A Dying Race

Houston boasts some of the biggest track legends in the world. Who cares? They do.

Leroy Burrell is a decorated veteran of track's mental wars. Second only to Lewis in the pantheon of Houston sprinting, he took over from Tellez as head coach of the Cougar track team in 1998 after a career that included world records in the 4x100-meter relay and the 100-meter dash, the latter being 9.85 seconds in 1994.

"When you line up against the eight best sprinters in the world, you have to have a tremendous amount of confidence in your ability, in your training, in your race plan. It takes a tremendous amount of mental strength and mental stamina to do what you planned to do, what you've worked to do, at that critical moment. Because in the heat of battle, your weaknesses are always, always exposed."

How, exactly, does one train the mind? "You have to visualize what you want to accomplish," Burrell says. "You have to say, 'I'm going to push myself beyond this pain.' You have to welcome pain. Certain types of pain, you welcome that. That's a good thing. Because that's the pain that's going to make you succeed."

Darius Pemberton: "When I leave the board, I know."
Deron Neblett
Darius Pemberton: "When I leave the board, I know."
Tellez demands that all his athletes, even Carl Lewis, do exactly as he tells 
them  --  every time
Deron Neblett
Tellez demands that all his athletes, even Carl Lewis, do exactly as he tells them -- every time

You have a choice: Run or die.

Okay, dying's not really an option, because you didn't die at practice yesterday. Right now, though, it would be nice to keel over right here on the track. Then you could escape the piano on your back and the vise squeezing your hip flexors and the hot air pouring fire into your chest. To die on this track would be just lovelyŠ

Cheryl Dickey did say howdy to death once. In her kitchen.

Dickey, a 110-meter hurdler, has a history of injuries, so much so that she has developed a supremely stoic tolerance for pain. So when she started to feel extremely tired while working out at the Rice University track in the spring of 1999, she just pushed herself harder. The fatigue persisted for weeks. So did Dickey.

"The week after Easter, we were doing some short quick stuff, some speed work, and I couldn't even make it 20 meters. The next day I couldn't even get to the first hurdle. Then I couldn't even get out of the blocks. I didn't know I was bleedin' inside."

That night she had the cold sweats and got up to get some water from the kitchen. It took her about an hour to get there. After lying on the floor for a while, she finally decided that visiting a doctor might be a good idea. "I get back down to the emergency room after the X-rays, and they're like, 'Put this on, get ready. Ma'am, we have to operate right away. If we don't, you can die. You're lucky you came in just in time.' "

A year after surgeons stanched her internal abdominal bleeding, Dickey, a Houston native and Texas Southern University graduate, is back on the Rice track for three, four hours a day. If the University of Houston's new facility is the sleek Formula One race car of the track world, then Rice is a rough-hewn Chevy Monte Carlo burning up NASCAR. The track is home base for a bevy of once and future Olympians, including Nigerian sprinter Mary Onyali, an Olympic 200-meter silver medalist in 1996 and TSU graduate; long jumper Kareem Streete-Thompson, who once beat Carl Lewis in his prime; veteran 110-meter hurdler Courtney Hawkins; decathlete Ricky Barker; Angela Blackett, one of the top women's 400-meter hurdlers in the world; and others.

Dickey, who made the 1996 Olympic team with a personal record of 12.72 and was ranked in the world's top ten in 1998, runs with the muscular style of someone steeling herself to be hit. Today she is doing 150-meter sprints with a training partner. Sprint 150 meters, walk back, repeat eight times.

"Normally we do ten of those," says Dickey, 33. "As the season progresses, the workouts get longer. People don't understand why I work out so long. I'm not going to stop until I feel good about what I've done. I never leave on a bad note. There have been times I've been out here at ten o'clock at night."

Am I ready?

Have I done everything in my power to succeed? Have I fully prepared myself? Is there anything else I can do to gain that split-second difference between first and last?

Is there anything at all that I can do?

"Bryan Bronson was driven to win, and he usually did," says Rice track coach Ray Davidson. "Sometimes it got him hurt because he would almost compete too hard."

A lot of fast kids have come though Davidson's program in his 13 years at Rice, but Bronson was special. And not just because he got caught taking steroids.

Bronson was a superstar coming out of Jasper High School in East Texas, the best 300-meter hurdler in the country and winner of three golds at the World Junior Championships. "He was real quiet; you wouldn't notice him other than his ability to run," says his high school coach, Lloyd Weatherspoon. "He went to the regionals a freshman, took third place, and from then on he won everything."

After Bronson won a 1993 NCAA championship as a sophomore at Rice, he experienced the first in a series of curious lapses. During Bronson's junior year, Davidson says, he got sick with a mysterious feverish ailment that left him so weak he couldn't finish the easiest workouts for weeks at a time. An extremely private person, Bronson refused to discuss his illness with anyone, and he bounced back for his senior season and was named Track and Field Athlete of the Year.

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