Des Moines Is French For “The Moines”

I saw that on a tee-shirt on the campus of Drake University – I don’t know what it has to do with my Drake Relays adventure but I think my Uncle Yogi would appreciate that little nugget of wisdom.  Anyway – the dust is just settling on another crazy Drake Relays weekend.  This race is truly unlike any other I run on the masters circuit, and even though it definitely has its unique quirks, I wouldn’t keep going back if I didn’t enjoy my time in Des Moines.  This year may have taken the cake though…

For some reason in 2010 (my first visit to Drake) I decided to travel out to Des Moines the morning of the race, and I’ve been doing it that way ever since.  The start time for the Masters 800m is 12:45 Central Standard Time, so by catching the first flight out of Harrisburg to Chicago at 7:50am (5:30 wakeup) I have about 6 hours to fly from Harrisburg to Chicago to Des Moines, rent a car, drive to the track, pick up my packet, warm up, and make it to the paddock 20 minutes prior to gun time.  This year I decided to break the cycle of insanity and travel the night prior like every other sane person was doing, but I failed to account for my daughter’s U14 softball game Thursday evening that I just couldn’t miss.  This meant for better or for worse I was back to Plan A, and for the fourth year in a row the gods of air travel were looking after me.  United Airlines defied all the sequestration odds and delivered me to Des Moines on time at 11am, and after quickly changing clothes in my Ford Focus hatchbagon (only one hamstring cramp) I was picking up my packet with an hour to spare.  Plenty of time for a quick jog, a couple of drills and a strider or two.  All in a morning’s work….

Once they gathered us out on the track about 10 minutes prior I could see that it was the same awesome motley crew that makes this race special every year.  There are no qualifying standards or limits on the amount of entries.  It is truly the ‘Cannonball Run’ of masters events – every shape and size, race and creed – some fast, some not so fast, some in it to try to win, some in it hoping to run well, some in it just for fun.  32 entrants this year, 25 were toeing the line.  “Gentlemen, start your engines”.  The start looks like a train wreck in the making, but every year it is clean and fair (made more so by the one guy who always forgets to break for the inside and runs the whole first turn in lane 8).  This year was no different from any other, always good to see a bunch of the same guys out there year after year…

We don't need no stinkin' prelims - line them all up and may the best man win...

We don’t need no stinkin’ prelims – line them all up and may the best man win…

Another thing you can always count on in Des Moines in April is for the jet stream to make a guest appearance down the home stretch.  Mother nature didn’t disappoint again this year, as the realtime forecast called it a “brisk 22mph” breeze out of the northeast.  Great news if you were long jumping on the “away” side of the stadium, bad news if you were running the 100m or were a distance runner struggling to seal the deal.  This always adds an element of strategy to an 800m, because some sucker has to be in front into the NASA wind tunnel – in 2010 I followed Dave Nash into a driving rain, and benefitted greatly as I was able to out kick him to the line.  In 2011 I led the entire race, doing my time in the front and then some.  Last year a couple of people took turns in the front, and I had the lead going into the windy final stretch before being out kicked by Lance Elliott and losing by .07 secs.  As we took the starting line this year I had no idea how the race would play out, I just figured we would play it by ear.

Cue The Edgar Winter Group tune "Free Ride"...

Cue The Edgar Winter Group tune “Free Ride”…

At the gun I got out cleanly, and after being teased by a potential race leader it quickly became obvious that nobody was planning on stepping up to the plate.  I decided at that point I had two options:  1) go slow and force someone else to lead, but then losing any hope of running a decent time, or 2) bite the bullet and take it out myself.  Of course I ended up choosing option #2, so I took the pack through the 200m in 30 seconds, with a peek at the jumbotron showing Lance Elliott in the exact position that I wanted to be in – snuggled up tight to a big ole’ windbreak.  Having drawn the short straw, I wasn’t ready to just throw in the towel and offer him a free ride.  Running the 800m isn’t exactly like Spy vs Spy or a James Bond flick – you can’t just squirt oil on the track behind you, drop a box full of tacks, or deploy spiked hubcaps to thwart a drafting opponent.  My first attempt to try to ruin his free ride was drift out into lane 2 down the brutal home stretch of the track, hoping Lance would fall asleep in lane 1 and wonder why it got so windy all of a sudden.  He told me afterwards with a smirk that “I just went out there with you of course”.  Fail.  We went through the quarter in 60 flat – I had hoped going in to the race that I would hit 60 secs at the quarter and have it feel somewhat effortless, that definitely wasn’t the case.  I got around to the back stretch waiting for the blast of tailwind to act as a huge “pick me up”, for some reason the wind never seems as strong when it is at your back as it does when it is in your face.  At the 250m to go point I reached back into my bag of tricks, slowing down just enough to hopefully have him think I was struggling (which in actuality wasn’t far from the truth) and come up on me.  I don’t know what his mindset or strategy was at this point, but whatever the case he did what I hoped he would do.  He came up on my shoulder as we hit the final 200m.  An added bonus was he was on my outside shoulder, where I could not only could I see him but he was running the longer line.  As we hit the final stretch I felt like I still had a little gas in the tank, and I pulled slightly ahead of him.  At 50 meters I had lost sight of him, but after his late surge last year I took nothing for granted and assumed he was moments away from reappearing.  He never did, and I was able to break the tape in 2:02.70 to his 2:02.87.  Seeing how breaking the tape has gotten harder and harder as I drift farther and farther from that magical 40th birthday, I was pretty darn happy….

Another close battle to the finish with Lance Elliott

Another close battle to the finish with Lance Elliott

Post-race, victory flag bearing....

Post-race, victory flag bearing….

I was handed the traditional ‘Drake Relays Champion’ flag by one of the finish line officials then guided down to the press area to explain to them what a runner from Enola was doing in central Iowa.  Everyone was extremely cordial and congratulatory as usual.  After “breaking it down” with the members of the press corps who obviously had way too much time on their hands, I gathered my gear, sent a couple of text updates, and then got in a cool down jog with Lance and the seventh place finisher Brad Dittmar.  Unlike previous years when I rushed back to the airport after racing to get a flight home, this year I had some time to kill after the dust settled.  I ended up going to dinner with Lance and his folks and twin sons, then casually made my way back to the airport to return my rental car and walk over to the FedEx facility to catch a night flight to Memphis.  Got to Memphis around midnight, at 2:42am I was punching the clock like every other FedEx vampire, working a flight back to Harrisburg – no rest for the weary.  Apparently being a Drake Relays champion doesn’t carry much weight outside of the small circle of masters runners – at FedEx I’m still just another cog on the wheel of a gigantic company.  Got home at 7:30am, 26 hours after my alarm kicked off a pretty productive day.  My reward was a one-hour nap, them off to a girls U8 soccer game – wouldn’t have it any other way….

About Nick Berra

I am a 45 year old masters runner from Central Pennsylvania. I have been participating primarily in track events since turning 40 in 2009. This season has produced marks that I have not run in several years, I believe primarily due to starting a strength and flexibility program here at Elite Athletic Performance - I've felt stronger and faster than I have in a long time. That, coupled with lots of underwater running, has kept me healthy and fit - at this age those are things I no longer take for granted... I run USATF events with a team out of Philadelphia, the Greater Philadelphia Track Club. They are a great group who have played a big part in making the sport enjoyable for me again. I also run local races for HydroWorx Track Club, supported by HydroWorx here in Harrisburg PA. Their underwater treadmills and training center has proved to be a crucial part of my training, rehabilitation, and recovery programs. I set personal records in the 800m (1:56.06) in 2010 and in the 1500m (4:02:63) and mile (4:23.48) in 2011. Despite the fact that I am not getting any younger, I nearly PR'ed recently and set the M45 indoor world record in the 800 meters at the New Balance Armory in New York City. I ran 1:56.10, besting the 9 year old record by less than a second. I feel like there are still more big things to come... I am married and have two daughters. I am an assistant XC coach at my alma mater, Cumberland Valley High School here in Mechanicsburg PA. I am also a 1991 graduate of the US Naval Academy, currently working as a pilot for FedEx after serving 10 years on active duty flying in the Navy. Beat Army! Beat Army!
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