To be honest, I didn’t think much about the race until the technical meeting. At 4:00pm the day before the race, all of the athletes gathered in a conference room below the lobby of the Midtown New York Hilton to go over the morning’s schedule. As the meeting went on, the race director’s minute-by-minute instructions faded into the background as thoughts began to flood my mind.
I felt more reflective than nervous. I thought about my last race—a failed attempt at a sub-4 mile at Sir Walter Miler. I thought about how physically and emotionally fatigued I’d been after a long, grueling fifth year in the NCAA. I thought of how, after taking some extensive time off to reset, things had been clicking again. I thought about how I had been on a hot streak with workouts, but I hadn’t been feeling 100% this week.
WATCH AARON’S LAST WORKOUT BEFORE USATF 5K CHAMPS:
All of these thoughts slowly brought the nerves with them. The mental battle that most competitive runners know all too well began to creep in. I found my internal drive arguing with the pragmatic side of my mind, putting my expectations at odds with where I ranked on paper. Goals of a top five finish were at battle with thoughts of “top 10 would be good too” or “just be conservative.”
As the turbulence in my mind continued to build, I took a deep breath and forced myself to remember what an amazing opportunity I was being given. An opportunity to do the thing I love most, and compete against a world-class field at the same time. At this point, I felt the distractions and nerves melt away—my heart rate slowed and I focused in on the simple logistics of the race.
After the meeting, Jeff, Brian, Syd, and I talked about how excited we were for the race. Talking racing with the guys who I’d shared hundreds of miles with in the past few months immediately relaxed me. I found I was able to frame the race as a positive opportunity, and I felt eager about the next morning’s challenge.
The remainder of the night was pretty standard. We grabbed dinner, walked around for a bit to keep our legs loose, and then headed towards bed. I went through my standard pre-race routine: check my race bag one last time, take a shower, stretch and roll out, eat something sweet, drink some electrolytes, prop the legs up, and meditate. I played the race out in my mind—imagining myself in both perfect and imperfect race scenarios, but always coming out on top. I set my alarm for 4:00am, chatted with Jeff for a few minutes, and then tried to fall asleep.
One of my weakest links as an athlete has always been my struggle to sleep. This night was no exception. Once the lights were out and the noise stopped, my mind was truly free to wander. I began to think about the race again and started to feel the pressure, fear, and nervousness creep in. I tossed and turned for a long time, frustrated by not only my restless mental state, but also my inability to sleep. This dragged on for hours until I was finally able to direct my thoughts in a positive way. I thought about coach's training, and my belief in that training. I thought about my teammates backing me up, and all the work that we had put in together. I drew confidence from my decision to pack up my life and move across the country to join not just a team, but a family.
I realized that tomorrow, for the first time, I would get to represent Tinman Elite. And that was something to be excited about.
What felt like five minutes later my alarm sounded. My eyes shot open, and I felt like I hadn't slept at all. I swung out of bed with the need to complete my morning pre-race routine adding a sense of urgency. As I slipped on clothes to shake out, my body felt terrible. I was so tired. Not how I had hoped to start the morning, but all I could do now was to try and feel better.
It was quiet in the fitness room apart from my slowly paced footsteps falling on the treadmill as I tried to wake up my system. My legs still felt awful, but I reminded myself that I had performed well despite this feeling plenty of times before in workouts and races. It was nothing to worry about—just a sensation.
After the shakeout, I showered, got dressed, and threw on some music. Jeff and I headed to the lobby and sat with Andy Trouard, Jordan Mann, Tommy Curtin, and Obsa Ali before our warmup. I realized then how much more relaxed the pro circuit is than the NCAA. Here I was, sitting in a hotel lobby just a few hours before a US Championship, shooting the shit with some of the best runners in the country. I felt optimistic about my future in the sport, and the relationships I would make in it, and a sudden wave of relaxation hit me.
The bus to the start line, however, had a more serious atmosphere. But that didn't stop me, Jeff, Syd, and Brian from joking around. After the race, we all talked about how we felt like a bunch of kids enjoying ourselves while the adults were stressed out about business. It reaffirmed my decision to join Tinman. If you're not having fun, why the hell are you here.
We stepped off the bus and into the chaos of New York City. The sheer scale of the city gave me some perspective about how insignificant I was, and how privileged I am to be able to use my legs to earn a living. This was a final wave of comfort before the race.
With a minute to go before the start, I took a few deep breaths and repeated my mantra: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” A reminder to myself that anything worth doing is hard. A reminder to not fear the pain. A reminder to be a Tinman.
I heard the words, “Runners set,” and the horn sounded. The line of runners lurched forward, and we all settled into our rhythm. As I rounded the turn onto 6th Street, my body still didn’t feel good, but I felt strong aerobically. A lead pack separated from my group early, but I maintained control over the chase pack. In that first mile, I fought to remain conservative and struggled to fight the urge of wanting to close the gap on the leaders. There is a difference between running like a Tinman and running like an idiot. I knew that I could close the gap and make a bid for the win, but I had to do it my way and turn on the jets in the last mile.
As we turned onto Central Park Avenue, I took a deep breath and ran a quick system check. I couldn’t see the leaders, but I knew that if I didn’t make my move now I would be disappointed in myself. I knew that I would rather give everything I had and blow up in the last half mile than to finish with gas left in the tank.
It’s my belief that the first part of running well is believing that you belong at a higher level.
In this moment, I knew I belonged.
I committed to bridging the gap between me and the leaders, surging off the front of the chase pack. Entering Central Park, we began to climb the first of two hills. I was making up ground and feeding off the energy from the crowd. I was gaining momentum, and they knew it. With 800 meters to go, I knew I was going to catch the leaders and would be able to contend for the win. I caught them as we came screaming down the hill. In that moment, I couldn’t help but notice how much fun I was having in this race.
I had joined the lead pack relatively unnoticed, but I knew I was about to make myself known. With 400 meters to go, I was getting antsy. I knew I had momentum on my side, so I carried it forward and surged again—this time into the lead. It wasn’t really a conscious decision. My body went as though I had a hand pushing me from behind. I felt so strong. As I passed Shadrack and Rotich, they looked at me in shock. I opened my stride and picked up my cadence, feeling confident in my ability to work the hills.
The thread was breaking between me and Rotich and the rest of the leaders. I couldn’t believe it. I had just splintered a pack of world-class athletes and was now pulling away from all but one of them. As I battled toward the line, my engine maintained power, but I was no longer gaining speed. I saw Anthony scream past me on my left side, but I didn’t have a gear to cover his move. Frustrated as I watched the win slip between my fingers, but elated at knowing I had secured second place, I threw up the Tinman Axes as I crossed the line—something I had been looking forward to for a long time.
I had just exceeded my own expectations, and ran perhaps the best race of my life. Emotion took over, and I pumped my fist and let out a hearty, “Fuck yes!” A wave crashed over me as this moment affirmed all of my decisions about my move to Boulder, my training, and my life’s trajectory. I turned back to the finish line, looking for my teammates. Brian and Jeff came in nearly side by side. Brian ran straight through the line and over to me, already with his arms wide. He was more excited about my result than his own sixth place finish. This was an even bigger affirmation that I had made the right decision to join this team. Brian reminded me of exactly what it means to be a Tinman.
I hope that I can be the same source of affirmation for my teammates in the future. Tinman Elite is bigger than me. The men who comprise the roster are all destined to have days just like, and bigger than that, this day was for me. This is just the beginning.