Monsters in the forest
An historic night at Nike's Michael Johnson Track
Monday, September 9th, 2019. Following an easy shakeout run, Matthew Centrowitz, Lopez Lomong, Woody Kincaid and Moh Ahmed are doing drills and strides on the Michael Johnson Track at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. The Bowerman Track Club athletes, having just arrived at sea level the night before, are preparing for a 5,000 meter race to take place the following night. This race is a product of Jerry Schumacher’s desire to have his guys secure the Olympic standard early, and the Portland Track Organization’s dogged determination to show the world there is meaningful entertainment value to the longer distances.
As the four athletes go through their pre-race routines, there is an extra sense of purpose to what they are doing. It is clear they have been targeting this day for a while. The race tomorrow night is unlike any they would run this year. There is a clear and defined objective to run under the Olympic standard of 13:13.50. The time is infamously 11.5 seconds faster than the standard for the same distance in 2016.
Moh Ahmed is doing knee hugs. The holder of 8 Canadian national records and a 5,000 meter best of 12:58.16 set earlier in the year, he already has the standard. His duty tomorrow is to pace his teammates through the darkness past 4 kilometers. The three will then fend for themselves over the final K and hopefully finish under the barrier. It is a job he does not take lightly. He preps for tomorrow as diligently as the others. Ahmed, being Canadian, does not have to compete with Americans for a spot on the Olympic team. He can, without consequence, devote himself to a battery of 63 second quarters for the sole purpose of helping his friends.
Lopez Lomong claps his hands together and clenches his fists between strides. He knows the gravity of this situation. It is not the Olympics, the World Championships, or even the Trials, but it is an opportunity to follow the rabbit and discover the deepest reaches of his talents.
Centro, alternating between light-hearted jabs at his teammates and contemplative death stares seems to be coming to terms with the fact that there will likely not be any kicking tomorrow. In a race to your limits, what lies ahead is a combination of rhythm and pain. The win means little. The goal only time. There will be no enemy combatants in the field, just highly skilled and sharpened allies.
Woody Kincaid seems the most nervous of all. The former University of Portland Pilot placed third in the 5,000 meter USATF Championship in late July. Viewers watched him confidently follow Paul Chelimo, the Olympic silver medalist in the event in a 57 second opening lap before yoyo-ing the pace from the front and still being able to kick to a 53 second final lap behind Lomong and Chelimo. Woody is an enigma. He races and speaks with a self-assured confidence, but watching him, I often wonder if he knows just how much is in the tank. His ceiling is uncertain. He would tell friends following the national championship race that he was “very fit” but now he looks nervous, as if the ringed stage in the forest is too big for him.
The Michael Johnson Track at the Nike World Headquarters is one of the most photographed tracks in the world. It is frequented daily by tourists snapping selfies and athletes from The Bowerman Track Club and Nike Oregon Project going through their workout routines. It is surrounded by trees and foliage for 250 meters with the moss-covered conifers and ferns covering over half the infield as well. The track looks as if it belongs in the setting, like some ancient rubber-producing civilization measured and laid it before the asteroid struck and the forest grew up and around it. The track, however, has never been used for sanctioned competition. It has played host to races, but never the kind that could produce results to be accepted by the sport’s governing bodies.
During the month leading up to the Portland 5000, it would be surveyed, re-measured, re-painted, and fit for a rail. In a proper tribute that would please even the citizens of the ancient civilization that built the track, the metal fixture that separates the runners from the infield would be the one that wrapped the track at the hallowed grounds of old Hayward Field. The race creators hoped that the rail would carry with it the ghosts of legends who knew it intimately, to watch, legs swinging from the gnarled branches overhanging the track.
On the night of the race, only the track was illuminated. The lights offered little assistance to the areas inside and outside the oval, but the edges of the forest were visible, creating a tunnel effect for the runners. People began to creep through the trees and onto the edges of the track just after 8pm. By 8:30pm, the track was lined with spectators, three to four to five bodies deep in many parts, anticipating something otherworldly. The moment felt historic.
Ten minutes before the start, the sound system speakers emitted an eerie, pulsing tone woven through race calls from Centrowitz’ gold medal run, Lomong’s 5,000m national title and Kincaid’s upset win in the 5,000m prelims of the Olympic Trials. The runners strode out down the backstretch in their sweatsuits past glowing faces lining the track.
‘Apeshit’ by The Carters played before the setting fell silent, waiting for the gun. By this time, the clouds parted, revealing the moon. The temperature dropped. There was no hint of breeze. As the gun cracked, the smoke shot from the barrel and hung in place under the canopy of leaves.
The men fell into line in descending order from rabbits to projected finishers. German athlete and Georgetown grad, Amos Bartlesmeyer at the front, Moh Ahmed tucked behind him, then Lomong, Kincaid and Centrowitz. A second pack made up of BTC Elite runners: Jeremy Freed, Julian Heninger and Liam Meirow trailed the lead pack at 14:50 pace.
Bartlesmeyer clicked off splits of 61.1, 64.7, 62.2, 64.0 to lead the tightly bunched group through the first mile. Not an inch was given, no gaps emerged. Bartlesmeyer stepped off, relinquishing the pacing duties to Ahmed. Moh evened out the splits through the second mile, leading the group in 63.7, 62.3, 62.2, 63.0, passing 3200m in roughly 8:21. Still, no gaps emerged. The crowd watched the smooth striding pack of four rattle off lap after lap under the targeted 63.5 pace, stock-piling loose change that would net them under the standard.
62.8, 62.5, 61.5. After 11 laps, Moh still sat at the front, guiding his teammates on a pace that appeared to render the standard a foregone conclusion. The projected finishing time on the big board dropping from 13:12 to 13:06. All three were going to go under, but how far? And when the pacer is pulled, who would have the loaded hand?
Moh Ahmed stepped off the track with roughly 450 meters remaining, having far exceeded his prescribed rabbiting distance of 4,000 meters and putting a bow on quite possibly the greatest pacing job of all time. As the remaining trio finished the penultimate lap, the bell rang loudly, echoing through the woods but drowned out by the screaming masses now crowding around the finish line. Lopez Lomong shot out of the forest and into the open air of the top curve. The American flag bearer at the 2008 Olympics bore down on the track with powerful strikes, gapping his teammates down the back straight. He would lead the race for a total of 300 meters.
As they rounded the final bend, Jerry Schumacher jumped into the inside lanes shouting into the straining faces of all three of his athletes that they could break thirteen! Woody took this information to heart and communicated it to his legs. The least decorated of the three, he had been sitting in the armchair spot behind Lomong and in front of Centrowitz for the race’s entirety. Now, as the finish line approached, he gathered himself and swung his arms wildly, pumping past a slowing Lomong. Down the homestretch, fans leaned into the straight, trying to catch a glimpse of what was charging through the forest. Woody Kincaid passed the finish line, arms outstretched before dropping to the grass at the inside of the track. His time of 12:58.10 making him the fifth fastest American of all time. The US Champion Lomong and Olympic Champion, Centrowitz pressing in at 13:00.13 and 13:00.39. Throngs of fans and teammates swallowed them. Photos show a mob of bodies with the athletes identifiable only by the lightning bolts emblazoned on their singlets and their sweat-soaked faces gleaming in the light.
Woody disappeared from the crowds, fighting his way to the other side of the track to discharge the contents of his intestines onto the forest floor. He had the fortitude to get through it, post race be damned.
The day before, Woody was visibly nervous. Fidgety and short in conversation. It is clear now that he was nervous like a man who had four cards of a royal flush and was waiting on the river to give him the Ace of Spades. The river delivered. We all know what it’s like to be sitting on a mound of possibility and not want to fuck it up. Woody was sitting on a mountain. It’s not a case of biting off more than you can chew, it’s a matter of having the gastric juice to break down the gristle to allow you to keep digesting the task at hand. The intestinal fortitude stamped his acceptance into one of the most prestigious circles in all of track and field: The Sub Thirteen Club.
It is difficult to know how many people were actually there that night. Some accounts estimate hundreds, some thousands. It felt like everyone and no one was there flashing from second to second, but I don’t know what it’s like to be pumping battery acid through your legs at 4:10 pace on a track in the forest.
The Portland 5000 1. Woody Kincaid 12:58.10 5th American AT, OLY 2. Lopez Lomong 13:00.13 9th American AT, OLY 3. Matthew Centrowitz 13:00.39 10th American AT, OLY 4. Julian Heninger 14:49.00 5. Jeremy Freed 14:50.59 6. Liam Meirow 15:11.10 -- Moh Ahmed The Golden DNF -- Amos Bartlesmeyer The Silver DNF