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The Running Decathlon: Track Town, The Netherlands

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Kelly Hayes, a spotter on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, is attempting to to complete “The Running Decathlon” which consists of the ten most widely-run track events. His goal is to run each race “half as fast,” or in twice the time, of the current world record in each event. And he will attempt to run these races in the footsteps of those who set the records on the very tracks, and in the very stadiums where the records were set.

His “quest” serves as a platform to raise funds to purchase a $90,000 exoskeleton Bionic Suit, which allows those with critical spinal injuries to rise from their wheelchairs and actually take assisted walks. Think Tony Stark from Ironman. He is relying on donations to the Bridging Bionics Foundation to make this a reality.

Follow Kelly on his journey, which begins in Rome on July 7, 2016, here, on Facebook, Twitter and at race2walk2016.com where you can make a 100 percent tax-deductible contribution towards the purchase of an exoskeleton Bionic Suit for the Bridging Bionics Foundation. One hundred percent of your donations will go towards the purchase of these suits.

Please turn Kelly’s steps into dollars. And we will turn dollars into steps for those who want to walk again.

On a cool May afternoon in 2004, more than 15,000 people packed the stands and lawn hillsides at the Fanny Blankers-Koen Stadion in Hengelo, Netherlands. The track savvy crowd had come to see Kenenisa Bekele attempt to break the world record in the 5000m, or 5K, which was held by fellow Ethiopian, and Bekele’s mentor, Haile Gebrselassie.

Among those there that day to witness the fastest 5K ever were race starter Bennie Oude Engerink, who fired the opening gun, and timekeeper/jury member Marion Witvoet.  Aikio Staudt and Lars van der Pluym, both teenagers, were in the stands as fans.

Twelve years later, all returned at the long revamped FBK Stadion to participate as I attempted to run “half as fast” as Bekele in an attempt to complete the third event of my “Running Decathlon.”

The FBK Stadion in Hengelo is a track and field only facility that plays host annually to the IAAF meet called, naturally, the FBK Games. Thanks to a relationship with a Dutch agent, African runners from Ethiopia and Kenya have always been a part of this meet, and the times in the 1500m, 5000m and 10000m have been very fast. The stadium was named for the Dutch Olympic great who, as a mother of two, won four Gold Medals in the 1948 London Games. As a result of all of this, the Hengelo fans are amongst the most avid and knowledgeable track and field fans on the planet.

As I took the track on a cool and overcast morning, I felt that I had a good chance to run the 25:14 that I needed to achieve my self-set goal of twice the time as Bekele’s world record. My hopes were buoyed when Lars, who had been in the stands that day in 2004, showed up in a Jim Morrison T-shirt to pace me. An accomplished club decathlete, Lars has run sub 20 minute 5ks and was a worthy rabbit, and his English was solid enough for conversation during the 12-and-a-half lap trip.

My goal, which was pretty pedestrian, was to go out in a: 60 200m and then settle into a 2:00 per lap pace, finishing at 25:00 even, just ahead of my goal. As the gun sounded, I jumped on the turn, perhaps a touch too quick (well too quick by my 60 year old standards), and we hit the 200 mark in a bit over :40. “Lets just slow it down a bit,” Lars counseled and we fell into a slow groove.

Lars had asked before the run if I had wanted to chat along the way, or if that would be a distraction. I told him I wanted to focus, so if he wanted to talk that would be fine, but don’t expect too much conversation. Of course, that went out the window on lap one when he told me he was a mad fan of the NBA.

LeBron was his man, he said, the Cavaliers his team, and he derided Golden State’s Splash Brothers and their three-point play. That led me to tell him the story of Steve Kerr, the coach of the Warriors, who attended my High School, Palisades, before matriculating to the University of Arizona. Two laps later, I had finished the tale of how Kerr’s father had been assassinated in Beirut, Lebanon, by terrorists when Kerr was a freshman Wildcat and how he had hit six straight 3-pointers in response to the Arizona State students disgusting chants of “PLO” and “Your father is history” before the game. It is a story that has always inspired me, one that I tell often, and it was powerful telling it one more time on this run.

As we completed the second mile, I was felling pretty strong and our times were getting a bit faster with each lap. I thought of the video of Bekele’s record-breaking run that I had watched many times before the race, and how he had sprinted so hard on the final laps, and I thought, “We should give this thing a go.” Lars was ready and on the 11th lap we dipped under 1:50.

As the bell rang (I just loved it that the equipment men had brought out the bell and the lap clock for the run), we kicked into gear. Earlier in the week, Tim Burr had written a post for the Race2Walk2016 blog about how everyone has challenges, and that the key was in how you approached them. Again inspired, I took off.  “I can smell the barn,” said Lars as we hit the backstretch.

At this time, I knew I would be under my time so a sense of relief overcame me, but, as has been the case since this whole thing started, I was once again overwhelmed by just how fortunate I was to be able to run like this. Maybe not so fast, but fast enough to be in the game, running in competition, even if only with myself at the age of 60. This whole crazy scheme was actually happening and I was sprinting to the finish.

As I saw the clock and the finish line, the small crew of track fans and officials who had come out on a Friday morning for a look cheered me on. I crossed to their applause, satisfied that I had, once again, fooled ‘em and crushed the time to beat with a last lap time of :97 and a final clocking of 24:14.97.

It’s good to be 60.

Running Decathlon: Homage to Hicham

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Kelly Hayes, a spotter on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, is attempting to to complete “The Running Decathlon” which consists of the ten most widely-run track events. His goal is to run each race “half as fast,” or in twice the time, of the current world record in each event. And he will attempt to run these races in the footsteps of those who set the records on the very tracks, and in the very stadiums where the records were set.

His “quest” serves as a platform to raise funds to purchase a $90,000 exoskeleton Bionic Suit, which allows those with critical spinal injuries to rise from their wheelchairs and actually take assisted walks. Think Tony Stark from Ironman. He is relying on donations to the Bridging Bionics Foundation to make this a reality.

Follow Kelly on his journey, which begins in Rome on July 7, 2016, here, on Facebook, Twitter and at race2walk2016.com where you can make a 100 percent tax-deductible contribution towards the purchase of an exoskeleton Bionic Suit for the Bridging Bionics Foundation. One hundred percent of your donations will go towards the purchase of these suits.

Please turn Kelly’s steps into dollars. And we will turn dollars into steps for those who want to walk again.

If you ever saw Hicham El Guerrouj run, then you perhaps saw the greatest runner to ever put on a pair of spikes.

Yes I know, many of you will ask: “Who?”

Well, El Guerrouj, to this day, holds the world records for the 1500m and the mile. And they were both set in the last century.

Today, for the second time this month, I took to the track at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome with the goal of running those two events in twice the time, or half as fast, as those records. And with thumping pride I report that, for the second time in a week, I crushed it. Today’s 1500m saw me finish with a time of 6:24.34, or better than :27 faster than I needed to beat the doubled time of 6:52.0 I had set as my goal.

Now this time is nothing special for a real life runner. But for a 60-year-old runner (El Guerrouj was 24 when he set the 1500m record) who outweighs El Guerrouj by 60 pounds, it ain’t bad.

But more importantly, it achieved the goal I set when I originally conceived this whimsical, selfish fantasy of attempting to run in the footsteps of the fastest men who ever ran on a rubber track.

And most importantly, it has led many to come to the race2walk2016.com website, learn about the Bionic Exoskeleton suits we are raising money to purchase, and make a donation. You can do the same.

My pacer, or “Rabbit” as I like to call him, Mattia Barbaro (yes, like the 2006 Kentucky Derby Winner) was aware of the record that had been set in this stadium, but did not know who El Guerrouj was. Of course, he was just 2 years old when the Moroccan accomplished the feat. I told him he needed to check out the YouTube video of the race and then I remembered that when El Guerrouj set the record, YouTube was still seven years shy of its invention.

The race, if you want to call it that, and I do, was similar to the mile run last week. A beautiful empty stadium that seats 65,000, with a translucent overhang that shelters the azure (that’s Italian for blue) seats, has not a single banner, sign or light board that advertises anything. There was a purity to both the visual and aural elements that made running a joy. There was the sound of my breathing resonating off the seats as I ran, but other than that it was pretty silent.

For the uninitiated, the 1500m, or Metric Mile, is the race that is officially contested in the Olympic Games. It is 100m, or 109 yards, or about the length of a football field and one end zone, shorter than an actual mile. You may think that would make the race easier, but I really don’t think so. For one thing, you start the race on the opposite side of the track from where you finish. And that means your first lap is the short one if that makes any sense. I had a difficult time pacing as a result. Which is why I was glad I had my “Rabbit,” or as they call the pacer in Italy, my “Fox.”

But I had watched the aforementioned YouTube video, as sketchy as it is, of El Guerrouj setting his record and it was inspiring. Not just for the speed, but for the precision and economy of motion he puts on display. It is like watching a great thoroughbred run a horse race. There is just rhythm to the motion. Each stride is the exact length, each arm pistons in time, and every fiber of his being moves in a forward motion.

Now obviously, I duplicate none of that. But in my mind, as I ran around the far turn before turning for home, I was running the way you are supposed to run. Oh, I’m sure the attached video will dispute my self-image and reveal how I flailed down the stretch. But again, it matters not. I set the rules for The Running Decathlon. It’s my game. And right now, I’m up 2-0. Eight races to go.

It’s on to Hengelo in the Netherlands and the 5000m.

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The Running Decathlon: Victory is mine

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Kelly Hayes, a spotter on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, is attempting to to complete “The Running Decathlon” which consists of the ten most widely-run track events. His goal is to run each race “half as fast,” or in twice the time, of the current world record in each event. And he will attempt to run these races in the footsteps of those who set the records on the very tracks, and in the very stadiums where the records were set.

His “quest” serves as a platform to raise funds to purchase a $90,000 exoskeleton Bionic Suit, which allows those with critical spinal injuries to rise from their wheelchairs and actually take assisted walks. Think Tony Stark from Ironman. He is relying on donations to the Bridging Bionics Foundation to make this a reality.

Follow Kelly on his journey, which begins in Rome on July 7, 2016, here, on Facebook, Twitter and at race2walk2016.com where you can make a 100 percent tax-deductible contribution towards the purchase of an exoskeleton Bionic Suit for the Bridging Bionics Foundation. One hundred percent of your donations will go towards the purchase of these suits.

Please turn Kelly’s steps into dollars. And we will turn dollars into steps for those who want to walk again.

As I stood at the start line in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, site of the 1960 Summer Olympic Games, waiting for the gun to go off, I had no idea if I would achieve my goal.

Running in the shadow of the great Moroccan runner, Hicham El Guerrouj, who set a world record in 1999 for the Mile Run seemed daunting at best. And I was only trying to run half as fast as El Guerouj’s mark of 3:43 that had stood for seventeen years. Could I do it?

This was race number one of my Quest, something I call the Running Decathlon. My goal is to run each of the ten most contested track events in twice the time or, half as fast, as the standing world record in each. It may seem somewhat pedestrian, but when you throw in the fact that I am 60 years old and plan to run these races on the exact tracks where those records were set, in places like the Stadio Olimpico, and the Berlin and London Olympic Stadiums, it seems a little more challenging.

When I took the track shortly after dawn on a hot, muggy Roman morning, still jet lagged from the previous day’s flight, the time of 7:26 kept pulsing through my consciousness. I had been concentrating on those numbers for a few weeks as I trained for this moment. I am a daily runner, a streak runner, who for the last five years has plodded along on 10-minute miles. And even though I had a 7:32 under my belt, that one was at home and truth be told, it had a downhill slant to it. Still, I thought, “This is a fast track. I have new spikes and if I can just stay with my pace setter, Gabriele Pattumelli, who had been recruited to help out by the stadium, maybe I could get close enough to the 7:26 to not embarrass myself.”

When El Guerrouj set this record on the same date, July 7th, that I was running on, he was on the precipice of being acknowledged as the greatest distance runner in the world. Fifty-one weeks before, he had run away with the 1500m in this very stadium, setting the record for the Metric Mile. On this date, he would run stride for stride with Kenyan Noah Ngeny, who was there to be his pace setter, but instead stayed in the race for keeps. El Guerrouj finished two strides ahead as both runners broke the world record in times that have not been duplicated since.

This was all in my mind as stood in the exact spot on the outside where El Guerrouj started his record mile. As the Italian starter pulled the trigger on the gun, I sprinted towards lane one and the first curve behind Gabrielle feeling incredible excitement and energy. The 65,000-seat stadium was empty, save for couple of handfuls of workers who were there to set new turf for the AS Roma and Lazio football clubs that call the stadium home. With each lap, they cheered and clapped and encouraged me in their native Italian.

I had worked it out with Gabriele that I thought we should do 1:50 laps and let me gut it out down the stretch. Though neither of us spoke the same language, he seemed to understand. So when we finished lap 1, the one with the extra 9 yards, in 1:32, I was a little concerned. But feelin’ alright, I continued on just a few steps behind the easy running Gabriele, who has a 4:00 1500m to his credit. Lap 2 was nice and easy, and when we got to the third lap I thought, “Just keep your form, don’t fall apart until the last lap if you are going fall apart.”

There was no bell, but the bell lap was a total joy. I ran with great form on the two curves and felt no pain as I got to the final 100m.

“Go Kelly, go!” Gabriele implored as he slowed to let me pass.

I lifted my legs and pumped my arms, hoping to get to the line in, say, 7:30.

When I crossed the line, I looked instantly at the timer. “7:05.76” he shouted across the track. Victory was mine.

At least in the first race. Nine more to go including a trip back to Rome for the 1500m this week.