Competing in the Millrose Games—the Oscars of Track & Field

In the winter of 2001, when I was 14, my mom showed me a story in the sports section of The New York Times. A senior from Northern Virginia had just become the first American high schooler to ever break 4:00 for the indoor mile. He did it at a track on 168th Street in Harlem—the Fort Washington Armory. His name was Alan Webb.

That race was a flashpoint for me; I’d started running cross country in the fall, but from that moment on I decided I was another breed of runner: a miler. I went out for indoor track the next year and just squeaked under 5:00 for 1600 meters. I was a world apart from Alan Webb, who was by then a freshman at the University of Michigan, but what I’d run felt respectable, too, in its own way.

Though I ran other events, at the end of a meet usually struggling through the two mile for a few points, I stayed focused on the mile. Racing it indoors, in particular, thrilled me; flying around those tight turns always heightened the drama. Then, sometime during my sophomore year, I became aware of the ultimate indoor meet, the Millrose Games, where the best high school, college, and pro runners gathered for a glamorous day of what looked like the Oscars of track and field. Even the name Millrose had such poetry: It was the Pennsylvania country estate of the meet’s founder, department store magnate Rodman Wanamaker (who was also, I learned, the first person to play the Star-Spangled Banner at a sporting event). It became my goal to one day run there.  

NBR’s Greg Clark at the start of his 1200 lead-off leg

NBR’s Greg Clark at the start of his 1200 lead-off leg

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.)

Alex Hoyt finishing the 1600m anchor leg

Alex Hoyt finishing the 1600m anchor leg

By the time I got the baton for the 1600m leg, we were suddenly in the race. Ned called splits—31.7 for the first 200 (too much adrenaline), 63 for the first 400 (still too ambitious). But by 800 I’d settled into a rhythm, going through in 2:09, and I caught a couple guys. Tracksmith’s anchor leg passed me on the last lap, but I managed to stay within a second of him, crossing the line in 5th out of 8 teams. We’d run 10:25, not too far off my seed time. And James Chu told me I’d split 4:19.8—faster than I ran in high school, close to what I ran in college. His training has rejuvenated me to an amazing degree, but still, I was shocked.

I stumbled upstairs to meet my friends Trish and Sam and Andy Kifer in the balcony, and for the next few hours, in a stated of blissed-out delirium, I watched heat after heat of races I otherwise would’ve ignored: the Suburban Boys High School 4x800, the Fastest Kid in the World 55 meters, the Mixed Master’s 4x400. Later in the afternoon, the real fireworks started, and it was the best Millrose I’ve ever seen. Donavan Brazier took down Johnny Gray’s 26-year-old American record in the 800, and Ajee Wilson followed suit in the women’s 800. Konstanze Klosterhalfen, a 21 year old from Bonn, Germany, soloed a staggering 4:19 in the women’s Wanamaker Mile. And in the men’s, Yomif Kejelcha ran a 3:48.46, missing Hicham El Guerrouj’s world record by a hundredth of a second.

But the race that captivated me most was, as always, the boys’ high school mile. A senior from Virginia took it out hard, going through 800m in 2:05. He’d been third last year, the announcer said; he seemed determined to win it now. And it looked like he would—he had a 20-meter lead at the bell. But in a blanket finish, three boys caught him at the line, all four of them running 4:09. Last place was 4:17, fast enough to win some years.

As a 32 year old, you don’t want to be comparing yourself to high schoolers. It’s not a good look. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t doing the back-of-the-envelope math from my balcony seat, thinking about whether I could get into the high school mile next year. Probably not. Not quite. But it’s nice to have another race on the horizon, even if it’s only the Men’s Club Distance Medley Relay.

And for four-odd minutes it was also nice to be transported back to the winter of 2003, lining up on the blue-gray indoor track of Fork Union Military Academy, going head to head with the great Kippy Keino, son of the gold medalist, just back from the Millrose Games. He was going to beat you, that was certain. But you were still growing, you were getting faster all the time. You might be able to close the gap in the season ahead. And that’s one great thing about running: You still can.