Hal Higdon on losing a record: Don’t also lose memory of setting it

I’m lucky that nobody at Valencia High School in Southern California will ever again run the 120-yard low hurdles. That’s because my 1970 sophomore time of 13.7 seconds for a “C” school record will never be beat. Hal Higdon can’t say that about his steeplechase records. In a wonderful essay called “Losing a record,” this contributing writer for Runner’s World magazine tells of the world masters meet where he set the just-beaten American record in the 3K steeplechase. “I recall little of what should have been a memorable victory,” Hal says. “[But] my memory from 1977 is not totally a wash. I have near instant replay for what happened on the backstretch of the final lap.” Truth is, we have many record-holders in masters track, but few as eloquent and with such great institutional memory as Hal. My eternal thanks for his gracious submission. Here’s Hal recalling his 1952 Olympic Trials 10K and 1960 Trials steeple:

Here’s what Hal sent me today:

Leading up to the World Masters Track & Field Championships in Goteborg, Sweden, the summer of 1977, I was in great shape. En route, my wife and I stopped in New York City for a couple of days sightseeing before the long trip across the Atlantic. On a lark, I entered a race in Central Park, little more than a fun run, 5 miles on a double-loop course.

I remember hitting my stride on the flat portions of the course, flying on the downhill stretches. I don’’t recall any uphills, but that could not be true. It was a loop course starting and finishing on the same line.

When you are in truly good shape, you don’’t notice minor inconveniences like hills. They don’’t compute. They don’’t exist. Climbing on the plane for Sweden the next day, I knew I was ready to race the world’’s best in my events.

I proved it a week later by winning the M45 3000-meter steeplechase at the Worlds, beating Spanish Olympian Manuel Alonso with a last-lap kick, setting what then was a masters world record of 9:39.0, what remained an American record for 36 years until broken recently by Brad Barton, running in an open meet in Salem, Oregon. Barton ran 9:22.0, and I’’m going to suggest that his record should not last 36 years. He may be only getting started on his record-breaking, particularly if he runs the Worlds in Porto Allegre, Brazil, this October.

My main advice to Barton does not involve improving his aerobic and anaerobic fitness or learning to clear the barriers and water jumps cleaner. It is this: Write everything down, so you can remember your achievement 36 years from now.

Because the truth of the matter is that at age 81, I recall little of what should have been a memorable victory. Perhaps it was because two years earlier I also had won the ‘chase at the Worlds in Toronto, so it was a little bit of déjà vu: “OK, I’’ve done this before.”

My memory from 1977 is not totally a wash. I have near instant replay for what happened on the backstretch of the final lap. Certainly, Alonso and I must have dueled during the seven laps leading up to that point.

In steeplechases, I liked to either hang far back and kick at the end, or lead from the start, the advantage being that if you’’re out front you get a clear look at barriers as you approach them, rather than seeing them over an opponent’’s shoulder and risking a misstep.

As Alonso and I came off the turn into the backstretch, I began moving wide so I could pass him before we reached the final water jump on the last turn. I had a fairly good kick, but I worried Alonso might have had a better one.

Gradually, I pulled near even, but I must have been paying my rival too much attention, because suddenly I realized that we were about to encounter the last barrier before the water jump, and I was out of step. I hurdle well with either feet, but I was somewhere in the middle. My choices were to stutter-step and take the barrier with one foot, or stretch my stride and take it with the other. In either case, I would lose ground to my rival.

Instantly, without conscious thought, I decided to step the hurdle, just like I might the water jump barrier coming up next. I went up over the barrier just behind Alonso and came off the barrier just ahead of him. I still don’’t know why. Perhaps the Spaniard was conscious of me passing as we approached the barrier and lost his concentration.

Stop frame!

Because that’’s all of this record-setting race I remember! I know I cleared the final water barrier cleanly, because someone took a photo of me doing so, Alonso just behind. I know I cleared the final barrier on the main straightaway, because they handed me a gold medal afterwards, and there was a time in the record book for Brad Barton to beat.

My advice to Brad Barton, the lesson I learned in Goteborg, was not to improve your barrier-clearing abilities, but to write down what you did, so you can remember your next victory or record set when you reach the age of 81.

Meanwhile, my American record in the M40 3000 meter steeplechase (9:18.6) remains on the books, 38 years now. I believe it to be the oldest existing masters record in the books. There are too many talented steeplechasers in their 30s, who ran much faster times than I did while younger.

One of them needs to erase my name from the record books.

Hal Higdon is a contributing writer for Runner’s World magazine. His latest project is writing an eBook on the 2013 Boston Marathon, titled 4:09:43.

Results from the M45 steeplechase final at the 1977 world meet in Sweden.

Results from the M45 steeplechase final at the 1977 world meet in Sweden.

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May 15, 2013

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