by: Jack McClintic
I was just at a point in my running life when I started to feel adequate at the running craft that I heard the word sandbagging. And I was the suspect! I had just set a new PR in the Houston marathon and was running well on into the spring of 1999. I accidentally hooked up with Bennie Blacknall at Memorial Park. I was feeling so good running with one of those guys whose name was at least ten above mine on the HARRA open totem pole. I wanted everyone at the park to see me running and talking with one of the big boys! Then near the tennis center Bennie said, “You have been sandbagging it, haven’t you?” I think I agreed since I admired Bennie and I did not want to let him onto my ignorance of the term. It dawned on me at the Chevron station that sand bags — held back! Driving home I wondered if Bennie was right, did I hold back when I ran?
As the months passed, sandbag data started arriving. Jaime Rodriguez told me that my race times should be faster based on our speed work times. He even caught me waving and talking during the last hundred meters of the Bayou City 10K! He told me it was all mental. I knew he was right because he could always get a good race performance. During subsequent races I started to accumulate more data. I started to observe the faces of fast runners at the LP run and then on into the summer at the all-comers meets. They all looked very focused, eyes straight ahead, and brows were slightly furrowed. Some, like Dave Washburn, looked like they were about to die, and I admired them for running to their limit. Then I looked at all those 2″ x 2″ proofs we all get after some races. And what did I see? A sleep runner! Some people sleep walk, but I was clearly running in a trance! Sure there was some pain in the corner of my eyes, but most of my face looked like it had been to the hypnotist! Bennie was right; I had the evidence. When I looked a little closer at those proofs, I could see sand just pouring out of my pockets! Now I knew where all that pesky sand at the corners of road races originated!
So I went through denial, anger, grief and I finally decided to find a cure. I looked in the back of Footprints, and the Houston Sports Magazine, underneath the shoe and body enhancement adds. I noticed a few sports psychology ones, but none applied specifically to a sever case of sandbagging. I knew that it was up to me to pioneer this field and cure myself. I checked out some books by the best in the business. And so I tried positive imaging; I knew that is what the sport psychologist would have me do anyhow. This way I got to pay myself $100.00 and hour and remain in full control of the session! The results were fabulous. In just one half hour session, I defeated Khalid Kannouchi and Haile Gebrselassie! These guys did not stand a chance against my imagination! I knew that one of the keys to success was to image myself doing well realistically, so I polished off Sean Wade and Justin Chaston for good measure. The problem was applying it in the races. I never quite turned out as well as it did in the sessions.
I knew that I had preformed the rigorous mental preparation, so maybe I just needed that one secrete ingredient to get all of the sand out of my bag. The elites were probably hiding something from the rest of us. After the Corpus Christi beach to bay relay, I asked Jeff Cole what his great secret to running all-out was. He told me I had to break through these mental barriers. He said, “Once you get through a lot of discomfort, you reach a plateau and feel alright.” Sometimes he had to break through more than one of these pain barriers. I tried this but the barrier just slapped me down, I never got through to the other side to feel the tranquility of the plateau. For a short time I went back to mechanics. I noticed Patty Valadka’s turnover at the LP run, I got dizzy just watching her feet spin. I thought if I can only graft that turn over onto my 36” inseam, it wouldn’t matter if I was carrying a little bit of extra sand! I tried it, but my size 13 shoes just kept getting locked up!
After this failure, I started getting desperate and was ready to try more extreme, underground gimmicks. I had heard some fast Tornados brag about going out and getting hammered and running a PR, (maybe they stole this one from BCRR?) I called this the beer treatment. It made sense, drink a few beers, lower your sandbagging inhibitions, relax your cortex and you have the carbs. to boot. I tested it one night on the old neighborhood loop, and it worked great for the first mile, I was flying and I didn’t care about pain or anything. But then something happened, I overheated — I won’t go into details!
Sometime during this desperate stage in my running life, I had a 400-meter epiphany. My dad had once told me that in high school he ran a 440 in 60 seconds. So with my long distance career in a slump, I decided to become a sprinter. There was a lot of attraction to the idea. These 400-meter guys had muscles on top of muscles, and looked like they surgically implanted a few more. No more of the gaunt look for me! I was ready for flashy spandex and spikes! I trained with David Parra and Bryant Winn, and they gave me the correct preparation. It took me just four all-comers meets, minus the spandex to break 60 seconds, I got a 59.9! Plus after 300 meters my body felt terrible, lactic acid utterly consumed my body and dissolved all the sand! For once I had reached an all-out effort, no more sandbagging! If only Bennie could have been there. The only problem was injury and more injury. I lost about five months after one and three months after the other, just last spring.
So now I knew I had the heart of a sprinter, stuck in a long distance body. Back on the roads, I am trying to apply my all-out effort at greater distances. In one of my former essays I mentioned some of my initial warrior training, this is still a work in progress. The best anti-sandbag tool I have found along side of the warrior mentality is synergy. During many races from 5K to the marathon, I have gotten better at teaming up with a runner who is at or above my level and just focusing on them and trying to forget the pain. Rob Walters and I helped each other in the 2003 Houston marathon and I “used” him again during the Law week 8K. Sometimes during a hard effort I have been successful at switching from negative to positive thoughts. These techniques have gotten me closer to my potential. But during that magical minute just after crossing the finish line of any road race, I always think, “I could have run faster.” Have any of you ever said the same thing? What is our maximum potential anyhow? Is the ultimate to pass out onto the concrete just after crossing the finish line?
Don’t get me wrong; I love road races regardless of where I am on the sandbag scale. I am happy to be a sandbagger too! There are advantages. I just ran the Friends for Sclerodermia 5K with my daughter, Melanie. Being a sandbagger was great in this race, I got to share some precious memories with Melanie and help her through some tough spots. I was not trying to make her give it her all. I just told her to slow down and relax and keep moving. We did it together and had a great time talking to our friends and eating food afterwards. We got to run in a part of the pack that I do not usually see. There faces compared to the local elites were much happier, they were conversing and really sharing the experience together. Instead of working on each other’s pain they were adding to each other’s pleasure.
During the post race party I went over to talk to the winner, Luis Armenteros. He was wearing a kind of bag slung over his back. I knew from the Thursday Chronicle that he has been running in the low 15s. We talked about my buddy Jose Lara and a couple other fast runners. I sort of needled Louie a little about running a mid 16. He said that he had been partying the night before (more evidence against the beer theory!). Luis is a real nice guy, so I did not dare mention that terrible word — shhh “Sandbagging.” But I did wonder what was in his bag!