Entering The Armory
I might as well have had “n00b” (that’s text for newbie) written on my forehead when I showed up in my suit and tie, straight from a business meeting, and walked into the Armory with my jaw agape. New Balance and NYRR have built nothing short of a shrine with the renovation, and compared to the sub-zero temperature outside, it was paradise.
The n00b-factor increased when I changed into my road shoes and Inov-8 shirt, a striking clash with the sprinters warming up in track spikes and lycra singlets. I felt like a California cougar walking in on a pack of New York cheetahs about to have a showdown.
“Yo, Clark! You here for the old man mile?” asked one 25-year-old black athlete with a giant M on his track suit, covering thighs that either of which would dwarf my torso. It took me a second to realize he was talking to me, and when I looked his way, his entourage chuckled in unison, in on the joke.
“Clark?” I nervously replied, ”I’m not sure if I get it.”
I’m emitting n00b3 at this point.
“Clark Kent!” he said, getting a rise of snickers from his mates, “ We saw you do the quick change in your coat. That was faster than Superman.”
He was right – since there wasn’t a change room, I had wrapped my overcoat around me and changed underneath it (the male equivalent of the Flashdance bra change) just yards from where they were warming up. I laughed out loud once I got the joke. A bit too loud, actually, eliciting yet another round of laughs from the crew.
I moved to introduce myself, but since he was warming up it was a bit awkard. He sized me up head to toe, then toe to head, pensively stroking his chin.
“So let’s see…boys, I think 45, 50 tops,” he declared. I assumed he meant my age, but then thought better than to assume given that my age was largely the reason I was a step behind in this conversation already. He threw me a bone, “What you say, Clark? Can you bust a 4:45 mile?”
Ah, he was talking about my PR for the mile. I had a nametag that said “miler” right on it. Duh.
n00b4, here we come.
“This is my first time at an indoor track, so I have no idea,” I replied, continuing my warm up routine. I stared over at the track, watching it gleam with new rubber and paint under brand new lights, its high-banked corners suggesting superhuman speeds that required centrifugal force to be contained. For someone who runs mountains, this was as foreign a concept as running on the moon. And about that exciting!
“It’s easy, man,” he said with a welcome voice, “just run fast and stay in the game. If you’ve got a move to make, you gotta be in the game to make it.” The crew all nodded, and continued with their strides and stretching. With that, my coaching session ended, and he took off with his team. I never got his name, but couldn’t thank him enough for the advice.
So what should my target time be for the mile? I have never tried it, and there were a lot of new variables.. I remembered the blogger challenge between Craig Thornley and Andy Jones-Wilkins to run a sub-5 minute mile last year, and figured that was a sensible crazy-ass stretch goal for a 40-year-old. If anything it would be educational to run with a bunch of people who already could do sub-5 and determine if it was even attainable.
There were 50 runners registered for the mile, and the heats of 12 were selected based on your target time. The process of selecting the heats defined the term “stepping up” – they start rattling off times in descending order like 4:10, 4:15, 4:20, and runners step up when they think they can do that time. By 4:20, we had our first heat. By the time the third heat was selected when I stepped up, the first heat was DONE RACING. Cheetahs, indeed.
As I waited for the call for “5:00”, I met some of my fellow milers. It was a really cool group of folks, mostly from local boroughs and nearby states, ranging in age from 19 to 70. Track clubs members old and new shared a passion, and were happy to brandish their team colors together. The organizers and volunteers were pleased to put on an event and certainly knew what they were doing. Anyone out here instantly had the respect of everyone out here, because we shared a common passion, and we weren’t afraid to put it on the line on any given Thursday.
I met some of the guys in my heat, and was pleased to see I wasn’t the only one sans-spikes. The speedsters definitely had the gear, but many were just coming to run on this great track and get out of the cold. I struck up a conversation with Giancarlo, a local road and track runner, and he was thrilled to hear that I did a 100-miler a few months ago. We laughed, knowing the equivalent here would be 800 laps! He was aglow from his recent marathon experience, and we commented how big of a “downshift” we were both taking to run the mile. I was certainly in good company.
The start came, and I drew slot #9 just on the outside.
“To your marks!”, the started yelled. Just eight laps, I thought. My heart shot to 160 bps. And THEN the gun erupted.
The pace was fast to get position in the first corner, and my surge got me on the back of the pack on the inside lane. By the next corner, the pack was efficiently two runners wide and I swung to the outside. The G’s felt great, but clearly was tough on the hamstrings, similar to banking switchbacks on a downhill trail. Lap 1 - 36 seconds, lap 2 - 39 seconds. That was a 1:15 quarter mile, right on track for a 5-minute pace. It felt wicked fast to me, but I was having so much fun on the banked corners that there was no way I was slowing down.
On the next four laps, I began to understand the running term “boxed in”. The pack was tight, and I had nowhere to go running on the inside lane now that I was mid-pack. I just tried to hold pace since that was the only option, and the splits came in evenly at 38 seconds per lap. On the back of lap six, the pack split into two, with those “in the game” in the front pack and the rest of us slackers too stuck to chase. Oops. I was not listening to my helpful coach.
Some runners saw the pack splitting and swung wide to catch up, which in turn gave everyone some room to move. I had the space and started to pick up speed, but just as I shifted into high gear, my legs recognized lap #7 and began to burn from lactic acid build up. I picked a line on the inside and pushed as hard as I could without spontaneously exploding.
The bell rang on the last lap, and it was a two man race out front on a 4:50 pace. Meanwhile, the lactic acid fried my legs like drumsticks on the grill, and started creeping up into my stomach and chest. By lap 8, the pain seeped up past my neck and was pulling my facial muscles into contorted grins. I wondered if I would go full Zombie before I crossed the finish line.
The last straightaway came, and I leaned forward and had gravity pull me in. I finished in 5:09, and staggered off the track gasping like I had held my breath the whole time. I congratulated the majority of the group who finished in front of me as we all warmed down. All I could think was “wow”, and “Craig Thornley was right…sub-five minutes is waaay hard”.
I drank water like I had been walking the desert, cooling down and watching the Women run a killer 2:20’ish heat for the 800 meters. I was astonished at the speed required to run that fast, and entranced by the sheer beauty of so many natural athletes in motion. No matter what age, size, race, or (track club) color, the efforts and talents of the people here are inspiring. We trail runners have plenty in common with our track brethren.
I obnoxiously said thank you to random people, and invited as many as I could out West to run some trails. My legs were shaking from the race, but I couldn’t tell if it was from being tired or wanting another go at that track. Such a thrill! I would highly recommend it, although I would suggest changing BEFORE you get there.
My thanks to those I met, the NYRR (I'm a member, baby!), The Armory, and the wonderful race organizers for putting on a great event. The adrenaline rush was exactly the break from routine I needed to see 2010 with fresh eyes (and fresh legs!). I will see you again soon.