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?