Running on Tilt

The Armory & David Byrne

Onwards and backwards in racing and music

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I was fortunate to have good A-train karma last Thursday night. Despite staying late at work, I made it to the Armory on 168th Street in time for the 1500 meter race. It was my second trip to the Armory this winter.

My first trip was on a frigid Tuesday night in January for a 4 x 1200 meter workout. The walk from the subway to the building’s entrance was tinged by a dim yellow light. I noticed just south of the Armory were four skyways connecting floors of adjoining hospital buildings. They are the type of building-to-building bridges that facilitate movement around Minneapolis and assorted other frozen cities in the winter, but I hadn’t seen them in New York, save for a charmingly decrepit one on the Greenpoint waterfront that a few years ago was torn down.

If the skyways seemed out of place, an even greater out-of-New York City experience awaited me inside. Entering the Armory, like entering St. John the Divine on 112th and Amsterdam or the K-Mart at Astor Place, is like entering another time zone entirely. It is clean, brightly lit, and arid, and on that night it was swarming with college co-eds and adults in running unitards, singlets and short shorts. On the track, sprint, middle and long-distance workouts were simultaneously taking place, and on the crowded infield a pole vaulter lanced and leapt just meters from the inside lane. Merely getting on the banked, 200-meter raceway required Frogger-like agility and timing.

Since I am relatively new to the Central Park track club, and it was my first indoor track workout, I didn’t know exactly whom to run with. I joined a small group of three other runners, with a loose goal of running about 82 seconds per quarter, or 4:06 for the entire 1200. I ran a close second on the first repeat, in 4:08, trailing a man who was wearing lime green shorts with a horizontal black zipper in back. He had a vaguely British accent—not English, but from some part of the old Commonwealth. A puff of chest hair peeked above the neckline of his singlet. After the second repeat, which I ran in a more painful 4:13, the man turned to me and asked if I’d like to lead the next one.

It was the pivotal moment. I was being asked to take my turn in front, and I knew I had little left in the tank. After a pause, I said “sure.”

It was not exactly an “Eye of the Tiger” experience. Before I had completed the first lap of that third 1200, the man who had been running in 3rd mercifully passed me. The pressure was off. Then the leader passed me. Then the woman in the group, who had been running 4th, passed me. I finished it in 4:30, and I ran the last repeat feeling no pressure this time to run in front, in 4:36. The whole exercise was a lesson in how not to pace a workout.

Back to last Thursday. The Armory was less crowded that it had been for that January workout, but this time the runners were even younger—high schoolers with twiggy arms and moppy hair, joining the heats with college students, adults, a master’s athlete who is a dead ringer for Pete Seeger, and at least one and probably several runners in their 70s or above. A medley of dance and rock anthems was piping through the speakers, including a brief cut from The Who’s “Teenage Wasteland,” which froze me right there on the infield in a moment of high nostalgia for my own high school days in Rochester, where classic rock rules the airwaves and you couldn’t, and probably still can’t, go a week without hearing “Teenage Wasteland” on one station or another.

There were eight heats in the 1500, starting with the fastest, and the way it works is that a large man barks out times and if you think you can run that time, you join the heat. My goal was to run sub-4:50, and I stepped forward along with a rush of other runners when the man barked 4:46. It was the fifth heat. My loose strategy was to start from the back and to pick it up with about 3 laps to go. It was my first indoor race in fifteen years so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect.

At the gun I settled into last place, the moisture in my mouth quickly vaporized. I was able to keep a steady pace, picking off a few runners but lagging the main pack throughout. I heard somebody say 2:34 at the 800 meter mark, and I finished in 4:48.

My time was seven seconds slower than my personal best 1600 meter time of 4:41, which I ran at a high school state-qualifier meet in the winter of 1992. So I’ve got 100 extra meters to cover in seven less seconds to get back to where I was. It’s a long road back to age 17, but not impossible, I don’t think. If I were to run repeated indoor races I would start faster and race more aggressively. This indoor 1500, though, was simply a small stepping stone en route to the marathon.

On Friday and Saturday I witnessed running of another sort. While playing the song “Life During Wartime,” at Radio City Music Hall in Midtown, Manhattan, David Byrne ran in place. Byrne concludes “Life During Wartime” in the film “Stop Making Sense” by running laps around the stage. He likes to run to that song. He also runs in place, treadmill-like, in the video for “Road to Nowhere”. And Byrne ran on Friday and Saturday when exiting the stage after his sets. Judging from his stride, the 400 or 800 would probably be his race.

In his weekend performances, Byrne’s set-list balanced lullaby-esque numbers from what he describes in his notes to the recently released “Everything that Happens Will Happen Today” as “folk-electronic-gospel” with songs from the 1980 Talking Heads album “Remain in Light,” which are more like uptempo polyrhythmic trances. It struck me as I watched the show how magnificent it would be if it were the Remain in Light songs being piped through the speakers at the Armory as I ran that 1500.

The Big Sur Marathon is a musically themed race. One can apparently hear at every turn classical music, including some tickling of the ivories at Bixby Bridge. I don’t anticipate that getting my adrenaline pumping so much, but then again a marathon is more measured than a 1500, so classical might be just the thing.

With the short race on Thursday night and the concert doubleheader on Friday and Saturday, I had some mileage to make up on Sunday. I prepared my iPod Shuffle with Byrne’s latest album for the first few miles, added a running podcast and some short stories for the middle of the run, and capped it with songs from “Remain in Light” for miles 15-20. I filled a 24-oz. water bottle, pocketed four shot blocks, and made for the Williamsburg Bridge. Two hours later I had looped back to the Williamsburg Bridge, my left hip and feet aching, but I made it over and down to the East River track and back over again. The music helped me finish strong.