Video of Grant Fisher winning the NSAF's 2014 NBNI mile courtesy of RunnerSpace.com
Those who remember Grant Fisher flying around the final curve during the last lap of the NSAF’s Indoor Nationals mile at The Armory in 2015, and veering briefly and regrettably into the infield, might be surprised that the iconic NYC venue is nonetheless the Bowerman TC superstar’s “favorite place I've ever raced at indoors.” Fisher won that race nearly eight years ago, in a meet record 4:03.54, but buried his face in his hands after finishing, lamenting what might have been.
But leave no doubt, the Armory still holds a special place in the heart of the new American record-holder at 3,000m, 5,000m and 10,000m outdoors, and 5000m indoors – despite that mishap. Fisher first competed there in 2014, while a Grand Blanc HS (Mich.) junior, earning his first NBNI mile crown, and will never forget his introduction to it. “You warm up in these little hallways/tunnels, then all of the sudden you pop out and you’re in this massive stadium, with the fans cascading above you,” he says. “It's a little bit daunting your first time out there, but it's exciting, too. It really feels like you're there to do something cool and there's a huge crowd of fans there to watch, too.”
Of course, those days now seem kind like ancient history, especially after the past two years where the Stanford grad has cemented his place not only as an all-time great U.S. distance runner, but as a 4x top-10 finisher in Olympic and World Championship 5,000- and 10,000-meter finals – including a 4th in the World 10,000 last July. But they’re fun to remember and Fisher learned some valuable lessons in his top-level high school races, which also included World Youth (2013) and World Junior (2014) experiences.
In 2013, Fisher made the U.S. World Youth team not long after he had run 4:12.89 as a soph in the NSAF’s Outdoor Nationals mile in Greensboro. In the latter, he won the top unseeded morning section and hung around through the afternoon seeded mile in case he made All-American by finishing in the top six overall. He didn’t (8th), but says, “It was a really cool intro into what the rest of the U.S. runners have to offer. I was young and wide-eyed. It was really fun to see all of these people whose names and times I’d read about. It was a big mental step for me, to get out of Michigan and start racing on the national scene.”
Then things “accelerated pretty quickly there” for Fisher that summer, as he finished 2nd in the World Youth Trials at 1,500m and, as he says, “all of the sudden, I’m racing internationally in Ukraine. You never really know until you test yourself and go somewhere out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself, that's when you see what's really inside and gives you an idea of what more there can be.”
The World Youth 1,500 semis there in Donetsk was where most of the T&F world learned about the then-16-year-old. Fisher fearlessly challenged the field, where it was normally a foregone conclusion that East African runners would dominate, and won his semi in 3:50.30. “I did pretty well there … but then the guys ran really fast in the final (3:36.77) and I just got absolutely crushed (9th place),” he says now with a smile. “It was a whirlwind of emotions; you think you’re one of the best runners in the world your age, then you realize the margins are still pretty big. Still, it showed me what I might be capable of. It was my first international meet and I’ve been lucky to have a lot more since then.”
By the time, Fisher made his NSAF Indoor Nationals debut the following March of his junior year, he had won a Foot Locker title in XC. But that didn’t mean he was overflowing with confidence for his Armory debut. “Again, that was another time where things were just moving really quickly for me,” he says, “stepping into a national championship indoors in a really, really cool environment.
“I remember being pretty nervous. Then my coach (Mike Scannell) told me, this is what we're going to do in the race and this is how we're going to win the race. That was a little bit of a shock for me, thinking of yourself as the person who's going to win a national championship in that race. Takes a little bit to digest it … but sometimes you need someone else to believe in you first, before you can do those things.”
Gradually during the race, Fisher’s confidence in himself grew to meet that of his coach. “I remember getting out there and my legs felt great. I just went for it and followed instructions and came away with the win (4:09.38). It was my first time in NYC and I grew up in a small town. So I was a kid going to big city and (winning) was a really good feeling.”
Fast forward 12 months and Fisher was no longer an Armory newbie. As a very accomplished high school senior, he was “the man” in the distances in 2015 and chasing barriers and records. But his second NSAF Indoor Nationals mile title turned out to be a “funny race.”
“Going into that one, I was confident at this point, my mindset was completely different than the year before,” he says. “The race plan was just to go from the gun, just go as hard as you can. I thought that if everything went perfect, I could run just about 4 flat, or maybe dip under if everything was truly perfect.”
Fisher was still nervous. “Just the prospect of putting yourself out there like that. You risk failure, you risk blowing up.” But when the gun went off someone fell and the field was called back. By the restart, his nerves had settled.
“I was just ‘hit the gas and go.’ Just having tunnel version, just clicking off the laps and hearing 30, 30, 30. I knew I was on pace and I wasn't thinking about anybody else in that race, just me, the clock and how fast I could go.
“I was giving everything I had and with 200 to go I was pretty tired, really leaning into those curves and whipping around. With like 100 to go, I was leaning as hard as I could on that curve, just trying to get around, lactic in the legs, lungs were burning and leaned a little too hard and stepped on that rail.
“If anyone's ever been in the Armory before, the track is raised up a little bit, from the floor, especially on the banked curbs. So I clipped the rail, almost fell, stepped off into the infield –s which is maybe a foot down – stumbled, almost ran into a photographer, and then hopped back up.
“At that point I knew … I was just like, the dream of sub-4 is over. But I gutted it out and got across the line. I thought for sure I was going to get disqualified, in the moment, for taking too many steps on the infield, but thankfully the meet director saw that it wasn't an advantage that I gained. I was thankful for that.
Fisher’s Bowerman TC teammates still bring up that race sometimes, he says, and they joke about it. It stung in the moment, though, and he was certainly disappointed to have his prep indoor finale end that way. He adds, however, that even if everything had gone perfectly, he doesn’t think he would have run under 4:00.
“I think I was more on pace for more like a 4:01-high or 4:02-low,” he says. “That stumble was rough, it happened so fast and you're so tired. But it could have been worse. That's the sport, it’s hard to get everything right on the day.
“It was still a big moment for me. I came away with national title and my fastest time I'd ever run. It was a good learning moment and fueled me to want to break 4:00 outdoors.”
Of course, he did so (3:59.38 in June), then went on to a successful NCAA career at Stanford and all that has followed since.
When Fisher was in Eugene this summer, competing in the World 5,000m and 10,000m finals, he was reminded that he was among the select members of those who competed both in the 2014 World Junior Champs at the old Hayward Field and then again eight years later in the new facility.
“Yeah, I was thinking about that,” he said. “My first time at Hayward was actually the US Junior Championships that year in 2014. “Hayward Field is a mythical place for a lot of high school runners. The energy there was super, the crowds were great. It was cool looking back on that during this year’s World Championships. We were in a whole new stadium and I felt like a whole different athlete. It’s cool to see evolution of the stadium and the track as well as my own evolution, getting to that knew moment. I didn't get out of rounds in the 1500 in 2014 and got outclassed by a lot of people. But then you fast-forward several years later, and I'm there at the Senior World Champs and holding my own against best in the world
“It's like, you never step into the same river twice. You might come back to same track, but it’s a different stadium and you’re a different athlete with a different mentality. It was a cool growing-up moment, competing there in high school, college and as a pro, and always a cool place to return.”
Fisher says that if high school athletes can get to one or both of these venues – The Armory and Hayward Field – and compete in the NSAF’s Nike Indoor and Nike Outdoor Nationals, they should be all means do so.
“If you have ability to get to those meets, you should go. My first experience at Nationals in Greensboro while I was at Grand Blanc, I wasn't All-American, but it was a great experience that opened my eyes to what was possible. Even if you’re not vying for the win in your event, doesn't mean you should skip them. If you’re an Emerging Elite, these meets are still really valuable, they show you something inside of you that you may not have known you had … new elements, more competition you can grow into. You want to go compete against best athletes and do so at the best venues. Regardless of the outcome, these meets can really show you what this sport has to offer.”