How many times have you set a goal, only to come this close? How many times have you asked yourself “What if?”
Yup, that was me on Sunday at the Continental Airlines Fifth Avenue Mile. It’s easily my favorite race of the year. Running down Fifth Avenue in New York City as fast as you possibly can is a unique thrill. It’s about 20 city blocks straight down one of the most storied stretches of one of the most famous streets in the world. And then after running yourself, you get to watch some of the world’s fastest milers—Olympians and World Champions among them—duke it out.
One of those milers is Bernard Lagat. I’ve seen him race at the Fifth Avenue Mile a few times now, and I also witnessed his historic eighth win in the mile at the Millrose Games. He’s a four-time World Champion and he owns Olympic silver and bronze. He also taught me a very valuable lesson at Sunday’s race.
The appeal of a mile race goes way back. As an American grade-schooler in the 1980s, I was brainwashed to believe that the mile is the ultimate test of both speed and endurance. Year after year in PE class, my school participated in the Presidential Fitness Challenge. We’d do sit-ups, pull-ups, sit and reach, shuttle runs, and, of course, the daddy of them all, the mile run. It was a day all of us kids psyched ourselves up for.
The last mile time I remember was in sixth grade. I finished in 7:21. As a competitive swimmer, I was pretty fit. But come junior high and high school, I never ran the mile. I had an ongoing knee problem that turned out to be a bone tumor. Running wasn’t in the cards for me for many, many years.
So when I finally had the chance to run the mile again at the Continental Airlines Fifth Avenue Mile three years ago, I jumped at it. In my first year, I finished in 7:42. After that, I made beating 12-year-old Karla my goal, which I did at my second Fifth Avenue Mile in 7:20.
This year, I wanted to go even farther. I wanted my time to start with a “6.”
And I came this close.
It was a fantastic day. New York Road Runners, for the second year in a row, asked me to sing the National Anthem before the start of the event, and again before the women’s and men’s professional heats. Singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a major event is every singer’s dream. And for me as a runner, getting to sing at a road race is about as good as it gets. It’s fun and nerve-wracking all at the same time.
After I sang the anthem to a large crowd of waiting runners who applauded warmly, I had to get ready for my own heat. Runners barrel down Fifth Avenue according to gender and age—women 15-29, men 15-29, women 30-39, men 30-39 and so forth, until the big two races of the day: the women’s and men’s professional field.
I didn’t have much time to psych myself up or out. Just on with my bib and on with the race.
Starting in the back of the pack, I tried to pay attention to the time I actually crossed the start. At the quarter mile, I guessed I was right on target. I lost about five seconds to a little hill, and then gained three back on the downhill. Going into the last quarter, I knew it was close, but I didn’t know how close. I saw my boyfriend screaming for me, having just run himself, and I triggered my kick, finishing in … 7:02.
I gasped for breath, chugged some water and felt the burn in my throat and chest—the burn that only comes from sprinting. I watched the other heats barrel into the finish as I coughed for a good hour, inwardly laughing at all the other runners I talked to who were also coughing. But I had to sing again, so I went to get some tea with honey.
I sat down, sipping my tea, and that’s when the “What if’s” started. What if I’d pushed just a little harder? What if I hadn’t started in the back and been forced to weave around slower runners? What if I’d warmed up more? What if I’d known I was so close? Maybe then I would have broken 7 minutes?
My boyfriend laughed at me. It’s hard to come so close and just miss, but it doesn’t really matter if I ran it in 6:59 or 7:02. I was just happy with besting my previous time by 18 seconds.
I headed back to the race, ready to sing the anthem for the pros who make this their living. I nearly bumped into Bernard Lagat as he headed for the bathroom. Does Bernard Lagat have “What if’s?” I wondered. Does Alan Webb? Does Sara Hall? They all ran that day. Did they walk away from the race saying “What if?” Maybe so.
I climbed the stage and sang for the pros—the women were on the starting line, the men were just behind it warming up. The crowd was much thinner at the start now that most of the spectators had made their way toward the finish. I watched the women’s start and then ran the mile again to make it to the finish in time to watch the men come in.
Lagat led at the 1500-meter mark heading into the final stretch, but he was unable to hold off a surge from Amine Laalou of Morocco. Laalou and Shannon Rowbury won, narrowly edging out Bernard Lagat and Sara Hall, respectively, who came this close. Surely they’d be berating themselves with “What if’s.”
But I saw the look on Lagat’s face. He was smiling his gorgeous smile, a genuinely jubilant grin. I seriously doubt he was pestering himself with alternate scenarios. He looked happy basking in the moment of a hard fought race and a second place finish.
I’m going to remember that look, and remember that smile. So what if? Win or no win, goal or no goal, so what? What was is what matters. And what was was fantastic.
Thank you, Lagat!
For the curious, here I am singing the national anthem before the professional races:
Karla Bruning is an award-winning journalist and running nerd. She has completed three marathons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at RunKarlaRun.com, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning. To listen to an interview with Karla, check out The Marathon Show, available for streaming or download on BlogTalkRadio and iTunes.