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A Tenth of a Second



On June 13 Chicagoan Ed Slowikowski stepped to the starting line at the Metro West Twilight track meet, on the outskirts of Boston, with one chance left to qualify for the 1992 Olympic Trials. For ten weeks he had been trying to shave a tenth of a second off his best time in the 1,500-meter run. This was the last day to do it.

He hadn't expected to be racing this late in the season. Months ago the 24-year-old runner, a former Loyola University track star, had scheduled himself in a pair of Boston-area "last chance" meets just to be safe, but he had hoped to qualify sooner. His parents had bought ten extra plane tickets so family and friends could watch him run at the Olympic Trials in New Orleans. Now he had to wonder if he'd be going.

Before every olympiad, U.S. runners are given one year in which to achieve the "qualifying standard" for their events in any track meet officially sanctioned by the Athletics Congress of the USA. (TAC). Every runner who meets the standard is invited to compete at the trials for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. The standard for the 1,500-meter run (the "metric mile," which is about 109 yards shorter than the English mile) was 3:41.8. As he crouched at the starting line, his yearlong window of opportunity about to close, Slowikowski's personal best was 3:41.9.

After a winter of intermittent indoor racing, Slowikowski's season began in earnest in late April, when his corporate sponsor and part-time employer, the Reebok company, flew him out to the Mount SACC Relays in California. He ran a respectable race at 3:46, but four seconds is a long way in the digitally timed and ultracompetitive world of world-class running. "I was having a lot of emotional problems at the time and really wasn't ready to race," Slowikowski recalled later.

So it was back to the drawing board with his longtime Loyola coach, Gordon Thompson. After two weeks of hard interval training combined with long-distance work, Slowikowski shaved his time to 3:44.1 at the National Invitational Championships in Indianapolis. "I kicked well in the last 100 but the overall race didn't go as planned," he said in his typically confident but self-critical manner. For his next attempt, on May 23, he again traveled west, this time to Santa Monica, where he almost struck pay dirt with a lifetime best of 3:41.9, just one-tenth of a second from qualifying. "That race went out real fast," he said. "It should have been easy to qualify there but I wasn't strong enough and died like a dog."

On June 6 in Boston, with one week to go before the TAC deadline, he ran a disappointing 3:42.0, two-tenths of a second too slow. "Thought I would go stir-crazy," he said, knowing he would have to spend another week in New England waiting for the last-chance meet. But he was able to get settled at the home of his boss from Reebok and he went to work distracting himself. He passed the time running workouts, receiving professional leg massages, and taking in a movie. He even went into Reebok's headquarters early in the week and worked on his monthly reports. But as the competition got closer he began to get scared.

"I knew I could do it but I started thinking in terms of: 'I'm going to have to run faster than I ever have in my entire life to make it,'" he said. "I knew I had to be mentally on top of it, physically on top of it. Everything had to go better than it ever had. All the pressure began to really play with my self-confidence."

He felt sluggish and tired as he did his warm-ups an hour before the race on the 13th. It was the same track on which he'd raced the previous Saturday, but he did not feel comfortable. "I put on my spikes and did some strides, but it was still no good. I started to panic." A wind was blowing leaves across the field; it looked like it might slow down the pace on the backstretch. On the other hand the sun was low and the evening cool--at least he didn't have to worry about dehydration. "Finally I had to tell myself, 'Let the race come to you.' At that moment it was real clear to me what I had to do"--he had to force himself into "that zone of concentration" as soon as the gun went off.

"Runners set!" called the referee. Bang.

As the 14 contestants bolted from the starting line Slowikowski's left leg was cut open by another runner's spikes. But it was just a flesh wound and he didn't miss a stride. From the start of the race a "rabbit" (someone who agrees to sacrifice himself to set a fast pace early on) took out the lap in a blistering 57 seconds, easily fast enough to break the four-minute mark if this had been a mile-long race. The runners spread out single-file and Slowikowski settled comfortably in seventh place "feeling smooth and controlled." At the half-mile point the lead group came through in the 1:57-1:58 range.

At the three-quarter mile Slowikowski glanced at the clock and saw 2:58. He knew he needed a "58-pace" final lap to qualify. (American runners tend to think in terms of miles and quarter-miles even when running the 1,500. At a "58 pace"--a 58-second quarter-mile--he would cover the final 300 meters in about 42 seconds.) He pulled into fourth place and tried to pass veteran distance runner John Gregoric. "He saw me as we were going into the turn and I didn't want to race him around the curve so I tucked in behind him on the rail." By the home stretch Slowikowski was in lane two gaining on Gregoric and the two other leaders. "But I was watching the clock all the way in," he said after the race. "I was much more concerned with the time than I was with beating anybody." He crossed the finish line in fourth place but less than eight-tenths of a second behind the winner. His time: 3:41.1. He had become the last male miler in America to qualify for the Olympic Trials.

For the next hour he walked alone in the nearby fields thinking about what he had done. Then it was back to Chicago to prepare for the trials.

The Olympic Trials are the opposite of the process by which one qualifies for them: time means nothing, place is all-important. The also-rans are weeded out through three stages of competition--quarter finals, semifinals, and final. In the end, out of roughly 40 high-caliber milers who have qualified for the 1,500 meters this year, only the top three in the final will actually make the team.

Slowikowski now had to "forget the clock and start racing people again." To advance through the trials he felt he'd need his "explosiveness" for bursts of speed--a skill he said has been lacking this season. So in the final week before he left for New Orleans, he and Thompson focused on "gear shifting" techniques like running for 600 meters at race pace then bursting into a very fast sprint for 200 meters--a type of interval running designed to make a runner's "fast-twitch" muscle fibers as responsive as possible while they are deprived of oxygen.

He also studied the competition's current times in Track & Field News (the self-proclaimed "bible of the sport") and their performance in the 1988 trials, so he'd have an idea of what to expect--who's likely to start fast and fade, who has a good final-lap "kick."

On Monday in New Orleans, Slowikowski finished ninth in a field of ten, with a time of 3:48.1. That was the end of his Olympic ambitions for 1992. But he should get another shot in '96. Unlike sprinters, who mature in their early or mid-20s, milers tend to reach their physiological peak around 27 or 28 years old. Before leaving for New Orleans Slowikowski said that just qualifying for the trials this time was a stepping stone in his athletic career and a milestone in his life. "When you put all that work towards a goal--put your body and mind through that level of pain--and it finally comes true, it's a magical feeling. I've had it only a few times in running. You're lucky to get it once."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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