Tuesday, June 5, 2012

5 Questions with Bobby Mack (and his sub 4:00 recap by Stephen Furst)

Bobby Mack en route to a 27:53 PR for 10,000
 at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational
(photo: TrackAndFieldPhoto)
Today we have a nice two part article. First, we have a very candid 5 Questions with Winston-Salem, NC native and Raleigh resident, Bobby Mack. Second, we have a recap (and "video") of Bobby's first sub four minute mile, from his former college teammate and training partner, the also very accomplished Stephen Furst.

Foreword by Stephen Furst: 

Bobby Mack is a Volunteer Assistant at NC State and works full-time at Capital RunWalk in Raleigh, NC. He regularly drags his training partners Ryan Hill (13:31, 7:43, 3:39 5-time All-American), Andrew Colley (15th at NCAA XC), Sandy Roberts (NCAA 5000 Finalist) and I through the mud in workouts, particularly on days when it's hot, humid, cold, windy, wet, or for-some-other-reason uncomfortable. He will run the 10,000 at the (Olympic) Trials next month, get married in October, and probably keep beating the prize money out of 25 year-olds until he is 50.

5 Questions with Bobby Mack

1. Writing About Running: After coming very close to sub 4:00 the past few years, how exciting is it to finally break the barrier, and in such wild circumstances?

Bobby Mack: It really was exciting. I've had the sub 4:00 mark in my head since middle and high school, when guys like (Alan) Webb were going after it. I think it is a distance that all runners can relate to. Through middle and high school, the mile was the measuring stick, and that still resonates with me, even while other distances have become my focus. Early in college, I couldn't relate to a sub 28:00 10,000, it was just a really fast time in my mind, but the sub 4 mile made sense, because at some point, we all wanted to break 2:00 for the 800 in high school. I've gotten one shot at sub 4:00 each of the past few years, so I try to make it count when I get the opportunity. Most of the meets all run 1500 meters, and while trying to balance some of the longer road race distances, it becomes even more difficult to find and fit a hard mile into the training and racing schedule. I definitely feel some relief breaking 4:00.

2. Writing About Running: You broke another significant barrier this year, 28:00 in the 10,000, with a 27:53 at Payton Jordan. How did that race play out in your mind?

Bobby Mack: Breaking 28:00 at Payton Jordan was a breakthrough. I wanted to get that Olympic "A" standard of 27:45, but Coach (Rollie) Geiger emphasizes progression as a racer. Yes, some races you'll have a major breakthrough, but at this level you probably need to run sub 28:00, then move to the next barrier of 27:40. Even if workouts indicate you can run faster, it doesn't matter until you put the "race" piece of the puzzle in place. That is what I did at Payton Jordan, I knew and Coach Geiger knew I could run under 28:00 and I put that piece together, so now we'll move to the next race progression.

The race itself was tough. It wasn't one of those races where I recall feeling particularly good. It took some mental toughness to keep closing some of the gaps that were forming in front of me between laps 15-20. I was able to finish pretty strong over the last 400 and get a little closer to 27:50 and the other three Americans that missed the Olympic "A" standard.
Winning the USATF Cross Country Championship
(photo: Mike Scott)

3. Writing About Running: In the past year, aside from the sub 4 and sub 28, you've also won the USATF 8k Road Championship and the USATF Cross Country title. You battled injuries in college and have now really come into your own a few years out. How much has your support system played into your continued running career?

Bobby Mack: It has definitely been an odd comeback of sorts, but I think everything has worked out in my favor. When you are forced to take a couple years off from the sport, you really appreciate what competing and running are all about. You become patient and put running into the bigger context of life, you can't dwell on what could have been. That is tough to do for a lot of runners that get injured; getting back can be a long process both physical and mental. I was a couple spots outside All-American in Cross (Country) my true Freshman year and made outdoor NCAA's for the 5000 meters. The only other Freshmen beating me at NCAA those seasons were (Chris) Solinsky and (Robert) Cheseret. I knew deep down I had the potential for bigger things, but after sorting through a few years of injuries, you question whether you still have it.

I remember finally getting back to running about four years ago, mainly just running for fun. It was great! Jumping in some of the local 5K's getting beat by other local runners, but I didn't care, I was running. I ran a 15:50 5K for that first comeback road race in May 2008, but I was in Graduate School and running was just an extra that I enjoyed. By August, I had strung together about four months of running, not training, just running. I was running 14:40 for 5K on the roads and knew I still had the potential for a 6th year medical red-shirt with the three cross seasons I missed for injuries. The team would ask me if I was going to come back for a 6th year and I really didn't think that was an option. I hadn't raced NCAA cross in three years and really didn't know what fitness level I could achieve. I was happy just to be running, the time off made me put things in perspective, so I almost declined on the chance to come back for a 6th year. I ultimately decided to come back. In a way I felt like I still owed the program and N.C. State a good Cross Country season. It ended up being the catalyst my running career needed. Ryan Hill was just a Freshman and I was able to step into that Senior leadership position that the team needed. The guys had confidence that I was going to be able to contribute and that really helped. We qualified for NCAA's that year and I was able to run the NCAA regional meet in my home town of Winston-Salem, NC, where I was second to Sam Chelanga.

I didn't have indoor or outdoor eligibility left and almost felt content to end my competitive career on that note. During graduate school that Spring I got the urge to really dedicate another year to training. I became the Graduate Assistant Coach for N.C. State and was able to surround myself with the competitive frenzy of collegiate running. Having Coach Geiger welcome me back as a Graduate Assistant is part of that support system that motivated me then and continues to keep me aiming for the next big race.

I'm the assistant manager at Capital RunWalk, the specialty running store I race for. This has helped me fill the gear and sponsorship gap over the past few years. Mike Zimmerman, our owner, realized I wanted to continue running after graduate school and has worked with me in terms of schedule flexibility and getting some travel incentives for placing high in local and national races. I really enjoy and take pride in being part of the local running community, whether I'm teaching a core strength class, working with youth runners, or just talking running with our customers. It's a great support system having Capital RunWalk to work and race for, then having N.C. State to volunteer coach and train with. Raleigh would be a great place for an official post college training group.

Pacing Ryan Hill to a 1500 meter school record
 (photo: Michael Mansy)
4. Writing About Running: As Stephen mentioned, you have a nice training group here in Raleigh. What can you say about your situation here that has led to success for not only you, but the other guys you train with?

Bobby Mack: The training group is great. Not just in a sense of our best marks, but in the group dynamic. We are all on the same page in terms of how to train smart, when to crush workouts and when to ease up. That is tough to find in a training group. When you get four or five guys with similar goals, but they all understand the training good things will happen. Coach Geiger has been working with Stephen Furst and I for eight years and with Ryan Hill for four years. The group is still progressing each season, someone is always raising the bar and the group as a whole gets better.

5. Writing About Running: With the Olympic Trials 10,000 Finals 2 1/2 weeks away, how is training going and how much are you looking forward to returning to Eugene to compete and have your family with you?

Bobby Mack: Training is going well. I ran under 28:00 for 10K and under 4:00 for the mile within a month so all systems seem to be in check. My family got a cabin on the Willamette River outside Eugene which will be nice. My fiance and her family are also coming to watch and they are all excited to spectate in historic Hayward Field. It should work out well with the 10,000 being on the day one. I'll have a few days to relax with family after my event.

Furst won the Emerald Nuts Midnight Run in 2011
Follow him on Twitter @SteveOFurst
Sub 4:00 Race Recap by Stephen Furst

Last week, Bobby Mack, blue collar runner of the year, broke 4:00 in the mile for the first time at the Warwick Fast Times Relays. Based on his recent performances and his 4:00.11 PR from 2010, the breakthrough mark was not all that surprising. But the circumstances surrounding this performance were truly surreal. The "Reality Mile" has been run at this top-level High School relay meet on and off for the last 15 years, with the goal of getting a sub-4 in front of ~1300 high school runners competing in the running hotbed of Warwick, NY, where my father Richard (Furst) has been the girls coach since 1976. It is sponsored by the Warwick Valley Booster Club. Last year, Bobby and I battled it out, but came up just short with 4:00.26 and 4:00.61. This year the meet was delayed partway through due to weather, then finally cancelled as bedtime approached for the high school students. The timers had packed up their cameras, pace setter was on his way back to Long Island with his high school team, and the "Reality Mile" was all but dead. However, the event organizers (my dad) convinced the timers to unpack their cameras, brave the rain and lightening, and wait an hour for the remaining milers to get warmed up and race. Then two guys who were standing in the parking lot in their flip-flops, Mike Coffee (who had just finished a 17 mile run up and down a mountain) and Shane Gianetti (whose 800 PR is 1:58) volunteered to get us "as far as they could" and Tim Ritchie, who had already run 3:58 at Boston Indoor Games this winter, volunteered to man up for lap 3.

So the Warwickians who hadn't yet left, gathered around and we prepared to race. The official with the gun left, so they had to trigger the timer with a palm slap that the timing company informed us also had to serve as the start signal for the race to count as FAT. There was lightening in the distance, but a serendipitous break in the deluge, and the roughly 40 people in attendance had to stay totally silent so that we could hear the fleshy thud that signaled the start. The only sound we heard coming off the line was our own spikes digging into the wet track - no echo of the gun, no roar of the crowd, just the nervous silence of the crowd that was behind us, with such intensity that they dared not breathe, lest they obscure the barely audible start signal. Our volunteer pace-setters hit their marks perfectly, which is remarkable considering the guy who took us through 800 in 1:58.0 has an 800 PR of 1:58. Then Tim Ritchie got Bobby through with one lap to go in 3:00. Like most runners would under the semi-absurd circumstances of the evening, I had lost my focus and became a spectator a lap before, and Tim joined me in this role after Bobby passed him at the bell (purely figurative bell in this case, as the real one had been packed up already). But thanks to his trademark unflappability, Bobby raced all the way, accelerating repeatedly in the final lap with no competition or fanfare. He crossed in 3:59.70. There has never been a sub-4 mile in Orange County NY, and I think its safe to say that none of the fortunate few who remained at the track Tuesday night will ever forget the role they had or the spectacle they witnessed.

Here's the "found" video of Bobby Mack's 3:59.70 mile, as it shows some parts of the race from a spectator who had no idea she'd be filming and had insufficient space on her memory card. At least she got some of it!

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  1. Very, very cool. Mack is the man. He makes me proud to be from Winston-Salem.