From its founding through my high school and college days, Millrose wasn’t at the Armory; it was held at Madison Square Garden, on a quirky, 180-yard, 11-lap-to-the-mile track known for its spongy surface—in his novel Once A Runner, John L. Parker Jr. said it was like green pound cake. But there was undeniable pageantry to racing at the Garden, in a meet broadcast live on NBC with commentary by luminaries like Frank Shorter (who, like all the other officials, wore a tuxedo). The meet had been held every year since 1908; in the early days, when you could still smoke at Millrose, officials simply asked spectators to extinguish their cigarettes before the last event, the Wanamaker Mile. And so, far above the runners getting in their last strides, clouds of smoke could be seen wafting to the rafters.
I was never fast enough to run in the high school mile at Millrose. I think you had to break 4:20 indoors, or maybe you just had to be asked. I still don’t know. And that’s probably why the race has always held such an allure for me. From my dorm room at Woodberry Forest, a boarding school in the Virginia countryside, I studied the great Millrose miles—Mike Starr’s dogfight with Miles Irish and John Carlotti, in 1983, when he controlled the entire race from the front, wildly accelerating and decelerating, refusing to let anyone pass him, holding off half a dozen challenges before sprinting home in a 57 second last 400; Eamon Coughlin’s string of Wanamaker victories, seven in all, that earned him the nickname “Chairman of the Boards.”
I was a couple years out of college the first time I actually went to watch Millrose, in 2011, the last year it was held at the Garden. Some college teammates met me there, including Andy Kifer, who later introduced me to NBR. We were glad to catch the final Millrose at the legendary venue. But it seemed to be a down year. The two mile was embarrassingly thin, the guys at the back of the pack hardly faster than we had been. Those were the wilderness years for American distance running, but had things really gotten that bad? Then came the Wanamaker Mile.
I still remember the fog spreading out from the tunnel, the strobe lights raking across the track, the procession of milers trotting out, waving to the crowd—Lee Emmanuel, David Torrence, Deresse Mekonnen, Bernard Lagat. The race wasn’t that fast by Millrose standards—it was won in 3:58—but it was almost operatic, the tension mounting with every lap. When Mekonnen outkicked Lagat, I could have cried.
We kept going to Millrose every year, Andy Kifer and I. Lagat never won again, but we were there a few years later when he set a world best in the 2000m—an obscure distance, sure, but it was still incredible to see him run a 3:57 mile en route, at age 41. And we were there that same afternoon when Alan Webb ran his last pro race, a 4:06 in the B heat of the mile, barely faster than he ran as a high school sophomore. It was an anticlimactic end to a career that never quite fulfilled its early promise, but it was nice to see him sign off on the same track where he’d first broken 4:00. Even the announcer, Ian Brooks, was the same.
Almost five years later, in December, I learned we could enter the Men’s Club Distance Medley Relay at Millrose. NBR is mostly a distance team, with people training for 5Ks and halfs and marathons (as you do in your late 20s and 30s and beyond), while the DMR consists of four short- and mid-distance legs: 1200, 400, 800, and 1600 meters. But we do have some speed on the roster. Jeff Poindexter ran a 49 second 400 in high school. A long time ago, sure, but still: 49. Ned Booth was running some crazy track workouts this fall. Conor Lanz had run a 3:42 for 1500m in college, the equivalent of a 4:00 mile. That was during the Bush Administration, I know, but he looked fit ... And we were living in the Ciaranaissance, a year of magical thinking when anything felt possible.
Now, there was reason for caution, too: Some research told me the field would be fast to quite fast: The New York Athletic Club and the Central Park Track Club both had Olympians in the mix, and a few teams could field sub-4:00 milers on their anchor legs. But we were getting faster, too, and I’m prone to impulsive decisions. So I wrangled some ringers for the 400 and 800 legs and entered us with a seed time that didn’t feel totally outrageous.
I’ll admit, riding the A train up to 168th Street on Saturday morning, I wondered whether I’d made a mistake. The start lists had been released, and NYAC had Brycen Spratling on the 400, a two-time Olympian and the American record holder in the 500m. Somehow the University of Pennsylvania was in the race—I hadn’t anticipated going up against college kids. And Tracksmith’s team—were these guys pros? I didn’t want to get lapped. By the time I entered the Armory through the green athletes’ doors on 170th Street (a first for me), I was praying we could just keep things respectable.
But as soon as the starter led us onto the track, I knew we would. NYAC had scratched, for one thing. But I also had confidence in our team. Although Greg Clark has been training for the 5k and the half, he stepped up to run the 1200 leadoff leg, and he ran it smart, going out in 2:07 for the 800 and holding on for a solid 3:14. Mike Larkin, who coaches with a former teammate of mine at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, was good for a 52 second 400, closing the gap between us and 7th place. Tom Selvaggi ran a strong 1:59 for the 800, catching two guys. (Tom’s a fifth-year senior at Stevens; I would’ve felt vaguely guilty about this had Penn not been in the race.)