I turned 25 this past November, the last milestone on an upward trajectory of perks before the dread of a vanishing youth begins stripping the annual occasion of its novelty (I’m half way to my seniors’ discount at Denny’s!). Specifically, 25 is the age at which the all-powerful car rental industry deems my prefrontal lobe sufficiently developed to forego young driver fees. Boy, oh boy have I taken advantage! After a pandemic-induced deficit of butt-numbing and bladder-testing excursions, I’ve used the last six months to make up for lost time behind the wheel and have affirmed in myself a voracious appetite for mileage of all sorts, whether on my feet or in the driver’s seat.
The year of the road trip began a few days shy of the calendar turning over, with Cami and I putting pedal to metal on December 22nd with our sights set on Christmas in sunny San Diego. Forty-Eight hours and the length of the continental United States later we arrived at the I-5’s southern terminus to find Vancouver’s cold and rain had followed us all the way to the Mexican border. After a week in SoCal mastering our six-lane freeway merges it was back onto the Interstate system (thanks FDR!) and East to Flagstaff, with (yet to be fulfilled) dreams of sunny skies and thin air on the horizon.
Camille and I spent the month of January together in Flagstaff, her first glimpse into the glamour of the fabled altitude camp. Over the last few years Northern Arizona has begun to feel like a home away from home for me, so much so that I had fallen into the complacency of locals the world over and failed to take advantage of the incredible natural beauty at my doorstep. That all changed on this occasion and we were able to take full advantage of the national parks, monuments, and historic sites that, previously unbeknownst to me, dot the landscape in every direction outwards from Flagstaff. While we weren’t busy logging miles in the car to the various attractions I found the time to put in miles on the dirt roads and tracks, gearing up for an indoor season that I hoped would culminate with the World Championships in Belgrade Serbia in mid-March.
After four weeks spent in equal measure training, working, sight-seeing, and binge-watching we traded Big Sky country for the Big Apple, taking our Eastern sojourn to its continental extreme in New York for my first appearance at the Millrose Games, back for its 112th running after a pandemic hiatus. My experience with indoor track up until this season had been quite limited so I was thrilled by the opportunity to test myself against the incredible field assembled in the 3000m, a field that included Olympians, national and collegiate record holders and a crop of Athletics’ rising stars. With a history of getting swallowed up off the start I entered Millrose determined to get out quickly and cleanly from the gun and assert myself in a good position for what I was sure would be a fast race. On this point I surpassed my expectations and quickly found myself first behind the two pacemakers, a field bristling with talent strung out single-file behind me. Our pacemakers were gone in advance of the half-way mark in the race and the pace had been brisk to that point. With a fast time still on the cards and my less-than-stellar-odds should the affair devolve to sit-and-kick tactics I did my best “Camille at a yellow light” impersonation and slammed on the accelerator. Over the ensuing laps the beauty of indoor racing fully dawned on me as I was swept along by the capacity crowd, packed to the rafters of The Armory and threatening to bring the roof down with their cheering. My excitement may have gotten the best of me when my attempt to kick away from the field with 600 to go was quickly countered and I was buried by some incredible kicks. Nonetheless, I was rewarded with a new Personal Best of 7:45.54, a qualifying time for Belgrade, and new-found appreciation for the 200m oval and the intimate and exciting racing experience it affords. Millrose Games, I’ll see you next year!
From New York I parted ways with Camille, her going home to Vancouver and me returning for a final two-week stint in Flagstaff before the next stop on my indoor campaign in Boston for the BU Valentine Invite 5000m. The 5000m is an event that I’m rarely afforded the opportunity to run during the outdoor season and I shipped up to Boston with high aspirations for a fast time and what every steeplechaser wants deep down, a flat time to validate their accomplishments over the barriers. As was the case during my previous trip to BU in 2020, it had been unanimously decided that the BU Valentine was once again to serve as the meet for North American’s looking to run a fast time indoors. The 5000m was so stacked, in fact, that the top section was split in two, with the “B” race slotted to go out at 13:13 pace, right on the world championship standard. While this was exactly what I had gone to BU looking for I had a moment of uncertainty when given the option to stay in the “A” heat, which was now being slated for 13:05 pace. After leading much of the race at my previous outing in New York I figured that the safest way to ensure I got dragged along was to put myself in the fastest race possible. I was right. From very early on I found myself hitched to the far back of a long and strung out train of athletes, never really settling into much of a rhythm. By 3000m I was beginning to hurt and reminded of how uncomfortable the 5000m can be. Shortly after that point I fell well off the pace and spent the remainder of the race trying my best to stay out of the way of the leaders who would go onto completely rewrite facility and national records (three guys under 13:00!!!). For my part I came home in a very disappointing 13:46, with a fall in the last KM adding (very mild) injury to an already bruised ego.
Trying my best to shrug off a bad one I flew back to Flagstaff to retrieve my car and embark on the return journey to Canada. Two days, A few thousand kilometers, and one bout of interior-ruining interstate food poisoning later I made it back to the Great White North, road weary and depleted in the most physical sense of the word.
That driving has become so inextricably linked to my running career speaks to my affinity for the linear nature that footraces and road trips share. While starting and end points are set out, it is the time and space in between that typifies the experience. What makes a journey great in either medium is a matter not just of the desired outcome, but of the elements that comprise the steps in between start and finish. Like driving, each race is a step out into the unknown, where plans and directions morph from the speculative to the literal. It is only when the “rubber hits the road” that a true measure of the task can be appreciated and even the greatest of preparations are put to the test. Here, then, all the energy and thought poured out in the weeks and months preceding a great journey are not in vain but come rushing back in condensed form. During that time and through that place where one is doing the very thing that has preoccupied them for so long prior is the moment of presence that makes such journeys so alluring.
After recuperating for a month back home I was off again, this time to the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade, Serbia. Drawn in heat 1 of 3 for the men’s 3000m I was excited by the prospect of a fast race and felt I had a great opportunity to advance to another global final. Sixty meters into the race, however, my race plans were thrown out the window when I got caught up in a heavy fall that left me gapped by the field and running in survival mode. As I’d expected and hoped for, the pace of heat 1 was relatively quick, something I thought would give me the best chance at advancing. As it happened, the fast pace combined with my fall turned a great set-up into a very challenging one, and while I’m proud of my response to the unexpected, taking my time to gradually move up and eventually reattach myself to the pack, it was ultimately not enough to punch my way through to the final; a humbling reminder that even the most level headed of tactics are still no match for incredible fitness, as I was simply outclassed by the best of the best. Nevertheless, my experience in Belgrade was a positive one and another valuable milestone marker for me as I continue seeking opportunities to test myself against the best in the world. Overall, my first real season of indoor racing was a mild success and a solid starting point for the full outdoor campaign that lay ahead.
John Eamon Gay