The following is the story of my regionals 1600 race, the first time I qualified for the state track championships.
My next focus was on preparing for regionals, where I could punch my first-ever ticket to states. The meet was spread over two days at Quince Orchard High School, but the mixed results from counties, my inconsistent health, and the scorching temperatures raised the question of whether I should choose only one of the distance races to run, though the 1600 and 3200 were on different days. My goal prior to the season was to finish in the top ten of the 1600 and 3200 at states, but while I was only a couple seconds off the automatic qualifier of 4:28 in the 1600, my 3200 personal record was 13 seconds off. Further complicating matters was that the 3200 was a day before the 1600, meaning one performance could affect the other.
For most of the week, I was committed to running in both events, but the morning of the 3200, I reconsidered my plan. I made a list of pros and cons and called Coach Redmond at lunchtime to discuss and weigh the options. We ultimately decided to drop the 3200, with the deciding factor being the possible consequences of running a 3200 the day before a 1600.
On the first day of regionals, the conditions were as hot as advertised- a sunny and blazing mid-90s temperature. The heat barely affected the boys’ and girls’ 4×800 meter relays, both of whom qualified for states. In the 3200, five runners surpassed the qualifying standard. While I was confident that I would’ve made the time considering the steady pace that was set, I would harbor no regrets unless I didn’t qualify in the 1600.
Throughout Thursday, I thought about the upcoming 1600 race and knew that all I had to do was run a time I was perfectly capable of hitting- a 4:28 was within my grasp. My confidence carried over to the meet, where I felt more relaxed than I had at any other point that season. Aim for the paces, fight for time, and enjoy the opportunity, I told myself.
The time finally arrived for my heat of the 1600. The weather cooled off a bit, my legs felt perfect and rested and my mind was prepared for the biggest track race of my career. I was seeded fourth out of 13, but I knew all 13 would be fighting hard for states. Everyone knew that it would be an epic race and it would prove to exceed all expectation.
On the gun, I got off the line well, but I found myself in the second half of the pack after the first 50 meters. I worked to stay close to the guys who I knew would be contending for states, but after the opening 300 I was on the fringe of the top ten. The pace was relaxed enough so that all 13 runners were in one pack, and that equated to a crowded and tight race. But when I finished the opening lap in 1:07, two seconds slower than I was expecting, I felt strong and within striking range.
On the second lap I wanted to make up ground and made a clear move on the backstretch to reach the top eight. Since the pace was still steady and I felt fresh, I felt more nervous than I would have being tired. At the next straightaway I surged again but none of the competitors dropped off or relented. At the halfway point, I was at 2:15, three seconds off where I wanted to be. I would need to negative split the last half-mile to get the qualifying time. Despite the disappointing split, I focused on running a hard third lap, usually the toughest lap to focus.
The other runners were also aware that they needed to speed up, so there was a fair amount of chippiness among the pack. I picked off three guys on the straightaway to move to sixth with 500 meters to go in the race and I felt the pain I’d normally feel in the last 200 meters.
Then, with 400 meters to go, I saw the total time- 3:23. Going into the race, I wanted to be at 3:20 at the 1200 mark to be able to run the qualifying time of 4:28.15. I’d never closed faster than 1:06 and was already feeling overwhelming fatigue. But none of those ‘facts’ fazed me. I saw the time and immediately reminded myself that I’d need to speed up a lot to have a chance at going to states. The sudden rush of urgency elevated me to a level and competitive state which I’d rarely reached before- the zone. I could feel no pain, just the instinctual need for speed.
I was going all out and the only thing I had on my mind was states. The pack at the front was still intact- eight guys, and I was at the back. Going around the first turn, I attempted to surge but was blocked off and forced to the outside lane. I heard my Coach Davis yell “you’ve got to go” and I immediately shifted to the line between lanes twoand three and ran as fast as I could to make up ground. I felt pure power as I moved up to fifth and I focused on the guys in front. With 200 meters to go, this race would require my all-out effort and more.
Rohann pulled away to win the event by a lot, but the pack behind- Adam Nakasaka, Simeon Mussie, Mark Unger, Matthew Goldsmith of Churchill, and I- were inches apart. With 100 meters to go, I realized how close the other guys were to me and put my absolute maximum effort into every stride. I knew hitting the qualifying time wasn’t a sure bet, so I kept focusing on moving into the top four. Each stride was propelled by as much force as I could muster and I was closing the deficit between me and the pack to the point where we were side by side.
But with each passing stride, I felt my form start to break down and my body start to lose control. I was still right behind the pack when my legs suddenly locked up and couldn’t keep up the pace. “You can’t fall now,” I told myself. In an effort to keep myself balanced, I flailed my arms and tried to keep my uncontrollable legs under my body when I landed each stride. By some miracle, I stayed up for the final five strides needed to crossed the finish line and then collapsed onto the grass infield.
Laying limp on the ground, I felt all of the pain rush back at once into my limp legs. I knew that I couldn’t have placed in the top four, but I knew that I’d laid it all on the track. After I turned onto my back in the grass like a dying soldier as I endured the agonizing pain, an official grabbed my arms and pulled me upright. I leaned back on my arms and glanced around blankly, unable to think. I knew something amazing had happened.
A couple seconds later, Coach Davis pulled me up so I could stand and led me away from the finish line and through a chute. He showed me his stopwatch, which had a whole bunch of numbers that I couldn’t comprehend. Then he pointed to one- 4:26 point something. If that time held up, it would be enough to qualify me for states.
As more teammates rushed over and gave me hugs, they told me that I’d gotten under the qualifying time. Then I saw Coach Redmond, who gave me a hug and said that not only did I almost certainly make it, but that there was a sizeable margin between my time and the qualifier. I didn’t excessively celebrate- partially because my legs were dead, partially because we weren’t sure, and partially because I’d been so confident coming into the race. But I had no doubts in my mind that I was going to states.
After reminiscing with past and present teammates for a while on the field, I walked back to the bullpen near the opposite end zone when the announcer read the results.
“In sixth place with a states-qualifying time of 4:26.72, John Riker from Thomas S. Wootton!”
I felt a wave of relief, jubilation, and excitement roll over me. I was states bound! I was infinitely grateful- to God, to my coaches, to my teammates, to the competitors who pulled me to the time. In that moment, I felt that my season had been validated. Thankfully, it would be extended another week.
I expected and hoped to make states, but I was nevertheless in shock the following days. What blew my mind most was the final lap. First off, it was a 1:03, three seconds faster than any other closing lap that season and faster than my 800 pace. It was nearly my 400 meter personal record! Second, I’d only gone all out in track with 200 or 100 meters to go, but in this race, I’d gone a whole lap at my max. Third, the zone I’d reached during the race was unlike any other feeling I’d ever experienced. The only other time that I felt like I was in that zone was during the DCXC race in cross country with the school record-time of 15:37.2. In both of those, the adrenaline and desire blocked out the feeling of pain and the urgency to win/go to states propelled me further than I could have on my own. But while doubt played a role in the DCXC race, when I was wondering whether to “let go of the rope,” in the regional race I was totally dialed in and determined to make states. Fourth was the incredible and memorable finish, unlike any other in my career.
My metaphor to explain the race- my energy was like a roll of toilet paper. At first, there was an abundance of toilet paper, but it consistently dwindled with the many uses (surges). By the last lap, the toilet paper only wrapped around a couple times. By the last 100, I only had enough to wrap around once, and in the last 10 meters when my form was all over the place, the toilet paper had come off the roll and only the end was attached. After I crossed the finish line, I tugged that toilet paper right off the roll. The race also was a perfect example of the fine line between speed and pacing. I found the exact intersection between the two sides 10 meters from the finish line, but thankfully I was able to hobble over the finish.