She'd lost her track shoes, and her mouth had become as dry as the New Mexico desert.
Mary Smith tried to keep it together as she prepared to run the 400-meter dash earlier this month at the USA Masters Indoor Track and Field Championships in Albuquerque. Nervous energy crackled from her toes to the top of her head. That's the way it is for track and field runners, especially in the painful 400, a race that many fleet-footed sprinters refuse to attempt.
"I was so nervous," she says. "Finally, somebody found my shoes, and I asked for a drink of water, then I was ready."
A retired schoolteacher who lives in Colorado Springs, Smith is 75 years old. She prepared well for the moment. She followed the plans of her coach, Deb Brown, who had designed 20 weeks of repeat sprints and weightlifting. "Everyone who runs at that level, has that kind of preparation," Smith says.
This would be the race of her life, one gut-busting sprint that would define five years of hard work. She walked onto the track and settled in Lane 3. The world record holder in the women's 75-79 age group, Jeanne Daprano, lined up next to her in Lane 4.
Daprano, 79, of Atlanta, is an elite runner with multiple national and world records to her credit. Smith's nerves were understandable, and she poured that energy into her race.
The report from the starter's pistol clapped off the walls and the field flew from the starting line with all the power and grace allowed by seven decades on earth. Smith found her stride, a quick pitter-patter that consumed the track as she took the lead. Daprano, the favorite to win with ease, settled into a flowing, powerful stride.
The 400 is a long sprint. Athletes spend years training to run fast and conserve energy in order to hold their speed to the finish. The final 100 meters is always a miserable experience. The old-timers talk about "the bear" jumping on their back just as the finish line comes into sight. The body grows heavy as it struggles to provide enough oxygen to burning muscle. The bear has claimed many victims.
"It is beastly," Smith says of the 400. "You never know if you are going to make it without falling apart. But that didn't happen to me in Albuquerque."
Smith surged to a sizeable 10-meter lead at the halfway mark. Daprano, a tall and leggy runner, made her move with 160 to run. Everyone figured she would reel in Smith, who stands all of 5-feet 2-inches tall and weighs 100 pounds. But the gap didn't close. Smith extended her lead and won the national championship with a time of 85.17 seconds.
"Oh, my gosh, it was unbelievable," she says. "I called my kids and told them, 'I won, I won, I won!"
Brown, who has coached high school track for years in Colorado Springs, said her star septuagenarian is dedicated to the mission. "I can guarantee you it is her hard work that is paying off," Brown said. "She follows the plan to a T."
That plan included hours of training outside in the winter weather. A normal workout would often include ten 200-meter sprints. With the wind-chill biting any exposed body parts, Smith would wear three jackets, two pairs of sweatpants and "heated" gloves. "Try to sprint in all of that," she says.
Smith has no athletic background. Girls didn't play sports when she attended school. She and her late husband, Gerry Smith, raised three daughters. She did discover bicycling later in life, and started running longer distances about 10 years ago. But the track competition has provided a spark. She encourages others her age to give running a try. "Don't get discouraged," she says. "Try to run for three minutes, then walk for two. Within a few months you'll be able to run four and walk one."
She'll race again this summer and has a goal of whittling her time down to 83 seconds. The national record is 82.39. The world record in the age group is 79.53. Mary Smith is just getting started. And you have to wonder, how fast can she run?