"Russell Brown, he’s going to win it"
Last weekend, Russell Brown, from Hanover, NH, beat Nick Willis (the Olympic Silver medalist at 1500m), Alan Webb (the American record holder for the mile), Leo Manzano (2008 Olympian at 1500m), and a number of other accomplished athletes in winning the Boston-New Balance Games Mile in a world-class time of 3:54.
To less informed distance fans, Russell Brown may seem like an unlikely champion in such a distinguished field. Well, I assure you he’s anything but. In interviews after the race, Brown said that running at Boston brought him back to his high school days—racing the same kids month in and month out through indoor and outdoor track. Well, I was one of those kids, and as any of us who raced Brown in high school will tell you, he’s got IT.
You won’t find this definition in any dictionary, but amongst distance runners, “IT” is really quite simple: moxy, motivation, mental fortitude, talent, and raw power. Russell Brown has it inspades.
I remember watching the first time he stepped on the track. I was in the second (and slower) heat of an 800m. It was obvious he was fit, every part of him just rippled with energy. But standing next to him on the line were all these runners from Keene, NH, one of our rival schools. In our tiny universe of distance running, the boys from Keene were the pinnacle. Every race I’d seen them in, they’d won, and handily. I remember a certain amount of smugness in their faces, as if each victory was, although challenging, somehow inevitable. I still recall passing their fourth or fifth runner in cross-country and thinking that I had accomplished something.
The gun went off, and Brown exploded to the lead. Immediately, he started telescoping away. I remember being slightly surprised at how fast he went out, and I quickly assumed that he would pay for it dearly on the second lap. As the runners came towards the bell, I don’t recall much about Brown, but I do remember the face of the Keene runners behind him. I didn’t recognize the expression at first, because it was so unfamiliar for me to see them anywhere but in the lead. When it finally came into focus, I abruptly stepped back. It was abstract terror. They were scared of him.
Brown went on to win the race in around 1:56, but finished over a hundred yards up on the next runner. He stomped off the track and pulled a hooded sweatshirt over his head. It looked medieval, like he was pulling a cloak around his shoulders. He sat there, brooding. I mumbled something to the extent of “Holy Sh*t”, only to be overheard by one of his teammates.
“Yeah,” the guy replied. “He’s pissed.”
“Pissed?” I asked incredulously.
“He’s run faster.”
We all gathered around the track later that day and watched Brown blow the doors off another group of challengers in the 400, besting yet another set of runners I had never seen beaten. Blasting out of the blocks, he cruised home in just over 49 seconds, nearly three and a half seconds better than his closest competitor.
That was my introduction to Russell Brown. Now before this strays and starts sounding like a man-crush rather than a blog entry, it’s worth saying that everyone else who was there that day had a similar dumbstruck look on their face. My coach, himself a 2:10 marathoner and Olympic Trials qualifier, just chuckled at the speed.
As talented as he is, this post isn’t about Russell Brown, per say, so much as it is about breaking through. We need to believe we can break through, in order to do it ourselves. Brown, talented though he is, still comes from regular, New England beginnings, racing the same meets as me, week-in and week-out.
In the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s, the Greater Boston Track Club consistently put five or more runners into the top-ten at the Boston Marathon, with almost all of them running fast enough to compete for the win. Yet each also maintained a full time job. Some were teachers, another a mailman, others still worked in an office. But every day, they pushed each other in practice. When asked why they were so successful, the runners professed that each day, they went out with marathon greats like Bill Rodgers, Amby Burfoot, and Greg Meyer. Workout after workout, they’d hit the same splits, run the same distance, and compile the same miles. Eventually, as Rogers and other starting to have success, they realized, that if Bill could do it, so too could they.
Russell Brown did it. So too can I.