When I got to the D.C. Road Runners Track Championship at Dunbar High School, the final meet in the Eastern Track League series, the women’s masters mile was starting.
As a high school runner, I race from September to June. These weeks in between seasons are for following dramatic professional races and the pursuit of record breaking performances. My morning routine now consists of checking Twitter to see which all-time mark went down or which finishing kick dazzled the day before.
I have the entire world of track and field at my fingertips whenever I care to look, and that is exactly why I could not pass up the opportunity to drive an hour into D.C. to watch the this meet in person. I wanted to move beyond the times and splits on a static results page and the occasional suspense-free race video that broadcasts the winner and time in the title and instead experience track and field first hand.
I came to see the elite races, but when I got there, middle-aged women were duking it out on the track. I checked the schedule. There were six more heats of open mile races before the women’s 1,500 meters, one of the events I had really come to see. I resigned myself to sitting in the stands for the next 90 minutes, much like I imagined my parents did most weekends.
And then, I actually watched the race. And the women’s masters mile? It was exciting. It was inspiring. One woman charged ahead and led the whole race, just missing breaking six minutes. Another woman’s kids were running alongside her on the straightaways, cheering wildly.
A couple of races later, a fierce finishing kick from 50 meters back to win a mixed-gender mile heat had my friends and I on our feet screaming.
Running is the everyman’s sport. That is what makes it special. Distance running doesn’t have the “Friday night lights” popularity of football, or the money and fame of basketball, or the America’s pastime, apple pie allure of baseball. But running fosters a universal connection. The grit and determination required to race a mile was just as visible in every open race as it was in the elite competitions.
Professional Nike athlete Shannon Osika, the winner of the women’s elite 1500, appreciates the unique value of meets that bring elite runners and weekend warriors together.
“These are the best kind of meets,” Osika said. “It’s really cool to see the community races and the masters races. I think that’s what it’s all about, the community.”
To me, what is special about running is not that professionals exist on a higher plane, majestic and untouchable like the celebrities of other sports, but rather that they are real. An everyday runner can see some of their pain in a hunched-over professional post-race, and a professional runner can feel a connection with a masters competitor who refuses to give an inch down the home stretch.
As the women’s elite 1,500 and the men’s elite mile neared, the announcer invited everyone to come down from the stands to the infield to watch. Spectators and runners from all of the previous races flocked to the field. I stood feet away from the elite, accomplished competitors as the gun went off.
Running is a hard sport. At times when I have felt frustrated or unmotivated, I have turned to the social media of professional runners, some of whom I watched race last night, and been reassured by their journeys through struggles and also the love they display for the sport.
I also think too much sometimes. I forget to race and instead run with one eye on the clock and therefore lose the excitement of competition.
I saw the power of competition last night. The fight displayed by every woman in the race reignited the competitive fire in me I sometimes forget to access. It made me excited to be a racer, a competitor.
Katrina Coogan, a professional runner for the New Balance Boston Track Club, said having professional runners serve as role models shows younger runners how to embrace the competitor within themselves.
“[Professionals] show young girls that they can be strong, powerful athletes and be confident in that, and show their competitive side and not be scared to be who they are,” Coogan said.
Immediately after the women’s 1500, the men’s elite mile took the track. Everyone in attendance knew they were looking for the first sub-4:00 mile on a D.C. track.
As the laps clicked by and the men approached the final straightaway, with a lone figure leading the charge, the electric energy of the moment was palpable. The excitement in the air was real. It was not just numbers on a phone screen the morning after. No one knew what was going to happen, and everyone leaned closer as the announcer called out the numbers… 55, 56, 57.
It was irrational, but like everyone else around me, I felt a shiver of victory as Willy Fink crossed the line, running the first sub 4:00 mile on D.C. soil.
As a high school runner, the results that roll in from Diamond Leagues and major championships feel unattainable. They are just numbers coming from distant places. But last night, I didn’t leave with times imprinted in my mind. I left with each runner’s fight and grit hanging in my head. I left marveling at the unmistakable will to win in many racers’ eyes. I left invigorated by the sense of community that surrounded me, from the fans who cheered passionately all evening to the professionals who stood around talking to each other and their supporters long after they could have gone home.
It is those feelings of fierce competitiveness, of joy and of community that I could only have gotten from being at the DCRR track championship that will inspire my upcoming cross country season, not a steady stream of results on Twitter.
Sophie Tedesco is a rising senior at George C. Marshall High School, where she runs cross country and track.