As I walked into the athlete warmup area of the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix on Saturday afternoon it quickly became obvious who was who: The high school kids stood out because they looked like, well, kids. The pros were easy to spot in their branded warmups and by the fluidity and focus with which they moved about the place. And then there were the dozen or so of us Masters milers in attendance, appearing, shall we say, a little more seasoned than everyone else in the room. I found an open spot along the back wall, got myself situated, said hello to a few people I knew, and sat there taking in the flurry of activity until it was time to start warming up an hour or so before my race.
Another lifetime ago, when I did this sort of thing with regularity on winter weekends, I’d go outside to warm up before an indoor race. Not on this day, however, as real-feel temperatures in Boston were well below zero. I decided to run loops (and loops and loops and loops) of the 130-meter warmup track alongside everyone else. After about 10 minutes I caught up to some of the other Masters milers (“What gave it away?” one of them joked, full well knowing the answer to his own question) and we all finished warming up together before checking in with the clerk thirty minutes before we were scheduled to take the line. At this point I thought we had 10 minutes before they were going to bring us down to the competition track but I thought wrong—we were going now. I hustled over to my bag and put on my spikes, hopped in the bathroom one last time, and caught the group as they were walking out the door and into the stairwell. As we stepped onto the third floor, where the track is located, the energy inside the arena was palpable. The Masters women were being introduced and the crowd was into it. I got goosebumps as we were led around the track into the athlete staging area. The officials brought us into a makeshift call room where we were given a laundry basket to discard our warmups. We were allowed to do strides on a practice straightaway behind the track. I find myself waiting for Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone to finish her acceleration before setting off on my own, trying not to be taken out by Grant Holloway, who’s coming at me from the other direction, all the while thinking, “Is this real life?”
Five minutes before we’re set to take the line officials let us onto the track to do a few more strides. As I head clockwise onto the back straight I hear friends call out my name from the stands. Heading back the other way, I spot my Dad about 15 rows up on the home straight and we exchange a wave. I fist-bump my old roommate and groomsman Omar, who is working on the infield. It all brings a big smile to my face. I’m home.
“Ninety seconds, gentlemen. 90 seconds!” an official informs us as we begin to line up across the track. The six of us competitors wish one another luck. Another official reminds us that there will be two commands, “On your mark and the gun. Good luck, gentlemen.” Over the loudspeaker, stadium announcer Geoff Wightman introduces each of us by name. The energy is pulsing through my body. I just need to contain it for another sixty seconds or so and then I can let it loose. “Do not false start,” I tell myself. The arena goes quiet. “On your mark!” Bang!
I get off the line quick and 25 meters into the race I’m in front. This is not where I want to be. I settle into my stride on the back straight and hope someone else takes over the lead. As we approach the 100-meter mark, Phil Stead, the reigning Masters national champion, finds his way around the pack and starts pulling the train. Brian McNamara and Peter Brady go past me on the home straightaway and as we complete the first lap I find myself boxed in, TJ Unger sitting behind me on my right shoulder. “Shit,” I think, assessing the situation. “I’ve got to get out of here.” The trouble is that TJ is on my ass, Peter’s sitting on Brian’s shoulder to the outside of Lane 1, and it’s going to be hard to get around him without causing a pile-up. Plus, my legs feel like shit. I decide to stay put. Up ahead I can see Phil pulling away with no one around him. I have no idea how fast we’re running but I know unless someone makes a move soon that Phil is going to be hard, if not impossible, to catch. Just after the start of the fourth lap Peter makes a hard move and goes around Brian on the turn. This is my chance to latch on but it’s too drastic of a shift for me. I’m still in fourth place. I wait until the back straight to pass Brian and catch up to Peter on the far turn. I tuck in, not wanting to waste precious energy by running extra distance, and tell myself that I need to get past him on the straightaway. As we approach three laps remaining I go around and move into Lane 1, taking over second place. Phil is maybe three seconds ahead of me at this point. I feel like I’m moving pretty well but I don’t know how many more gears I’ve got left and Phil doesn’t look like he’s slowing down all that much. With two laps to go I feel the pressure release from behind me and dig in a little more to try and reel Phil in. My legs are screaming at me to stop, right here, right now. “Go to your arms!” I tell myself, since my legs feel detached from my body.
It looks like Phil might be coming back to me little by little, but he still seems so far away. Coming up on a lap to go I hear the bell ring and the sound brings me to the tips of my toes. I’m flat out. Truth is I’ve been flat out for the last two laps at this point but I’m holding out hope that maybe, just maybe I can cover this final circuit a couple seconds faster than the previous seven. Spoiler alert: No chance. Heading into the back straight everything starts to lock up: shoulders, arms, back, booty. “Hold on, hold on, hold on” are the words on repeat in my head. With 100 meters to go I accept that I am not catching Phil and commit to doing everything in my power to make sure no one catches me. Less than 20 seconds later I’m across the line, pat Phil on the back, congratulate the guys behind me, and take a brief seat on the banked turn. I’m tingling from head to toe. It feels like there’s a campfire burning in my throat. My head is throbbing from the effort and I’m a little unsure of where to go from here. I want to die but this is the most alive I’ve felt in a long time.
As I walk off the track the final results flash up on the big screen: 1. Phil Stead 4:28.14; 2. Mario Fraioli 4:30.05; TJ Unger, 4:32.17. “Damn, just missed,” I say to no one in particular, in reference to both finishing second and breaking 4:30. I’m not upset. In fact, I’m smiling, wondering when I can do it again. I love indoor track. It’s intense. Exciting. Intimate. It was an honor to compete alongside these guys and I’m proud of the effort I put out. I made an early tactical mistake that dug me into a bit of a hole but I kept my composure, fought hard, and closed well. My last four laps were the fastest of anyone in the race, but in the words of my college coach, Karen Boen, I ran out of real estate. (Plus, after watching the replay, I think Phil had another gear in his back pocket if he needed to use it.)
After the race I did a short interview with Kyle Merber of The Lap Count before I went back upstairs to the warmup area to jog a few laps and grab my stuff. I cooled down alongside most of the guys I had just competed with, reliving the experience we shared and talking about where we’re all going to focus our efforts from here. It was a reminder of what I love most about this sport: the special kind of camaraderie that only competition can create. Just twenty minutes prior we were trying to kick one another’s asses—now, we were sharing miles, memories, and laughs, creating bonds that will last far beyond the finish line.