The shortest race of the 30@30 campaign is in the books!
It was a fun event that I got to share with friends and a running celebrity. I’m pleased and surprised by the result given my current fitness level. Check out the recap play-by-play and race video below!
1) Break 5:45 (✓)
2) Break 5:40 (✓!)
3) Make the last 400m (2 laps) my fastest (✓)
The race was part of the New York Road Runners’ “Thursday Night at the Races” series and took place at the world-famous (in the track world, anyway) New Balance Armory in New York City, commonly considered one of the fastest indoor tracks in the world.
The banked track is 200m – standard indoor track length – half the size of a standard outdoor track. Just over eight laps to a mile.
My father and I arrived around 6:15pm and I was smacked right in the face with a wave of nostalgia. A good chunk of my winter Saturday’s in high school were spent camped out at the Armory for day-long high school track meets. Generally, these are not good memories. I’d spend an entire day nervously stretching, fiddling with my walkman, reapplying deodorant, and fighting for warmup space in the crowded hallways only to race for what I hoped would be not much more than 50 seconds.
We found some good seats and I eventually got checked-in and oriented. The racing environment made me immensely nervous. I began warming up when Terence arrived – that immediately calmed me down.
But my nervousness ramped up once again when we were given a chance to warm up on the Armory track. The banked track is steeper than I remembered – your outside foot really feels the angle of the track at a slower speed. As I stepped off the track just before the women’s mile heats were slated to begin at 7pm, someone yelled “Jake!” from above. Kelli Buck had come to cheer me on!
I lit up at the sight of an unexpected friendly face and went up to the stands to see Kelli and suit up.
Kelli, Terence, my father and I watched the women’s heats until Terence and I had to go and get our heat information for the men’s races. Based on our provided seed times, Terence (5:15) was Heat 5 while I (5:35) would race a few minutes later in Heat 6.
Sidenote about seeding: You generally want to seed yourself slightly faster than you can realistically race. It’s a common tactic and a bit of a silly game that track runners tacitly collude to promulgate. Based on my recent 5K time of 19:57, my expected mile time was about 5:59. However, as I discussed with Coach Matt, I was reasonably confident that I could run close to 5:45 for just one mile, as this conversion is a raw mathematical calculation that doesn’t account for individual running strengths (e.g. a sprinter running longer distances). I didn’t think 5:35 was in my wheelhouse, but I wanted to be pulled by a fast group.
The men’s heats began at 7:30pm.
After intentionally warming up in my Brooks Launches, I threw on my new Hyperions (thanks Hen!) and felt much lighter. Terence and I watched the first men’s heat from the stands (everyone broke 4:30) and then headed down to the track.
As the heats progressed from heat 2-4, I got progressively nervous. I downed a pack of Fruit Run Gum 10 minutes before the race, hoping for a caffeine boost. My quads felt heavy, my hamstrings felt tight, I felt short of breath.
I had forgotten just how stale the air in the Armory tastes. It was common in high school to complain about the effect of the air, but it’s entirely psychosomatic, of course, as the track is often host to world record performances. If something like the air quality doesn’t effect the performance of the world’s top athletes, then it clearly doesn’t matter. And it especially doesn’t (physiologically) matter for someone like myself… though one’s perception of their effort and physical strength has a ton to do with running performance. Reminding myself that far better runners had succeeded there despite the “air” helped assuage that concern.
By the time Terence was up in Heat 5, I had fully regressed to my nervous high school self. I felt unprepared, nervous, and nauseous. I bounced around in place.
However, there was one noticeable difference: anonymity. Not only did I have little at stake besides my pride, but none of my competitors knew me. Not that years ago I was some high school stud that walked around with a target on my back at every meet, but the expectations and gaze of other competitors was much more profound when I was more competitive. Here, nobody knew me. If I raced terribly, nobody knew me. If I raced amazingly, nobody knew me. There was a certain liberation in that.
Not having raced on a track since college, I had forgotten how quickly things move once your heat is called.
As soon as the last runner in Heat 5 crossed the line and exited the track, our section was called up. It was a monstrous section with 19 runners. In a race this large, the lower seeds (11-19) are expected to California Start.
For the uninitiated, a California Start is a special start that occurs during large distance races on the track. When there are too many runners in a given race to ensure that everyone can start with enough space on start line, a small group of runners is told to start the race a few feet out in front – but to compensate for this slight advantage, these California Start runners start the race in the outer lanes and must stay in these outside lanes through the first turn on the track. After the first turn, these runners can cut into lane one and rejoin the rest of the group. Being in the outside lanes, they have to cover a slightly longer distance than those who can cut inside to lane one right away. In the end, the distance averages out to a mile. The general idea is to space out runners at the start so as to minimize injury risk and give everyone enough space to start.
The race official saw the size of our heat and asked me (#12) and runner #11 to move off of the California start and rejoin the 10 runners on the main starting line…. only there was no space! Instead, we had to start behind the ten other runners on the starting line. An immediate disadvantage. Fun.
The gun fires, loudly. Off we go.
The race itself was somewhat of a blur. My focus was on finding a reasonable pace and going with the flow for the first 800m (four laps). The first lap (200m) in an indoor mile is always somewhat of a wash – you’re just getting in rhythm. Feeling pretty good after that lap, I decided that I would try to hold my current speed (what seemed about 42.5 seconds for the first lap) and pass people on the straightaways if I could. I was behind a lot of the field but I thought I could catch a few of them.
If I got close to someone, I’d pick up the pace just enough to pass them, then settle in. Rinse, repeat. The strategy… worked pretty well! I was able to advance a bit and felt like I was probably on pace to get near 5:40.
One unexpected phenomenon was just how clearly I could hear the race announcer and spectators during the race. Indoors, it’s usually quite loud, but with minimal crowd and a loud mic, I could hear quite well at my pace. Sprinting, you can hardly hear a thing. But at a measly 41 seconds/lap, you can catch quite a bit.
With 400m (2 laps) to go, I knew I was in decent shape. I’ve run many 400s on this track before. Now I just needed to set myself up for a strong finishing kick….
I passed one runner coming off the turn and maintained pace. I wanted to have some real power in the last lap so as not to get passed by any late surges.
With 160m to go, I decided to go for it. I passed one runner on the back straightaway and feeling good I chased down another. Powering through the curve with 60m to go, I glanced at the clock and saw 5:18… sub-5:30 was in reach. I got up on my toes and drove for the line, passing another runner with 15m left.
Check out the race:
5:28! Did not see that coming! I finished 4th/19 in my heat and my time was good for 76th/114 overall. Much better than expected!
My splits were pretty solid and consistent throughout:
The first lap was a bit slow due to my starting position and the commotion. After that, I settled in to average around 41.5 for the next six laps. The final lap was moving.
Stat of the night: The final lap split of 34.452 was the single fastest lap run by anyone outside the top three heats! Still got those sprinter instincts.
Dazed and relieved, I sauntered around before returning to the stands to change shoes and cool down. Terence and I jogged for 10min before heading off to watch the fun 10K relay that was going on.
The highlight? Eamonn Coghlin was running. Nicknamed “The Chairman of the Boards”, Coghlin was arguably the greatest indoor runner ever. Eamonn won the Milrose Wannamaker Mile seven times and set the indoor mile WR multiple times, becoming the first man to break 3:50 indoors. Later, he became the first person over 40 years old to break four minutes in the mile. The 65-year-old could have easily passed for 35. The man was insanely fit and reeling off 200m laps in 26 seconds. It was absurd.
We headed home and my legs felt tired but not too bad. Given that I still feel far away from ideal racing weight and not yet rounding into form, I was very pleased with the result. Certainly the best race I’ve ever run at the Armory. Hopefully, not the last.
Thanks SO much to my father for coming along, Terence for running, and Kelli for trekking up to run (and film!).
Next race: Leprechaun 5K on March 17th. Join me if you’re in DC!