This year the Fifth Avenue mile was run on Sept. 23, the day Hurricane Hugo was supposed to blow through New York City. Everyone involved with the race was concerned with which direction the wind would be blowing. Since the mile is run in a straight line south, from 82nd Street to 62nd Street, the wind could make a very big difference. At a press conference, I heard race director Fred Lebow say, "If it's blowing from the north, we could see a world record. If it blows from the south, we could see the slowest mile ever run."
I couldn't help wondering if the latter would be the case no matter what Hugo did. Three days earlier, an SI editor had talked me into entering the race and writing an account of how running a straight-line mile differs from running the same distance on a 400-meter oval. I was to be a lab rat.
There have been times when I would have loved to run a mile as potentially fast as this one. In 1973, for example, when I ran a 4:11.9 while anchoring a team from The Lawrenceville (N.J.) School that set a national high school record for the indoor distance medley. Or in 1984, when, after years of road racing, I returned to the track and lowered my personal best to 4:11.2.
But I am not the runner I was in 1984. The difference can be measured in any one of three ways: years, miles and pounds. I am 34 years old and have not run a competitive mile in five years. I run 30 miles a week; I used to think nothing of doing 60, 70 or more miles, some of them fast intervals on the track. Finally, though my running habits have changed, my eating habits haven't. I weigh 185 pounds, 30 more than when I was running well. One of my coworkers describes me as the "fattest thin person" she has ever met. But maybe I would surprise myself. Besides, I had an assignment. So I wangled my way into the Men's Metropolitan Mile, which is made up of local college and former college runners.
Since I had never run a straight-line mile, I decided to get some advice. I sought out John Walker, the 37-year-old New Zealander who in 1975 became the first person to break 3:50 for the mile. Walker has run every Fifth Avenue mile since the event began in 1981, winning in 1984. "Any advice for someone running this thing for the first time?" I asked Walker.
"Wait," he said.
Hmmm. For what? The M-4 bus? A gypsy cab? A year? I asked my laconic mentor if he could explain a bit further.
"Wait as long as possible," he said. "On the track, you sprint the last 200 meters. Here, you'll want to sprint the whole last half mile."
Walker was alluding to the single topographical oddity of the course, the uphill stretch from 74th to 71st streets. The hill is neither steep—it has a slope of about 2 degrees—nor long, maybe 250 yards. The problem is not the hill, but the way the finish line bursts into sight at its crest. Experienced runners know what you do upon spotting the finish: sprint like mad. Such a reflexive reaction is suicidal in this mile because the top of the hill is still nine blocks—almost half a mile—from the line.
I woke up on the morning of the race praying for a tail wind. That was my only chance of running a respectable time, which I had decided, during a midnight tussle between fantasy and reason, would mean something around 4:45. If I could run that, who in years to come would be cruel enough to remind me that gale force winds had blown me to a respectable finish?
At the Fifth Avenue mile it's traditional for each of the fields for the eight races to be introduced to the crowd at the finish line and then to jog up Fifth Avenue to the starting area. I took this as an opportunity to size up the competition. They were, for the most part, a scrawny bunch. The only other "big" runner in my 17-man pack was Mike Gaughran of West Paterson, N.J. When he saw me, he did a double take. "Hey!" Gaughran exclaimed. "Somebody who weighs more than me!"
At the staging area on 79th Street, I continued to jog around to warm up. Suddenly it dawned on me that every one of the other runners—even the kids in the two high school races—was eyeing me. I knew what they were thinking: Check that gut; how did this guy get into the race? I spent the next 30 minutes tightening my stomach muscles and holding my breath.
At last, the Metropolitan Mile runners were called to the start. I lined up on the left-hand side of the line. Hugo had decided to leave New York City off his itinerary, and rather than a tail wind, we were faced with nasty gusts that swirled across the course. The gun fired, and for the first few strides I felt powerful and smooth. A hundred yards into the race, I sneaked a look over my right shoulder. No one was there. I sneaked a look over my left shoulder. No one. Uh-oh. This was going to be a long and lonely mile.
Then I caught myself checking the street signs. Another bad omen: The first one I saw read 80TH STREET. I had gone only a 10th of a mile, and already I was longing for the finish. The whole pack was five yards ahead, and I was beginning to feel tired. Maybe it was from sucking in my stomach for so long.
I fixed my eyes on the notorious hill ahead. I passed the first quarter mile in 65 seconds. The leaders, I later found out, had done it in 61.07. I hit the half mile mark, midway up the hill, in 2:17. The leaders were 70 yards ahead of me.
As I crested the hill, I could see the crowd down in the finish area. Lord, it looked soooo close. I checked my vital signs and decided that Walker could have saved his advice: I was in no danger of beginning to kick. The back of the pack was still close enough so that I could make out the number of its last runner—46. If he faltered, I might get close.
The next time I looked up, I understood how meaningful Walker's advice would have been—to someone else. Though it seemed I had been running for an eternity since I had first sighted the finish, it didn't look appreciably closer. I checked the street sign: 66TH STREET. I had almost a quarter mile to go. I passed three quarters in 3:35.
And number 46 was not cooperating. I was alone, 100 yards adrift. There was a smattering of sympathetic applause as I neared the finish. Now I was close enough to see the clock above the line. If I sprinted I might at least break 4:50. I missed by a couple of yards. My time turned out to be 4:50.50. I found out that far ahead of me there had been a great race. Brian Roche (best mile, 4 minutes flat) of New Rochelle, N.Y., had beaten Luis Nunez (best mile, 4:03) of Greenvale, N.Y., by .10, in 4:07.45. Gaughran ran 4:12.16, for fifth place. Next to last, about 100 yards ahead of me, was still number 46, who turned out to be Mark Pryor from the Bronx.
I hung around the finish line for a while, to watch the Men's Elite race. Despite getting knocked around by the vicious crosswinds, Peter Elliott of Great Britain pulled away over the final quarter to beat Abdi Bile of Somalia, 3:52.95 to 3:53.97. Walker finished seventh, in 3:57.33.
All of which would have seemed fairly routine had I not just run a straight-line mile for the first time. I limped home that chilly afternoon with a fresh sense of how hard it is to do something so simple so well.