For the past three years, Albuquerque has hosted the USA Track & Field National Indoor Meet. It’s not the Olympics or World Championships, but you can count on seeing at least a handful of world-class athletes up close and personal, many of whom are perfectly fine with pausing to get their picture taken with squeaking, breathlessly starry-eyed fans (who, me?? Well maybe that one time. And okay, maybe that other time, too).
Going to that meet is one of the few times I’m a teensy bit glad of track’s relative obscurity in the U.S. The venue – the Albuquerque Convention Center – isn’t particularly huge, which means that not only do even the “peanut gallery” seats afford great views, but you’ll very likely pass an Olympian warming up outside, or inside, or washing their hands in the bathroom. It’s a little freaky. And awesome.
Then there’s the actual spectating.
I went to the meet last Saturday, feeling pretty good about my athletic abilities after my 14-miler that morning. That self-assurance started to dissipate as I walked into the Convention Center and passed tall, sleek…champions flashing by doing warm-ups. Yup, even just warming up, they were blurs. My confidence faded a bit more with the first races, and by the time the high-jumping got under way…well, geez.
The thing about watching professional athletes, though, especially when you get to do it at such close range, and in such individual events, is that before long you forget about comparing yourself to them. You get absorbed in the announcer’s dramatic play-by-play (stride-by-stride?), in the crowd’s enthusiasm, and above all, in the sheer beauty of what’s happening before you.
I’m not a jumper, and never will be, unless a spider gets too close. But for my money, the sight of high-jumpers and pole vaulters floating through the air, for fractions of a second, is nothing short of art. The same goes for sprinters: I’ll never have that speed unless there’s terror involved, or maybe Bananas Foster, but watching any 400-meter race borders on hypnotic. The verb that sprang to mind while I watched one heat was rolling. I could have sworn those runners had wheels on their feet. Really, really fast ones.
They saved the 3000 meters for last.
Forget any feelings of inadequacy. Have you ever watched any master of their craft – athlete, artist, chef, whatever – perform so well, so effortlessly, and with such obvious pleasure in their task that you can’t help but feel that joy yourself?
That’s what it was like watching Jenny Simpson and Bernard Lagat, who eventually won their respective races. They looked incredibly relaxed. Every one of their competitors looked like they were racing; those two looked they were enjoying a jog in the park. At the perfect moment, they casually eased to the lead, and then, quite simply, flew. The crowd got to its feet for the last lap of both of those races. When the winners finished, we all had goofy grins on our faces.
I don’t know whether Lagat or Simpson PR’d, or whether they’ll compete at Worlds or the Olympics. All that mattered was the radiant energy they shared; the pride and inspiration they evoked in everyone around them
Pursuing something that brings you so much joy that you can’t help but spill it onto other people? Maybe there’s something to that.