No Rest for the Weary
Two New Yorkers take on three big races in two weeks with one goal on the line
Knox Robinson flails his arms, motioning to the crowd to chant louder. His animated hollering, coupled with spirited warmup strides tells both fans and competitors alike that here is a guy with inexhaustible energy.
His eyes, hidden behind white frame sunglasses, tell a different story — a story that started 15.5hrs earlier, at 3:30 a.m.
The clock ticks to 6:59 p.m. and Robinson sandwiches himself in among more than 200 runners, fidgeting like anxious thoroughbreds as they ready themselves to start the Red Hook Criterium 5K. For most, this is a highlight of the running year and one of the fastest races in New York City, taking place in front of a huge crowd alongside the Red Hook Crit bike race on a 1km circuit at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal.
Stealthily tucked toward the back of the field is Myles Fennon. He Ubered to the scene 30 minutes before the start, leaving just enough time to inhale a Clif Bar — necessary to soak up the last remnants of the Pabst Blue Ribbons he drank hours before on completion of the day’s first challenge.
This race, on April 30th 2016, would be round three of three: Robinson versus Fennon in an incomprehensible game of survival. In the span of 12 days, they’d run the Boston Marathon, the The North Face Endurance Challenge Bear Mountain 50K and the Red Hook Criterium 5K; the final two taking place on the same day, just a few hours apart.
“It’s pretty crazy,” admits Robinson, a Nike+ Run Club coach and founder of the urban running crew Black Roses NYC.
Robinson has completed 20 marathons in a two decade running career and seven ultras to boot. This dare was to be equal parts mental, physical and ego. As for Fennon, he only started running competitively about seven years ago but now averages 30 races a year; this trio of races was simply something he’d quietly aimed to complete in a single two week window until his teammate Paul Leak, co-leader of November Project NYC, entered the picture. Or rather, the bar.
So the story goes: all three men walked into Coogan’s Irish Pub in February, after watching the Millrose Games in Washington Heights, N.Y. According to Robinson, Leak pointed to Fennon and said, “That guy over there, I can’t believe what he’s going to do.” Leak proceeded to explain the idea of the Triple Crown. Robinson digested the plan for a split second before saying, “That’s not such a big deal. I could do that.”
The next morning, Robinson awoke to an Instagram direct message from Fennon’s girlfriend, who sent a photo of him and Fennon handshaking on the challenge, beer in hand, with the caption, “Good luck with the Triple Crown!”
It was on: a “bragging rights situation,” as Robinson describes.
Monday, April 18, better known as Patriots Day or Marathon Monday among Bostonians, Robinson and Fennon set forth to conquer round one: the Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest continuously running marathon.
“I’m not a big believer in spending four months getting ready for one seminal moment and hoping it goes well,” says Fennon, whose modus operandi is volume. In his third Boston appearance, it was to be a steady 26.2 miles — not an unusual amount of exercise for someone who often runs 35 miles on Saturday with his friends in the November Project, followed by 15 to 20 miles on Sundays.
“I don’t get bored,” insists Fennon, who occupies his non-exercise time as a managing director for a commercial real estate company. “It’s what I do to stay active. I choose to do this.”
Fennon’s marathon personal record of 2 hours and 47 minutes at the 2015 Boston Marathon doesn’t even touch Robinson’s best mark of 2 hours and 36 minutes. “I think he’s a better runner than I am,” says Fennon, before Robinson counterpoints, saying, “He’s credentialed. He races quite a bit. There’s something to be said about keeping the blade sharp. He’s sharp all the time, whereas I have good days and bad days.”
However, a two-minute lag entering the Bear Mountain 50Kis childsplay for a guy who has 17 ultras under his size nine and a half feet. Round two would ping-pong back to Fennon. But first he would win the Big Sur 9-miler six days prior to round two of the deal. The ultra was his territory, his edge on Robinson, who describes the race as a “mind-boggling challenge, and one of the most debilitating and technical courses on the East Coast.”
“The trails are very technical”, says Fennon. “You’re dealing with tweaks to your ankle, kicking rocks. You wear down your hips and quads from the downhills.”
Fennon’s 50K goal was to run under five hours. Pre-race, Robinson strategizes matching him stride for stride, Tour de France style, but deep down he knew the battle is lost before the race even starts. Robinson later confesses to a premonition that he’d lose the plot 19 miles in, when Fennon would overtake him, taking round two in the process. That reality played out.
“I was above goal pace so I kept at the effort and sustained it for the rest of the race,” says Fennon, on passing Robinson at mile 19. “It certainly beat me up. By mile 26, I started going into the hurt zone.”
Fennon wasn’t defeated enough to crack. He finished the 50K in 4 hours and 37 minutes , an average mile pace of 8:58, good for sixth overall. Robinson’s time of 5 hours and 2 minutes earned 21st position among 470 finishers. But the most difficult part of the challenge was yet to come.
“If you’re going to run 50K, there’s nothing you can do to save yourself for a 5K,” says Fennon.
The two runners are naturally beat when they show up to the Red Hook Criterium 5K but that doesn’t prevent Robinson’s vibrant display of emotion as he warms up, wearing his purple kit, colorfully inked with Black Roses NYC across the chest. At this point, one more round of self-induced hurt separates each from stealing the bragging rights.
Robinson’s 15:38 personal best Red Hook Crit 5K from years past would be out of reach no matter how badly he wanted to show the hometown crowd how to get it done. Still, a 17:09 performance is enough to finish 32nd of 240 runners, two and a half minutes away from the top podium spot earned by Ethiopian Abebe Sihine Mekuria, who most likely did not run 31 miles earlier that morning. As for Fennon’s average mile pace of 6:20, his 19:43 performance was untouched by more than 100 runners in the field. He finishes in 129th overall.
“I was surprised by my leg speed at the end of the 50K and in the Crit,” says Robinson. “The only way I could even get into running the 5K was to disconnect from the Bear Mountain experience on a physical level. I was pretty banged up, but I tried not to relate one to the other and just ran hard.”
Fennon weighs in, describing the endeavor as “equal parts physical and mental. You can have all the will in the world, but if you’re not properly trained, things won’t go well. Repetition and education of my running experiences have made me a stronger runner. My training hasn’t necessarily gotten better, but experience and understanding has resulted in me running better.”
As for who won the challenge? “I don’t know,” they echo in unison.
Four days later, after the crunchy feeling in their muscles subsides and the soreness releases, both men lace up their sneakers and head outside to run in their respective environments. For Fennon, it’s eight laps around Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side for November Project’s monthly Personal Record day; for Robinson meanwhile, who was in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, it was a dash across the street to the deli for a six-pack of Red Stripe.
“Tomorrow I’m running in the Mojave Desert,” he says, laughing. “Passion can manifest itself in a number of ways.”