North Brooklyn Runners: A Community Running Group Serving Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Beyond!

NBR Member Profiles – Iman Wilkerson by northbrooklynrunners
April 10, 2012, 3:38 pm
Filed under: Members

NBR Profile No. 9

Rodrigo Toscano talks with IMAN WILKERSON

Iman Wilkerson had an NBR encounter of the close kind sometime in June 2010 (at around the time of the going away party for Matt Decker and Owen Kendall), but she didn’t actually morph into the alien blob until December of that year. The running club she belonged to at the time was Urban Feet (“a club that used the excuse of running to get together and drink”). Todd Zino, it turns out, had blobbed into the goo some months before, a joyous liquefaction that would soon juice both Kurt Cavanaugh and Iman into the sacred soup.

Iman hails from a small town in North Carolina. She went to college in Raleigh, transferring to NYC about nine years ago.  From her elementary school until her sophomore year in High School, she played basketball. She placed 1st in several high school 400-meter meets. Since running with NBR, she’s PR’d no less than five times (in the 4 mile, 10k, 10 mile, half marathon, and full marathon). She placed 1st in the PPTC 5k (earning her not a Van Cortland Park 5k tasty carrot cake, but a PPTC brushed aluminum medal) and got a 2nd place (6th overall female) in the Queens Half Marathon. She also had it seriously out for the 5th Avenue Mile – and dropped a 5:21 PR!

Iman usually tries to attend the Thursday night speed workouts (“hurdling over tots, dodging soccer balls falling from the sky”), but, for the moment, she’s chosen to forego other North Brooklyn runs that require gliding over underground oil spill plumes while inhaling polyurethane off-gassing breezes; instead, she runs with the JSONB (“Just South of North Brooklyn”) crew in Prospect Park, delectating in the oxygen-rich fog of the last remaining primeval forest on Long Island.

RT: Greetings Iman! Your race times have been advancing by leaps and bounds in all sorts of races—the mile, 5k, 10k, half and full marathons. You’ve been on a PR-busting upswing for some time now. I’ve been really wanting to ask you, what kinds of workouts do you think have rocketed your steady advance? Is there one workout in particular that has really paid off for you?

IW:  You know, I came into this group totally inspired by the fast women who run with NBR (as well as those running under NYAC and Athena). 2011 was the year I wanted to prove to myself that if I actually trained then maybe I could turn into a decent runner. In the past years since I’ve run NYRR races, I trained very little and pretty haphazardly (impressing myself with what I could do if I didn’t try!) But 2011 year was different. I was curious to know in what way I could succeed if I pushed myself to train towards something.

I am still (for my ideal, at least) too inconsistent with my training. The only constant in my workout routine has been speed work on Thursdays. I try not to miss it. The speedy runners that attend really push me, and of course, the evil twin coaches (Jen and Linda) who come up with the evil twin workouts, motivate (scare) me past my comfort zone. And that’s what I can attribute to my upswing in performance.

RT: I was recently reading an interview with an elite runner from Ethiopia, and he was saying that when he does his hill workout (what he described as his hardest), he “thanks” the hills over and over for their sheer existence, for their mass, their steepness, for their “gifts” in making him a strong runner. And I really found that attitude quite inspiring. I thought, yeah! Reverse the “dread.” Thank the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg Bridge on the way up!

You know, even some of our most experienced racers go to the “track workout” (notice it used to be called “speed work” on the webpage—smart switch, eh) with some dread. It’s like they hope a light aircraft might suddenly have to make an emergency landing on the track, thus bringing the night’s planned activities to a swift conclusion. This, though our track leaders have said time and time again, “run at your own pace, challenge yourself as much as you need to.” In reality, nobody gives a turkey’s dropping as to what you’re doing, nobody is going to question or criticize you in any way.

But I have a theory as to the origins of this dread. In order to complete the set workout one has to choose paces that are achievable. For example, what’s the point of a sequence like this: 4 * mile; 1st mile 5:45 / 2nd 5:45 – bonk at 800 / sit out for 5 minutes / 3rd mile 5:55 / 4th 6:10.  You get what I am saying? Maybe this runner should have settled for 6:05’s. Maybe the dread is having one’s vanity reeled back in by one’s actual ability. So I really love your dedicated (thankful) attitude towards the track.

When you say, “becoming a decent runner,” do you have particular benchmarks in mind?  Like, going over 70% in your age group can be considered an achievement already; hitting the mid 70’s even more so; and in some races, approaching 80%—spectacular. Are you competitive with just yourself, or against others? Or both?

IW: I wish I read that interview before running the NYC Marathon, because I would have praised the hell out of the Queensboro Bridge! Certainly one of my least favorite parts of the marathon, it is probably one of the most challenging bridges to run on.

I still consider myself somewhat of a novice when it comes to mid-long distance running, and when I decided to become “decent,” I had no concept of how fast is fast (for me). At the Central Park races I just studied the divided corrals at the starting line, each indicating who was competitively faster than the corral directly behind them. But in terms of times for a non-professional competitive arena—I had no idea. So I guess my initial benchmark was to move up in corrals and lower my pace times.

I am very competitive. When I’m on the starting line, I size people up, I look for someone who might give me a good race; but at the same time, I keep going back to Janet “Mittsy” Turley’s quote, “my main rival is becoming my ability.” When I run, I envision that I am chasing a faster version of myself who is only a few strides ahead of what I’ll never catch up to. So at the end of the race, it’s about me against my goals, regardless of whom I pit myself up against at the start.

RT: I like that. Hot on the heels of one’s double. But who among our esteemed colleagues do you most want to escort to the woodshed? :)

Which brings up a point—an off-point, to be exact. Given that most of our club is made up of sub sub-elite runners (awesome runners to be sure, compared to your typical weekend runner), where nobody is dedicating their entire lives solely to the pursuit of running, the question then becomes how do people integrate this physically and psychologically demanding activity into their varied lives? We often talk about what we do for running, but what does running do for us? What does running do for you?

IW: I’m not going to point to one person in particular, but I respect the leading women on our team and I look at their success as a guide for my own. I mean, Jen ran a 1:24:20 in the NYC half and Anna ran a 3:04:10 in the NYC marathon! I aspire to run as fast and along side these ladies one day. I hope in the upcoming running season, as we all get faster we can all push each other to run great races.

Life without running was getting to be pretty uneventful. As adults who work long hours, there are few opportunities that allow us to set goals and push ourselves outside our mundane routine of waking up, going to work, maybe post-work happy hour, and then sleep. I needed a change and I wanted to be challenged outside of that routine, and to test my limits of what great things I could personally accomplish. We, as runners, do extraordinary things on the road, trail, and track that most people wouldn’t even attempt to do. We are determined individuals who preservere through the stress of training and set backs despite the pain we may have endured, but we find strength through all that to continue. I think that’s a characteristic that ties us together as runners.

The other day I was riding the subway and an orthodox Jewish man was sitting next to me and admired some of my sketches of a runner in my notebook, and from there we talked the entire ride about running, past races, training, routes, and injuries. I loved that it was our common love of running that had become the bridge to connect our different cultures.

New York is made up of so many serendipitous events where one seemingly insignificant moment leads to a life-changing event. Actually, it’s the way I got into organized running. I briefly met someone at a business-networking event who introduced me to my first 5k race at Van Cortlandt Park. I hadn’t trained for a 5k, I didn’t know how many miles a 5k was. I didn’t know how hilly VC was going to be. The result was that it sucked; I shuffled in at around 30 minutes. I was winded, and I felt so unprepared. I felt like I could do better. The next year I did, I lowered my time and came in top 3 a few times and won my age category. This lead me to research local running clubs, and eventually lead me to run my first marathon, the 2010 NYC marathon, which I never in a million years thought I could do.

But running has also given me injuries, frustrations and disappointments. In 2009, I DNF’d (“did not finish”) the Brooklyn Half because I tripped and hyper-extended my knee on mile 7 that sidelined me for 5 months. I was devastated. I was on my way to completing my first 9+1 for the 2010 NYC marathon, and I was the strongest I had been since high school so I was afraid that all that hard work leading up to that moment would be wasted. But the upside of running is that it’s given me a new perspective on how I see myself and how I deal with life. As a whole it’s made me a better, stronger and much more patient person.

RT:  It’s interesting how running affects people in different ways. The “patience and strength” benefit I hear a lot. I’ve also on occasion heard how it makes some people acutely more impatient, both physically (like plowing through slow moving walkers, grumbling) and mentally (like feeling bestially intolerant towards conversationalists who meander).

Sometime back I discovered an unexpected benefit from running: articulation. I always try and throw in a good brisk run before any speaking engagement because by the time I get up on the microphone, I intone things so much better breath-wise, plus I seem to access tonalities I wouldn’t otherwise. I patiently play with those tonalities, and people are like, “did you rehearse that?” I answer “no,” which is the truth, but I should maybe also add that since I had just spent an hour or so being attentive to the flow of my mind & body, I’m feeling extremely in the moment.

Iman, switching channels here for a bit, thinking about public health, do you think it might be a good idea to make running a required subject in either primary or secondary education? I mean it. Running (not just “Phys. Ed”) ranging from study of the physiology of the heart, to muscular-skeletal anatomy, to running technique, and finally, to the history of running. I feel strongly about this. I believe that we, as Homo sapiens, have been in a general slump for at least 5, 000 years now.

IW: I agree with you, we have been in a slump. When I look at people today and see the majority of the population is obese, I think our skeletal bodies are not meant to carry so much weight; we are not meant to be this sedentary and certainly diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease would be lowered/prevented if we incorporated and heavily promoted running in our lifestyles like some indigenous cultures in Africa and South America.

Not to be the cliché ‘Shit Runners Say’ runner, but have you read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall? I heard about it in passing early last year, but when I was cast to be in a photo shoot for his article in the NY Times, I was asked to run barefoot. I hadn’t run barefoot outside since I was a child. At the time I was struggling through an Achilles injury, but as soon as I pushed off to run, my feet adjusted to the surface and there was a lot less stress on my Achilles and I ran with ease. When the article came out I had to read what this author was preaching and then bought his book. I’m not trying to advocate barefoot running at all because I still run in shoes, but McDougall writes about the anthropology of running which makes you realize that with all this technology we may be counter-evolving and that we should apply a basic understanding of how we got to be great runners through technique and form.

RT: Last year, I saw McDougall standing outside of Word bookstore in Greenpoint across the street from where I live. He had just given a talk on his book, and I thought about walking up and engaging him on all things “sapiens.” But he was temporarily mobbed by a tight group of fawners who blocked my path. I hate elbowing people. But, I did catch a glimpse of the gentle giant wearing his humble huaraches. I wanted to add the factor of global degraded labor conditions to the equation of evolutionary setbacks.

Coming back to your injuries. You, my friend, are worrying more than a few people on this team, including me. Some weeks back you and I ran a Wednesday night road run (alongside NBR masters division’s Alun Williams and Ken Wieder) at more or less a 5-mile time trial speed (minus 5-10 seconds per mile). You were just coming off the NBR track meet; then shortly after our little heater you did Coogan’s 5k; then came the Red Hook Crit 5k; this weekend you’re doing the Cherry Tree 10-miler; and then—the Boston Marathon! And you tell me, “I’ll run some of these not all out.” Really? But won’t you—haven’t you run these races hard enough? What’s going on?

IM: I’m the sort of runner who runs low mileage weeks so I think this sort of regimen helps me keep loose for each race. I go by the mentality of “having my cake and eating it too.”  I sometimes want to do it all because I think I can—smartly though. Last year I ran the Brooklyn Half the week before the Vermont marathon; I didn’t think it was too much, if I ran each race well. And I did! I PR’d and time qualified for Local Competitive for the NYC marathon and I BQ’d (Boston marathon qualified) the next week, because I wasn’t trying to push my body past its limits and I gave myself realistic goals.

After the NYC marathon, I was in a lull with running. That marathon took everything that I loved about racing out of me and I lost motivation to train, even though these past months were the most ideal winter to train through. So I enrolled in a few races leading up to Boston to get back in the mindset for racing. I never ever expected that I would/ could run Boston, so I’m trying not to take this opportunity for granted.

RT:  Racing attitude is racing attitude; the guts for racing are best learned by racing. Got it! Honestly, I am suddenly pumped by your approach to running, and actually, it’s very NBR old skool.  There’s so many methods / philosophies / perspectives in this club, and not one of them has yet become any where near the official club approach to racing. Alley cats—is another way to put it!

So…now… that we’re on to cats, alleys, a thick 2-meter visibility fog, a mysterious chick in profile wearing a fedora hat under a dim yellow lamp sipping coconut juice at 5:30 a.m.—what’s the end result of all running?

IM: Gratification | pain.

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