Straight Flush

“So what’s the read on me? How do I play?” I asked my roommate in college, a semi-pro poker player at the time.

He stated the obvious, “You bet when you have good cards.”

Pegged. Read me like a book, when the dealer slides me good cards it’s visibly obvious, I’m too transparent to coax other players into losing their money.

Better stick to running.

The Eugene Half Marathon hit me like a near perfect hand of poker

The point of this spring was to step away from the marathon, forgo running Boston, in order to focus on improving strength and speed. Ironically, there is is only so much training you can do during a marathon training block. With an important race on the calendar I try to be careful not to overdo it and risk injury. The purpose of this spring was to try new things, and I did. Higher mileage weeks. Larger lifting sessions. It’s been refreshing and fun.

Setting the table

The Eugene Half Marathon was to be the one real test.

Aiming for an audacious 5 minute marathon PR this coming winter, 2:18:59, means that I must lower my half-marathon PR as much as possible. My best of 1:10:39 didn’t instill much confidence in my ability to run two 1:09:29s in seven months. December will be wild, but for now the goal was simply to maximize the opportunity to run with my Bowerman Track Club teammates for 13.1 miles.

I’m here because of my Bowerman teammates

The workouts we put each other through week after week, month after month, are steps beyond anything I could do alone. It’s honestly surreal. Working out alone I run fine, but lacing up with them I’m able to stack together splits that are out of my league.

We push one another, sharing turns in the lead, and honestly I’m the one who comes up short most often. I’m forced to fold frequently when they take off and leave me behind. But honestly, I love losing to them. I’ve done the best running of my life chasing them in races around the country.

And yet each race is a chance to prove it yet again, to ante up and play.

The Deal — Mile 1 (5:03)

Off the line we had promised each other we’d remain calm — and oddly a 5:03 felt calm. A surprisingly good sign.

I haven’t broken 5 for the mile much recently, so I didn’t really know what fitness I’d be dealt on the day. Thankfully you don’t need to break 5 for any given mile to put together a successful half marathon. It’d be a nice card to have, but not necessary.

The Flop — Mile 2–6 (5:11, 5:12, 5:17, 5:12, 5:07)

By this point it’s clear to me that something is up. I’m bouncing along, nearly smirking. I’ve heard of these days. Hoped for them. But glancing around I can hear everyone’s labored breathing except mine. I feel remarkably contained. Like college when I’d slowly realize that the hand I’d been dealt was one of the best possible and that if I didn’t mess it up I might win the pot.

Rolling up, down and around the turns it occurs to me I’m well past the point where I’d typically be full of self pity and loathing. Though still early, I often play with too much emotion, allowing the momentary high or low to overwhelm me.

10k — 32:10 — a new personal record — with more than 10k left to run. A smile begins to creep onto my face. If this were a gamble everyone would have seen that I was dealt the highest hand. But it’s not. I’m out here stacking chips as I lead up the steep hill, pushing off the front because to my surprise, it’s my day to play!

The Turn — Mile 7–9 (5:09, 5:12, 5:11)

It’s almost time to go, but not yet. A novice in this position, I don’t want to push for the finish too soon. Still contained, I know the half marathon will deliver its suffering soon, it’s just a matter of time.

“Not yet, not yet.” I signal to Patrick who has begun to push, but really I’m talking to myself. I’m playing cautiously, knowing that the real racing will begin soon.

The River — Mile 10–11 (5:15, 5:10)

There it is, the final card.

I realize “the move” won’t actually be a move. I glance down at my watch, see the pace is slipping and realize it’s simply time to go. I’ll need to push simply to maintain splits. No looking back, the race is up ahead.

“The guys up ahead look like shit!” a helpful fan screams. It dawns on me that if you’ve got the cards you better play ’em. Time to start hunting for the podium.

Driving my arms I focus on the back of the third place runner.

It doesn’t feel like I’m running that fast, but he’s coming backwards!

“Good job, keep it up,” I encourage him as calmly as possible. Though I do wish him well, this is pure gamesmanship. I want him to know how good I feel. I want to bury him right here because I don’t want him kicking back on me in the closing miles.

The Raise — Mile 11–13 (5:10, 5:10, 5:14)

Is 2nd place coming back? He looks awfully comfortable. But he just might be.

Though as content as the kid who never wins a hand sitting there with his mini stack of chips as the other players look on rolling their eyes at his luck, I’m imploring myself to get greedy, to want 2nd place as much as I know I should.

Surging, I toss in 20 second accelerations over the river, back uphill to hallowed Hayward Field. I’m closing, but just barely. Can I catch him?!

The Final Bet — Onto Hayward .19miles — (53 seconds)

Arriving at Hayward I hear a voice call out, “GET HIM BROMKA!”

Sprinting with everything I have onto the sacred track that Bowerman built. I’ve watched the best races of my life in this stadium and these are the first steps I’ve ever raced on its surface.

Unsure if there’s enough distance to catch him I’m no longer racing 2nd place, or even the clock, I’m hurling myself around the turn at 4:30 mile pace purely because I’m terrified not to honor the ghosts of this temple of our sport.

I’m running for the Bowerman Track Club on Hayward field past a statue of The Man himself.

Thoughts of the state meets I couldn’t qualify for as a kid.

Thoughts of the Diamond League meets and Olympic Trials that craft the history of running off this curve.

Thoughts of Pre.

I’m kicking to the line because I’m unsure if or when I’ll get to play the game this well again.

1:08:23–3rd Place — a 2min 16sec PR

Grinning ear to ear, I turn to marvel at what it feels like to stand at the finish line of Hayward Field.

“Wow that was fun.” I stand astounded.