The Track is Where the Magic Happens

“The track is where the magic happens.” I may say this lightly, but I don’t mean it lightly. I’ve sat on this essay for years; in my mind it will never perfectly reflect what the track means to me,  but I’m currently encouraging my athlete’s to share their running story—so I decided it’s time to share this one.

“The track (a.k.a the pain cave) can bring you to your knees, strip away all that is “safe,” cause you to stare in the face of the demon(s) (what I like to call my doubts) and bring out a sacred strength that can only come from the soul. I have come to feel at home here; never walking away without peeling away a layer, exposing something raw and beautiful.” ~Michele

In my running life, I’d always had endurance, but I lacked speed. In 2004, living in Bend, OR,  I started to work with a running coach, Jimmy Clark, a long time high school track and cross country coach. We met on the track to talk about the interval workouts we would be doing. “Intervals are used to train the body to respond at the end of a race,” he explained. “To learn how to enter the pain cave, when you’re tired and you start to hit the wall, when you want to turn and run away with your tail between your legs.” I had never heard the term pain cave, but I knew what he meant. The more we run, the more we discover it's a metaphor for life. I had hit the wall before—a wall in life and I had stood with trepidation at the opening of life’s pain cave. 

As Jimmy and I began to work together, we went through drills on how to effectively run laps around a track to maximize effort. “You want to look slightly ahead and run as close to the white line as possible. Anything else is extra steps. The key is in how you run the turns. As you run into the first corner, look ahead, lean to the white line, run it as if you’re part of the line, as if you’re painting it as you run. Running is not just about the arms and legs—its about using the strength of your entire body—having the ability to engage the abdominals and feel strength in your back when the pain sets in, and the strength of your mind—having the mental fortitude to enter the pain cave,” he explained.

So I went into the gym and I followed Jimmy’s routine like a new religion. I rowed, did sit-ups, weighted squats, and worked my triceps and biceps in a way that they would execute quickly and cleanly when I asked them to. We returned to the track periodically for interval workouts. I managed to improve without entering the pain cave, which, of course, did not go unnoticed. Jimmy made promises of an upcoming test. 

And the test did come. It was 7:45 a.m. and the sun had already warmed the track enough that the heat of the black surface was piercing the balls of my feet. I was doing my warm-up, one mile on the track, sprints, drills, and dynamic stretching so we could get started as soon as he got there at 8:00. While warming up I was nervous, anxiously looking over my shoulder as I did my warm-up laps, waiting for him to arrive. At 7:55 he was there. His presence anchored me. He began to prepare me to run four times around the track as fast as I could—a  time trial so to speak. I would want to start out conservatively, slowly building on the strength of each lap—the goal for the last lap to be the fastest.

It’s time for my time trial. “On your mark, get set, go.” I begin to run, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other.  I search for my comfort zone, for some control. Jimmy reads off the time of my first lap. I quickly think in my mind that I need to just maintain. Just maintain that same speed. Don’t drop back. I find a controlled breath, my legs working hard, but with reserve--my arms pumping rhythmically. I hear the time of my second lap--one second faster—just what I wanted. I start to take one step into the pain cave and I feel the doubt seep into my mind faster than expected. 

I’m in lap three. The demons (my doubts) are running alongside me, spitting, calling me names. The white line is blurring and my form is sloppy. My mind is slipping. I can feel the weights they are throwing on me. My arms and legs flail trying to ward them off. 

The next half lap I managed to kick one or two demons to the curb but at the same time I was haphazardly backing out of the cave.  That white line comes a bit more to focus and I’m able to round the corner like I’m supposed to.  I try to replay running the stretch in my mind and I try to run it aggressively, but I know, I know I still have one lap to go and I completely retreat from the cave. My third lap time sucks. I knew it was going to. I knew I’d slowed down. But I returned to the rhythm of my first lap. I returned to what my body knew and I felt comfortably fast as I turned the first corner. 

I heard Jimmy yell from across the field and it hit me even though I knew I’d screwed up that one lap, it was not all lost. I could turn around and stare the pain cave in the face and re-enter—go a bit deeper. As I reached the second corner I let go of inhibition of form. Of not pleasing my coach or anyone else and I ran as hard as I could, telling myself to run through the cave’s opening. I entered the cave and I saw patterns—drawings of my high school track, childhood memories of listening to my father call out splits to his young runners, the smell of the grass mixed with the heated track surface, the sound of spikes over gravel came flooding in. I continued, my heart pounding, feeling as if my lungs might explode. I’m here. I continue. I go deeper and the path widens—the light of the entrance no longer guides me. I feel a surge of electricity run through my limbs and I gasp for air—wondering if breath will elude me. Time is undetectable and I grasp for the patterns on the wall—searching for something to hold on to. 

I wrote this essay years ago and this is how it ended. In case you're wondering, I did finish that 4th lap.  I think what I was reflecting on was that feeling at the end of the 4th lap, when I’d gone into the pain cave, but continued to feel out of control and had no sense of grounding - the feeling that stayed with me as I walked off the track that day; not knowing how it was the beginning of peeling away layers of fear; that the fear and the demons might always be there each and every time I step on the track, but they can be used for strength, not weakness. That I would someday have the opportunity to share Jimmy’s wise words with so many athletes, that the magic of that moment would lead to many battles won both on and off the track. 

Michele Pettinger