The North Central College All-Comers meets are an annual tradition in May. The meets offer an opportunity for many runners to get in one more race using their hard-won fitness before summer rolls around. The meets are also important opportunities for runners that have qualified for national meets but have not yet met the time standard to compete.
That means there are quite a few fit and speedy competitors who show up each spring to race in the netherworld between track season and nationals. There are no rules except that you have to sign up. There are no divisions. No conferences. Not even any teams to consider really. It’s just show up and run your best.
Sometimes (actually quite often) the All Comers meet stretches long into the night. That is how I wound up standing on the line at midnight with about 25 other 5000 meter runners. We’d waited since 5:00 in the afternoon for the chance to run. With so many athletes turning out for the meet some events took an hour or more to complete. There were flights of sprinters and hurdlers and 1500 meter runners to complete.
So we sat. And we waited. It was hard to know whether to take the chance of getting something to eat or not. If you did choose to eat and the race happened an hour later, all that food in your gut could waste you but good.
That meant most of us were lean and somewhat hungry by midnight. Otherwise conditions were perfect. 62 degrees and no wind. Just a calm and patient moon floating above the stadium light. Then the gun went off and it felt like flying. Everyone competed hard but everyone also worked together. Olympian Jim Spivey was there along with a host of other speedy runners ranging from D3 to D1. We all had our goals.
Mine was simple: Run the fastest 5000 I’d ever run. And it happened. My Nike Zoom spikes carried me to a 14:47. Not world class. But I was pleased.
Driving home at 1:00 in the morning after the cooldown felt weird. I was ready to go out and get a beer or something to celebrate. Yet I knew all my friends would be long asleep.
To her credit a work friend stayed that whole evening to watch me race. She’d gone out for dinner and come back. A stalwart buddy, she. Before heading home she gave me a warm embrace. I hugged her back noticing the whiff of sweat coming from my armpits. “Nice running,” she told me, eyes gleaming in the night.
Who would think you could run your personal best on a midnight evening in May? But it’s never to late to try. And so many runners did.
There have been many other strange efforts at strange times over the years. The Midnight Madness 15-Mile Race in Ames, Iowa was one such run. It started at 9:00 p.m. and consisted of five laps around a three-mile loop. It was fun, and crazy. We all stood around in hoses at the finish. Soaked and happy and summery feeling.
Just as strange are the early morning starts of triathlons. People emerge from shadows in wetsuits, trodding lightly on swept streets and grassy walkways in bare feet. Some start just after dawn. The surface breaks with their swim strokes. It’s never too early to push yourself either.
I recall one night however playing indoor soccer. The game did not start until 11:00 p.m. Our side had just six players. No subs. Just before halftime I was more tired than I had ever been in any other endeavor. Not even the 30 mile runs I’d done in training made me that tired. Nor the all-out steeplechases over 35 barriers and 7 water jumps. Not six hours of midnight basketball in a rural barn.
Yes, I was tired out all those times. But not like that night in soccer. When the ball rolled right past my feet outside the goal box with thirty seconds to play in the half, it was a good chance to strike it for a score. I was too tired. Literally I had no energy to move from the spot where I was standing. A teammate screamed at me to kick the ball. I just looked at the rolling sphere as it went past. Too tired. Don’t care. Blow the whistle.
Yet the second half went better. We even almost won the game. But at midnight when the match was complete it was indeed time to go home. I swore I’d never start a soccer match that late. Ever again.
Yet four weeks later I’d forgotten that fatigue and the late hour and the inability to take one step to kick a ball. We were back out there with eight guys this time. “It won’t be so bad with a couple subs,” we told ourselves.
It’s never too early. Never too late. To get fit or race. And compete to win.
Even if you can’t move your feet.