Dark Horse

Twilight meets are common in the Northeast. 

Named, unsurprisingly, for the time of day at which they are run, twilight meets offer athletes of all affiliations the chance to show up, lace up and throw down. The casual nature of these meets makes for a unique atmosphere, and athletes come to the line with a slew of racing priorities. College students, competing out of season, race free of team affiliation or obligation, while amateur and pro athletes chase qualifying times or PRs. These are racer’s races: For showing up to the line with little knowledge of who else might be there, and fighting for the win, or maybe a time, or maybe just that extra bit of sharpness that’s hard to find in a solo effort or workout. Twilight meets are ripe for surprises, where no competitor can be over or under estimated. Twilight meets are for the dark horse. For a runner with nothing to prove, except to challenge their own expectations.

On a chilly April Friday night, the North Brooklyn Runners hosted an early season twilight meet of their own under the lights at McCarren Park track. Lauren Henkel, a college coach and former high jumper turned middle distance runner, decided the Monday before to race the mile. Coming off a couple weeks of “pangs and twinges” that hindered her training, she entered the race to push herself out of her “training zone comfort” and to “get back out on the track.” It was a classic twilight meet scenario: an opportunity for an athlete to toe the line, free of everything except personal stakes. This is her story.

Lauren Henkel: Throughout the season, for many races I know more or less who I'll be racing against, especially racing the same key races each year. I'll come up against familiar faces at the Armory, BU, Ocean Breeze, Icahn, and Princeton, then comes a race where the performance list isn't available prior to arrival. 

“A twilight meet can attract the novice or local elite, and this unknown adds a new dynamic.”

Upon arrival and while warming up I scan the crowd and look for familiar faces but don't know who amongst them will be on the line with me until we all gather to be seeded.

I need to be ready for anything and anyone, have no expected time, just the goal to compete and win.

In preparation to race a mile, my early season focuses on strength work to compliment my actual strength, which is my speed. Early season distance and hills form a solid base. This year I spent some time in the back hills of Van Cortlandt Park for leg strength and mental toughness, but made sure I continued to turn my legs over with a few quick 200m or 150m to finish a session. Closer to a race I'll do workouts at race pace and quicker, throwing in max efforts as time trials. Knowing I can go under 30 seconds for a 200m or around 45 for a 300m after longer repeats helps build confidence going into race day.

Heading to the line all I can think is, I put in the work, I am a competitor, trust myself and my training. The ability to race is a blessing. 

I need to believe I can win, otherwise I won't. There is no room for negativity.

During the sublime pause between, 

"On Your Mark", 

and the gun, my mind clears and my breathing steadies.

1st Lap

All I know during the first lap is, I do not want to take the lead. I want to read my competition while staying as relaxed as possible. The slow game begins when the others feel the same way as I do, but sometimes there is one who dares to take everyone out from the gun. Do I go with this pace, or believe they can not maintain, and stay in my comfort zone?

200 @ 41​, 400 @ 84​. Took lead at 450 until 800 meters because the pace was slower than I wanted. Picked it up just slightly.
2nd  Lap

No matter what pace we have started with, I need to stay connected and stay relaxed.

800 @ 2:42

800m to 1300m the second place finisher took the lead and I sat until about 300m to go.

3rd Lap

The pace starts to pick up, if a move is made, the move must be covered. I can not lose connection. Second guessing equals failure, stay locked in. The third lap is where the pain begins, and where the race is won or lost.

Bell Lap  

This is where I restart. I know I can run a fast 400m, at this point, that is all I need to do. My mind finally opens during the last 150m. I think about how much work I have put in to get here and that the pain is fleeting compared to the hours and sacrifices I have made to have the opportunity to race.

After crossing the finish line I hunch over, I can't breathe and my legs hurt, I'm euphoric because I'm done. I never want to do that again.  I take a few steps, my breathing slows, and my legs stop wobbling.  

By the time I make it back to my spike bag I'm already thinking about the next time I'll get the chance to race, and it can't come soon enough.

Lauren Henkel. North Brooklyn Runner's Track Classic. Women’s Mile Winner: 5:19.14
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