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Posts Tagged ‘nick willis’

I started writing this post in September 2008 and never returned to it. Meeting Bernard Lagat, and then watching him win the Wanamaker Mile last month reminded me I had this half-composed in my drafts. I am posting it now, five months later, because I think the photos are cool. If you’d like some context, first read about my Fifth Avenue Mile, then about the professional Women’s Fifth Avenue Mile.

 

Soon after the women, the professional men stepped up to run in what would be the most exciting race of the day. The New York Road Runners gathered an amazing group of competitors for this event, truly outdoing themselves. Olympian Bernard Lagat finally accepting Mary’s invitation (after ten years of her asking!) to run his first-ever race off the track. Olympian Nick Symmonds, New Zealand Olympian (bronze medalist in the 1500 meters) and U of Michigan alumn Nick Willis, Canadian Olympian Nate Brannen, and track star Chris Solinsky were also all in the mix.

I felt a little bit like a lurking papparazzi before their heat, as I hung around behind the start line to watch them warm up and stretch out.  I took a few quick snapshots, but then went back to the fences to grab my spot to watch the start.  I got a picture of Symmonds stretching, Lagat striding regally through the staging area with Nate Brannen behind him, and (awkwardly and inadvertently) Solinsky doing a farmer’s blow (trust me, I was not trying for that photo).

(This part of the post is being written now, in February 2009.) Most spectators understandably want to be at the finish line, to see who wins. I get it; I always regert not seeing the final push towards glory. But, when you watch from the starting line, you get to spend more time observing the elites, noticing their quirks, how they stay relaxed and focused. I like that part of the race, when it’s just maximum potential and a giant question mark. Because we all know, that even though the gun hasn’t yet fired, the line up and the wait for “Go” is very much part of the race. The press corps swirls around for a little bit (even Flotrack gets access), but then it’s just the racers, left to toe the line across Fifth Avenue, between the runner’s paradise of Central Park and the classic mansions of the Upper East Side.

And then there they are, at the “Set,” crouched, poised, ready to burst out with arms swinging and chests up. How quickly they disappeared down the avenue!  All of us on the sidelines whipped our heads around, hoping to see who had the lead at the outset. But really, who could tell, and what would it matter in a little less than four minutes? It all could change within inches of the tape.

If ever there was a race when I should have opted to wait at the finish line, this was it. By now it’s been well documented, and you all know the outcome (Willis beat Lagat by one-tenth of a second, in what was Lagat’s first-ever road race), including the Epilogue, where Lagat beats Willis at the Milrose Games. Mary Wittenberg said it was the best Men’s Fifth Avenue Mile the New York Road Runners have ever hosted. I was there, but I wasn’t an eyewitness.

I walked down to the finish line, where I stuck around for the awards ceremony. That’s when I learned for the first time what a happy and humble guy Bernard Lagat is, and when the cute Nate Brannen, third-place finisher, hit my radar. Finally, I tore myself away–I remember what a warm and sunny day it was, and how healing it felt for me to be soaking it up–and headed home on the N train from the southeast corner of Central Park.

(Nate Brannen is the last guy on the right. He trains with Nick Willis, but runs for Canada. His website is cool (especially when you consider that most pro runners don’t even have one), and he blogs every now and then. Check out his post on the Fifth Avenue Mile and his most recent update, in which he discusses how he trains during recovery from plantar fasciitis, including a tempo run on the Alter G treadmill.)

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Work was intense last week, and left me feeling razed to the ground by the time Friday afternoon finally deigned to show up. I pushed through one more project, hammering it out until 7 PM, my self-imposed pumpkin hour, at which point I shut everything down, grabbed my laptop and fled as if I were running for my life. 

I took the E train downtown to Madison Square Garden, got my ticket at Will Call, and finally allowed myself to thrill at the prospect of my first-ever track meet. I’ve watched meets on TV, but I’ve never seen racers compete live on the boards, or around an outdoor oval. So I was interested in the peripheral stuff (the pole vaulters doing their warm-ups; the relayers waiting off to the side, the way they break down and reconstruct the boards to create the course for the sprint and hurdle events) as well as simply seeing Kara, Shayne, Bernard and Nick do their thing live at the Millrose Games.

Decathlete Dan O’Brien was the emcee, and he seemed to do a good job. I enjoyed watching the boys’ mile, and the relay events. In both races the winner broke away into a wicked sprint for the last quarter mile. It looked like fun, flying around the banked track to break the tape. 

Then it was the NYRR Women’s Mile. The ladies took the field, springing around for a warm up lap. There she was, my girl Kara, with her long ponytail and her massive diamond engagement and wedding rings (I swear I could see them glint from where I sat). As far as races go, it was pretty boring. Kara defended her title by a large lead, finishing nearly 4 seconds ahead of Marina Muncan–no one really gave her any competition. I liked how, once she was done, she gave a high-five to her student escort–it was the same kid who escorted her to the start line at the marathon in November from the NYRR youth development program. 

Soon after this, the guy in the row in front of me struck up a conversation with me, and before I knew it he’d moved next to me and we were knee-deep in a debate about Alan Webb (Really Great, or Not So Great?) and yammering on and on about favorite elites, running websites, and pet peeves (why don’t the women self-tan their upper thighs if they are going to race in bumhuggers? Why do sprinters wear speed suits when Haile Gebrselassie can set world records in shorts and a singlet?). JPM’s track knowledge was greater than mine (he’d raced in college) but we were equally matched as far as enthusiasm. I’d expected to spend the evening watching the meet by myself, but ended up having a blast with a talkative, opinionated stranger. Cool! 

We watched Jenn Stuczynski win the pole vault; we watched the three shot putters who had won the crowds and the medals in Beijing last year (they pumped us up again, busting out song after song by AC/DC). I thought it looked like a blast to be one of the sprinters who got to smash into the padded wall at the end of the starting-linedashes, boof! They trotted out the oldies, including Eamonn Coghlan, who was on hand to see if Lagat would tie his record seven Wanamaker wins. JPM rattled off athlete PR’s and world records; it was like having a personal factotum, a direct feed of track trivia. 

Finally it was time for the Wanamaker. I was divided; I couldn’t decide if I should root for Bernard or Nick. Mostly I wanted Bernard to defend his title, win his seventh Wanamaker, and redeem his second-place finish at the Fifth Avenue Mile against Willis; but a smaller, slightly mean part of me wanted Willis to win again, to become Lagat’s unbeatable rival. As they raced around the track, I got the chills. These men were beautiful runners, so smooth. Willis in particular–even though Lagat was in the lead, Willis’s movement looked especially effortless. Ah, it was gorgeous. With two laps to go (it was eight laps to the mile), Willis made his move and took the lead, only to be smacked down by Lagat in the final lap. It was almost as if he was racing a child, the way he just turned on the jets and put Nickie right back in his place (second, that is). After all my waffling, I was glad Lagat won (by a little less than one second). It was an historic win, and besides, how could I root against a man who had shook my hand?

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That’s right. Kara will be here this week to defend her title for the Women’s Mile at the Millrose Games on Friday Night. You know I’m going to be there, cheering at Madison Square Garden.

Also making an appearance: the humble Bernard Lagat for the Wannamaker Mile, revisiting his duel from last Fall’s Fifth Avenue Mile with Olympian Nick Willis of New Zealand, and trying for his seventh win in the event. (An aside: I like Nick Willis’s attitude an awful lot, but the third-place finisher of the Fifth Avenue Mile, Nate Brannen, I think is kind of cute.)

Also, a BIG FAT THANK YOU to LW, who forwarded me an announcement from Facebook that Kara and Bernard are going to be present at a Q&A after a group run out of New York Running Company’s Upper East Side location on Thursday evening (January 29th). You know I’m going to be there, trying not to make a total dork of myself by blurting out a marriage proposal to either/both of them.

Here are the details:

Learn from the best after getting in your own 3- or 5-mile training run with RUN NYC. Training run will depart NY Running Co.’s Upper East Side location (1059 Third Avenue between 62nd & 63rd Streets) promptly at 6:30pm; athlete Q&A will follow.  RSVP now to news@runnyc.org.

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