Everyone a Track Star

IMG_0838One of the coolest parts about living in northern Manhattan is that I live just steps away from The Armory, an historic building that houses a raised and banked 200 meter mondo track where local college programs train and race, where NCAA track stars are born, and where big meets like the Millrose Games attract pros from not just around the US, but also around the world.

Being a track spectating neophyte, I prepared by reading Catnip’s guide to spectating, reading up on Allyson Felix and Molly Huddle and got super pumped when Shannon Rowbury announced she was going to try for a new American Record in the mile. These main events weren’t happening until later in the day, but I got there before noon to make sure I was there to watch the open events too. It’s lucky I did, because the highlight of my day came early, with the Women’s Masters 4×400 relay.

We Are Athletes' Vanessa Elbaum handing off to team anchor Karen Conkling
We Are Athletes’ Vanessa Elbaum approaching anchor Karen Conkling for the handoff

I love relays – having a team means more people have skin in the game, which means they scream louder! But it’s also exciting to watch a race change with each handoff. In this case the leading team in the 40+ division, Texas-based Southwest Sprinters, came in first with a truly impressive showing from their anchor.  But it was the women in red and white from the We Are Athletes team who gave me chills. They came in 6th place overall in masters but took first in the 50+ division with 5:01:22. These women were so. pumped. and it was awesome!

I spoke to runners Mary Lenzi (leg 2) and Karen Conkling (anchor) about how they got to run in a big event like Millrose. “Anyone can do it,” said Mary.  “We’ve been doing little 4x4s at USATF meets [at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island, New York] and coach said we could go to Millrose.” They kept working at their relay craft at these meets, practicing handoffs and strategy.

It struck me that it was so easy for them to make this happen and with road race participation at an all time high, it’s surprising that more of us aren’t taking to the track.

Samantha Edwards (Central Park Track Club) set on the blocks for the women's 400m.
Samantha Edwards (Central Park Track Club) set on the blocks for the women’s 400m.

Is it the cost?

We’ve all seen the climbing cost of road racing in recent years (even the Olympic Trials Marathon charged athletes $30 for registration), so it seems like cost shouldn’t be that much of an issue when it comes to indoor track, but for me it is the largest barrier. A few weeks ago after a blizzard blanketed my usual outdoor track, I decided to give the Armory a shot. I winced at the $15 one-time admission fee just to work out in the outside lane while college athletes whipped around the inside. Seasonal membership, which you might think should be more cost effective, is $300 for an individual.

I could simply sign up for races, the way the We Are Athetes squad did. If I put together a team for the 10k relay, we can race for $20 apiece. Call me cheap, but I feel like twenty bucks is a little high in dollars to miles. That being said, many colleges have track meets that allow open runners and charge much less than the average road race to participate.

Is it access?

I know it’s unique that I’m so close to an awesome indoor track that’s available to the public (even if that availability comes at a hefty price). Most people don’t have that luxury; if they want to work out on an indoor track it most likely belongs to a college or university. Sometimes these facilities are open to the public with a membership or during certain hours, sometimes not. No matter how you slice it, most of us have to be highly motivated to access an indoor track to run on one. Maybe since most indoor tracks are out of our sights, they’re out of our minds?

If you can get access to a track, it’s much more likely that you’ll find one outdoors, which can be great for fresh air and for not losing count of laps on your way to a mile. But training on a 400m track and switching to race on a 300m or 200m track can be a challenge, physically and mentally and also, outdoor track season usually corresponds with spring road race season, races for which the barriers to entry are much lower.

Is it speed?

Shannon Rowbury blasts through the tape at the end of the Wanamaker Mile. Motion blur brought to you by the terrible lighting at the Armory.
Shannon Rowbury blasts through the tape at the end of the Wanamaker Mile. Motion blur brought to you by the terrible lighting at the Armory.

Or maybe we are thinking about it, but our thoughts are simply tuned to running long, not running fast, because that’s where we place the value in running. Think about what it felt like the first time you ran three miles the whole way without walking or stopping. Then it was time to try a 10k. Got that down? Go for a half! Soon enough, you’ve conquered a marathon and anything less than 10 feels like a breeze. So what the heck kind of good does it do to haul ass for 200 meters, especially when you might come in dead last out of a small field?

I think that latter is certainly an issue, at least it is for me. I’d love to enter the mile at the next NYRR Night at the Races, but when faced with signing up I had visions of my last track workout, and the panic set in that I might be the only one who couldn’t break 7 minutes. I’m struggling to be brave and just go for it, because trying new stuff, especially scary stuff, is one of the best parts of running.

But here’s the thing, even the best track stars come up short. Shannon Rowbury didn’t beat the American record on Saturday, she came up 4 seconds behind. And Molly Huddle, queen of the road 5k, wound up coming in second. And Kadecia Baird took a spill and wound up with a DNF (and possibly an injury) during the 400. In racing, shit happens, even to the best of us. Sometimes, like the We Are Athletes team, you have a great day and you come in first even when you didn’t think you had. And sometimes you come up 4 seconds short.

The best part is that the indoor track season is young. There are more races to come.

Are you a track star? If not, what’s stopping you?

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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  1. What’s stopping me from being a track star…hmmm, apart from the fact that I’m not very fast, and get bored running in circles? The outfits. Why does nobody ever talk about the personal grooming issues involved with racing in tiny briefs and a bra top? And why is it that men can race in shorts and a tank top, but women have to run in their underwear?

    Oh, and the shoes. So painful looking. I can barely stuff my bunions into size 10 Saucony hurricanes. Would actually be interesting to know whether spikes help over distances longer than, idk, 400m? Or does everyone just wear them in case there is some advantage but nobody knows exactly?

    So yeah, no track here, though I sometimes wonder what would happen if I trained for a 1500 (hamstring drama, humiliation…?) but I love watching track meets. Thanks for the report!

    1. I feel you on the outfits. I’ve been asking this a lot lately and everyone looks at me like I have 6 heads 🙂 But seriously if it’s a comfort thing, then why don’t men wear buns and crop tops? Come on men, tell us why!

  2. Nobody forces you to race in buns. You can always just wear regular shorts, tights, whatever you’re comfortable in. Spikes definitely give an advantage, but you don’t have to wear those either. I train on the track indoors and outdoors in regular neutral running shoes or in racing flats.

    1. You’re totally right, especially at the amateur level we can wear what we want. I guess I was thinking more of how the skimpy outfits seem de rigeur at the pro level. Like, if a fairy godmother appeared and offered to make me into an insanely talented professional runner, I would have to do some serious bargaining on the outfit issue before I said yes.

      Anyway, enough about that! This whole thread is making me think more deeply about the true reasons for my track aversion (as others have outlined below – public failure etc) and I’m reconsidering….

  3. I’m not sure cost is as much a factor as the fear of real racing. For most runners (Salties-excluded) road races are about participation, training measurement and a race against yourself (a PR). In a road race with a few hundred or few thousand participants, doing well has many variations. The track has fewer degrees of freedom. How well you do is measured by single digit placing. What was once positive quickly becomes negative for anyone who isn’t fast enough.

    I find indoor track daunting and personally nauseating with all the turns. I understand how some might like the rhythm of the indoor track. I think I’d be more likely to wait until the outdoor season if I ever made the leap. I frequent the track for speed work, and I could see ramping that up. I just wouldn’t even know where to start to find a team.

  4. @Heather: You might like this post that I wrote in 2013 about how the track went from a thing that made me shriek in angst and terror to a thing that I desperately look forward to each week of training: http://salty.run/1QYVkSf And what Abby said is right-you can be comfortable on the track! You can race on the track in a three-piece-suit and alligator pumps if your team is on board! More likely it’ll be training flats, a singlet and whatever shorts you prefer.

    @Susan Start by Googling “Track Club [insert closest major city here].” Or you can put one together yourself out of running buddies you already have and just sign up for a race. Local meets, especially outdoor season meets, often don’t even require you to have a team, so if you want to try your hand at a brave mile or a brave 5k or even a brave dash, all you have to do is sign up.

    I think what you guys are saying is dead on for most runners. Fear of Speed (or perhaps more to the point, Fear of Being Slow) is a real thing. I’m scared of it too! But I want to be brave and try, because I see women like those on the We Are Athletes team being brave and having so much fun doing it, and I’m interested and want to share in the excitement. I want to run toward my fear of speed instead of away from it.

    I’m trying to talk some friends into that 10k relay now! If anyone’s in NYC and wants to do it (March 4, 7p at the Armory), reach out! cinnamon (at) saltyrunning.com

  5. I do find the track intimidating, I honestly rarely go allll out and wonder what would happen if I did! Additionally, one time I did a speed workout on the track (800s that ended up being over 10 miles total) and totally got vertigo- got up the next morning and fell over when I tried to get out of bed. I had to call in sick! Lol. Anyway, you’ve piqued my interest! Here in Eugene we have All-Comers meets on Hayward Field in the summer, anyone in the community can go. Maybe I’ll give it a try; nothing like running where Pre did for inspiration!

    1. YES! And bring a friend! Track is a really cool part of running but the running boom just hasn’t hit it in the same way as road racing. Imagine what would happen if every road racer went to one meet this year and brought a friend.

  6. I love the track for practice, but haven’t been brave enough to race on it yet. The biggest hurdle for me is fear of coming in DFL. Which is stupid – who cares if I do! – so I should probably just do it already. I think there is also an anonymity to road racing that you don’t have on the track. You’re visible to all throughout the race, which for me is unsettling.

    1. Yes! This pretty much nails my fear, particularly the not being able to hide. I would feel like I was performing and that would freak me out I think – definitely something I’d have to work through a little to get myself out there!

  7. Multiple DFL track racer here! You’d think everyone is watching you but in actuality, there aren’t too many fans and other athletes are so focused on their drills, warm ups, or teammates in said event or over in the pole vault (which is way more in the spotlight!) that once you are out there, you’re not even thinking about it anymore. I recommend doing a race and finishing last on purpose just to see that it’s not that bad. As in road races, most people that are watching do cheer for last, too. All this said
    I find track races VERY fun but so different from the road and infrequent that I never feel sharp enough when I run them. I am hoping for a strong summer so that when next indoor season starts, I’ll be able to focus on an actual indoor season.

  8. I just ran my first ever track race a few weeks ago, an indoor 3K. I am not that fast (I ran a 14:30), and did not come in DFL, much to my surprise. I loved it. It was a pure running and racing experience. After 50-some road races (including 4 marathons), and a dozen trail races, I can’t wait to do more indoor and outdoor track races!

  9. I have not raced on a track since college, and admittedly I think I’d feel like a fish out of water if I tried it right now. I do have a goal to get back on the track at some point though. I loved racing in high school and college on tracks, and loved the whole atmosphere. I think I have just been removed from it for “so long” (it’s really only like 8 years) that it feels weird to think about racing on one. Maybe this summer I’ll jump in one of our local meets that they do