Mile News

The Fast and the Curious

June 01, 2006

At New York City’s Fifth Avenue Mile in 2005, a middle-aged runner with big ideas wondered if he could hang with the elites. Then the gun went off.

By Robert Sullivan, Runner's World June 2006

I was an elite runner for a day, or more precisely, a faux-elite runner for a day. And even though I suffered physically and emotionally and in ways that I may only understand many years from now, I loved every moment.

It was a perfect September afternoon in New York City, and the Continental Airlines Fifth Avenue Mile ran from 80th Street to 60th Street on Fifth Avenue, or 20 beautiful and usually cab- and Mercedes-filled blocks. The actual elite racers were all very tolerant, if not nice, to me, but one big difference between me and the elite athletes running that day was that they had been training for the race, running all year, scheduling the event on their calendars months before. I, on the other hand, pretty much just showed up.

I had gotten a call a couple of days earlier from a running insider seeing if I might want to, well, run the men’s elite Mile in the Fifth Avenue competition. Now, as it turns out, the same day that the elites are running, there are Mile races for nearly every age group, from 20- to 29-year-olds to people 70-plus. You know, regular weekend-warrior types. But not thinking it through, I said, “Sure, put me in against the elite men,” because though I have never actually trained as a Miler, I have very actively imagined running a Mile really, really fast. I would be running the Walter Mitty position in the Fifth Avenue Mile, except that unlike Walter Mitty, I would not just be daydreaming a race with the fastest runners in the world but actually experiencing it, with ESPN cameras, with crowds watching, where, if I passed out, I might be trampled by elite Mile-running athletes or, depending on my time, the Fifth Avenue bus.

That day I was trying my best to look like a 20-something elite runner, not an easy act for an undersize, balding, 42-year-old father of two who hasn’t run a timed Mile since high school, much less trained for one. For the record, my credentials are as follows: Though I am not the worst runner in the world, I am way back from the best. I run five or six days a week, somewhere between five and seven miles, and if I really push it, I run around a seven- or eight-minute-per-mile pace, albeit for very limited distances. Like many nonprofessional runners in America today, my specialty is downhill. Not including the hair I have left, I weigh in at around 150 pounds, my weight and body and general health being the main reasons I run, as opposed to my competitive nature, which science has not yet developed tools sensitive enough to measure. As a runner, my goal is to stay alive while occasionally partaking in things like desserts and fermented hops.

I received my invitation on the Wednesday before the Saturday race and “trained” on Thursday, during my daughter’s soccer practice, though training turned out to be me running in circles around a field of soccer-playing 9-year-olds as fast as I could, my daughter shaking her head when I pulled up out of breath. I also attended a press conference on Thursday, at which reporters interviewed some of the fastest Milers in the world—such as Carrie Tollefson, Craig Mottram and Alan Webb—and not me. At the conference, the CEO and president of the New York Road Runners, Mary Wittenberg, said things that made me nervous, such as, “These runners are gonna cruise!”

I met Scott Raczko, the coach of Alan Webb, the 22-year-old favorite in the race, who’s best known for breaking Jim Ryun’s high school Mile record in 2001. Pathetically, I beseeched Raczko for advice on how I might proceed vis-à-vis training, given that I would be racing the fastest runners in the world in about 48 hours. “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” he said. I even met Webb. He seemed very focused—even just shaking hands he was beating me—and though he greeted me kindly, his body language said, “You’re kidding.”

But I was not, or not really. I was really going to give my best shot, and so, as I often do, I rested on Friday. At four in the afternoon, I went to an elite runner logistical meeting that the New York Road Runners hosted in a hotel suite. Prior to becoming a faux-elite runner, I did not know about logistical meetings. At logistical meetings, we elite runners talk to each other about past races and our flights coming in and, in one case, about how, except for me, a New Yorker, we couldn’t believe how many people are runners in Central Park, as opposed to, say, muggers. I talked to Webb’s father about New Jersey, a noncompetitive subject, and to the woman in charge of drug testing everybody, and caught myself hoping I would go so fast as to be accused of using steroids. As we sipped free elite-athlete bottled water, Sarah Schwald and Jason Lunn let me in on their conversation about training in the Rocky Mountains, where they take advantage of lower oxygen levels to prepare their lungs for the stress of running a Mile at high speeds. “Just relax,” Sarah said. “You’ll be fine.” I think she might have noticed that I was hyperventilating, the thought of lung-stressing stressing me out.

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