sustain a pace that would keep him on target. Deeper trust, in himself, that he'd have what it takes to devour them all in the jungle of the final 10 kilometers.
For the first seven kilometers Al, Curt, Philip, Tim and Sean upheld the agreement. Then Curt grabbed a handful of toilet paper from a tabletop and began to surge away.
What should Al do?
Stay with Curt, the race walking sages had advised him. After all, they said, he knows the 50K's secrets and trip wires the way a husband knows his wife's. Let him take you to a 3:58 finish, Al, take you all the way to Athens.