It was Sunday, July 23rd. The year was 2000. I sat sweating in the stands at Cal State Sacramento's Hornet Stadium. With the temperatures approaching 90 degrees and no shade in sight, the world felt like it was on fire. The track and field world actually was. The defending Olympic champ & most dominant athlete in the sport at the time, the legendary Michael Johnson, was about to take on the "world's fastest man" (the unofficial title bestowed upon the 100m world record holder) Maurice Greene over 200m. Here we had the fastest person ever to run 100m (Greene) racing the fastest person ever to run 200m (Johnson) head to head in a championship race. This was the most buzzed about event of the 2000 US Olympic Trials which began exactly 20 years ago this week. Johnson was already an icon, the most famous man in the sport having lit the Atlanta Games on fire in his gold spikes 4 years prior. Greene didn't make the '96 Olympic Team but in the short window since won 3 golds at '99 World Championships (100, 200, 4x100) and owned the 100m World record.
I was high in the stands on the back stretch; "the cheap seats" for this 21 year old who flew out to see his coach, Michelle Ave, race the 800m. Getting to see the race of the century was just icing on the cake. I spent the summer following my junior year pacing Michelle through all of her workouts in preparation for the trials. She was a top 5 US 800m runner who, at age 32, was pushing for her last chance at an Olympic berth. (Fun fact: at that time Michelle was coached by Peter Tegen who coached the women at Wisconson. The men were coached by a young upstart named Jerry Schumacher.) Before her 800m final, the men's 200m final featuring the grand titans of sprinting was set to begin.
The introductions came. Greene Lane 2. Johnson Lane 4. The command "runners to your marks". The stadium hushed. The starting gun raised. The world temporarily stopped for a breath. "Set." And with the sharp crack of the gun they're off! Fair start, speed and fury out of the blocks. At 75m, Johnson pulls up lame and the stadium gasps. What?! 20m later Greene pulls up and the shocked crowd laughs the kind of laugh that comes out only when a moment is so awkward you don't know what else to do. The race finishes 9 seconds later with the two champions on their backs 100m from the finish line. Damn. "Ok, no matter, I came to Sacramento for the women's 800m final," I told myself.
Shortly thereafter, the 800m women set-up for their final. The formidable Clark family owned 3 spots in the final: 38 year old Joetta Clark-Diggs, her 22 year old younger sister, the phenom Hazel Clark, and their sister-in-law Jearl Miles-Clark. They held lanes 2-3-4, respectively. Michelle was in lane 6. A gutsy, well executed race would likely place Michelle somewhere 3rd-5th in this field. The heat overwhelmed. The athletes set themselves in their lanes, the gun went off, and the race was sharp. Michelle, in a good spot out of the lane break at 100m, settled in at 5th in a tight pack by 200m. By the 400 though something seemed off. She had faded toward the back and was stuck on the rail. Battling back by 550m, I was hopeful but after the back stretch and then into the decisive final 150m she was out the back. It was a brilliant race for the Clark clan though. A sweep. I didn't have a cell phone or a laptop at the time so it would take a proper landline phone call to discover that Michelle had gotten herself near hyponatremia by over hydrating for the extreme heat of the day. And, that marked the end. Michelle was smart and had prepared for the transition out of professional running. She used her free time to earn an MBA and went on to work for some of the world's biggest running and sporting goods brands (still does). Mo and Michael both got their golds and redemption in Sydney (though neither in the 200 since they didn't qualify). (Another fun fact: at a Nike coach meeting held in New York in December of 2015, the new coach out of Atlanta was none other than 2000 800m trials winner, Hazel Clark! No longer the young upstart crushing the US 800m field but a delightful person and colleague at a meeting.)
In spite of the crazy trials, the summer of 2000 was the summer I fell in love with running and track & field. My usual summer laziness had been replaced by purpose (pacing a professional will make damn sure you keep yourself sharp). The exposure to the life of a professional athlete was alluring: long workouts at the track, an autonomous schedule hyperfocused on national and world competition, coaches, agents, masseuses, odd ball characters. It was fun. I loved the daily grind and the dedication even if in the end, the Olympics weren't in the cards. I also learned that you could have a decade plus long career as a professional runner and never go to the Olympics. Inspired, enlightened, and focused, these were the things on my mind as I went into my senior year at Boston College.
In celebration of this moment time, I revisited my old paper logs and drew up a plan inspired by that period with some of the tricks I've learned in the 20 years since, designed to go fast for 800m. When every other race is cancelled, why not?! It's an exclusive benefit of Heartbreaker membership.
(A gift from Michelle for pacing work that summer sits at Heartbreak South End in Boston)
Want to see action yourself?
Here's the Johnson/Greene 2000 trials rivalry review:
Here's the women's 800m final at 2000 Olympic Trials: