Destination race: A Tennessee law professor runs NYC’s Fifth Avenue MileHaskell Murray
Fifth Avenue Mile: Competition and Community
Negotiators are often told to “be hard on the problem, but be soft on the people.” Stated differently, compete to win, but be mindful of your community. Competiveness at its worst destroys community through jealously, cheating, and destructive obsession. Competiveness at its best builds community through teamwork, respect, and shared sacrifice. In my opinion, competition’s negative side is exposed most clearly when priorities are misplaced, when winning becomes the ultimate thing.
Knowing my history with the negative side of competition, I knew I would have to work to keep my priorities straight when I started getting more serious about running about two years ago. Even though I had run a few marathons, socially, before having a family, I quickly decided that I would not focus on long races this time around. Generally, I wanted to be able to get my running done in an hour or less a day, before my young children woke up. I desired to compete fiercely, even if on tiny amateur stages, but I also wished to respect my priorities and to avoid sacrificing community with those around me.
Choosing the Program and the Race
This thought process about competition, community, and priorities led me to Nick and Sierra Willis’ Miler Method. First, I thought I could train properly for a 1 mile race, within the limits I had set. Second, Miler Method seemed to make an effort to create an online community among the runners rather than having each runner pursue separate goals in solitude. Third, Nick had long been my favorite professional runner, in large part because of how he seemed to build and maintain community while still competing intensely. If you watch Nick race, you will see that he lays it all on the line and runs with a strong competitive fire. Yet, after the race, he is always among the first to congratulate his fellow competitors, hug his family, and spread the praise around. He is open about his faith, his struggles, and his love for his family, even when those things have led to some blowback online. He shares his knowledge with professionals and amateurs, and has been seen, even as an Olympian, pacing others in races that matter to them.
For my goal race, I chose the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York City. I chose this race primarily because my wife Katie and I had been meaning to visit our dear friends John and Pamela who live in NYC. I had learned about Miler Method many months before this race and was anxious to begin the boot camp, but I decided to wait for a camp that culminated at the same time as this race. Even though I intended to compete to the very best of my abilities, I wanted this trip and this process to be focused on community first.
I have written elsewhere about the Miler Method, so I will keep my comments on the boot camp brief. In short, the boot camp was an excellent experience. The training was varied, and, at times, difficult, but it generally did not take more than an hour a day. I ran early mornings and would occasionally pick up a few extra miles alongside my 4-year- old son on his bike or scooter. I also ran one day a week with my sister who lives in Nashville. Embarrassingly, running at her pace, about a minute slower per mile than my easy pace, felt like a real sacrifice, but the consistent time with her was well worth slowing down.
Additionally, the boot camp did, in fact, form a nice, supportive online community. I was pushing hard to break 5 minutes in the mile, which I knew would be aggressive with my adult personal record of 5:11 and I was really discouraged by a disappointing 2:26 800 meter time trial during the middle of the boot camp. All the race predictor calculators suggested that sub-5 was not going to happen, but I stuck with the goal, hoping fresh legs and competition would help.
Our trip from Nashville to New York City was necessarily short because I did not want to miss teaching any classes at Belmont University. We left after my last class on Friday dismissed at 11:50 a.m. and arrived in New York City in time for dinner. We stayed with John and Pamela in their beautiful Upper West Side apartment, and they cooked for us the first night.
Saturday morning, John went to work, Katie and Pamela went to get pedicures, and I jogged to midtown get my race packet at the New York Road Runners’ (“NYRR”) office. The NYRR’s space was quite nice, with memorabilia and a timeline on the wall.
There was no big expo, as you often see at the packet pickup for marathons, but there also was no line. The blue tech New Balance shirt is already a staple in my running shirt rotation. The shirt is simple, made from quality, breathable material, and fits well. After picking up my number, I jogged a few more blocks to the Sheraton at Times Square to meet Nick and Sierra and a few other boot campers, including Darragh, who was in my age group wave, for a coffee in the lobby. We visited, Nick gave us some last minute instructions, and then I jogged back to the apartment. Katie, John, Pamela, and I ate a low-key lunch and spent time at nearby parks. For dinner, we went down to Greenwich Village for Brazilian food at Casa. I must admit that I thought – is this the best food to eat pre-race, are we going to stay out too late, is all this walking going to hurt my time? But I reminded myself that: (1) I am a hobby jogger, and (2) while I definitely want to compete, community is ultimately much more important.
My race wave started at 9:50 a.m., but Nick suggested a pre-warmup warmup, so I went out for about a mile jog around 7:00 a.m. before returning to the apartment for breakfast. John and Pamela went to church, and I set off around 8:50 a.m. to jog across Central Park to the start line. I looked at a map on my phone before I left and saw that I could cut straight across the Park at 86th street. Carelessly, I entered the park between 85th and 86th and did a U-loop back to the west side, around 77th street. Once I realized I was back on the west side, I panicked. Thankfully, I quickly found a resident New Yorker who was running the race as well and led me, albeit in a relatively roundabout fashion down around the lake, to the east side start on 5th Avenue. This is all fairly embarrassing because only 7 years ago I lived in New York City. My sense of direction has never been very good, and this is one of the reasons I left plenty of time. As it was, a planned 1.5 mile warm-up turned into 3.7 miles. I took a last minute restroom break, did a few strides, and was ready to go.
Before the race, Nick had posted 21 Things on Kyle Merber’s Mind During the New Balance 5th Avenue Mile. I admit to having a much less active mind during the race. I appreciated knowing that the race was slightly downhill, then slightly uphill, then slightly downhill, then flat. I was in the second or third row of my heat, but still had to dodge a bit, and watch my footing, at the start. The main thing I kept thinking during the first half of the race was – “Relax! But don’t relax too much!” The hill around halfway was not big, but it was still tough in a race this short and fast. The hills we had done in training definitely helped, and the downhill that followed more than made up for the incline at halfway. Once the road flattened out, with about 400 meters to go in the race, I couldn’t feel my legs. I swung my arms faster to force the pace. The clock came into view, and I could tell I was going to break 5 minutes. I didn’t get my exact time as I crossed, but I later found out it was 4:52. (Note: the course is slightly net downhill, but it doesn’t appear to be more than a few seconds fast).
At the finish, I saw Darragh from the Miler Method boot camp. He won our age group of over 600 runners, in an impressive 4:33. Even as competitive as I am, I was genuinely excited for him and inspired by his hard work. My wife Katie made her way over to me after the finish. She was beaming, knowing how much I wanted to break 5. Katie and I walked to Ella’s for brunch, went back to the apartment, and then jogged back to see the pros race. Shortly after watching Nick win the entire race, we caught a car to LaGuardia Airport and returned to Nashville. Nick messaged “4:52!!!! Congrats mate.” The message came so quickly after his win that Nick must have still been fielding media requests. Nevertheless, he still took the time to remember a guy that he had just met in person the day before. I loved watching the results pour in from our fellow boot campers, mostly happy, some disappointed, but all determined to improve.
While my competitive nature has often led to selfish action, I am encouraged by Nick’s positive example, and by the example of many others in the running community. In June, for instance, I had the privilege of watching Gabe Grunewald race the 1500 at the Music City Distance Carnival, running tough just days after chemo. And then we all saw the running community, who Gabe has inspired her entire career, rally around her. Even more recently, we were reminded that David Torrence consistently paired racing with reckless, competitive abandon and giving back to the running community. David Torrence’s life was remembered, emotionally, during the men’s elite Long Island Mile, which was named for him. The competitors ran hard, through the driving rain, to honor “DT” and the sport. For a long time, I thought that competition required ignoring or trampling those around you, but I am slowly learning, through the example of others, that fierce competition, when properly contained by character, can help build strong community.