Last Tuesday at 6:30 in the morning, John Honerkamp, eight-time top-ten finisher at the US Track & Field National Championship, semi-finalist for the 800-meter in the 1996 Olympic Trials, sub-three-hour marathoner, and New York Road Runner trainer—a man who is better than most will ever be at running, and who has structured his life around it—stood on the Red Hook track in a winter hat and several layers. Slowly, 25 other runners (myself included) filtered onto the rubbery oval, sleepy and shivering. Our collective hope: If we joined Honerkamp for his weekly Tuesday morning speed workouts, we might get faster, too.
“Hey, you found us!” yelled Honerkamp, as if he’d been awake for six hours. The sun barely peaked from behind the horizon. “Who’s done intervals before—speed work?” John asked his troop of zombies, each still a good ten minutes away from being able to form a coherent sentence. “Folks ask me all the time, ‘How do I get faster?’ and my smart-ass answer is, ‘run faster,’ but it’s doing it in smart ways. It’s just about getting your mind and body used to running faster paces.”
In addition to his day job at New York Road Runners, where he works as Senior Manger of Runner Products & Services and is the driving force behind the Official TCS New York City Marathon Online training Program (you may have seen him on TV this year, running alongside James Blake, whom he paced to a sub-4:00 time), Honerkamp runs the New York City chapter of the November Project, a grassroots movement with a presence in 26 cities across the US and Canada, initiated by two athletes in Boston. Its aim is “fitness for life,” and for free, and in the presence of other people. November Project workouts are casual, though—running over bridges, doing burpees. As a self-described “track guy,” he started to miss more structured conditioning while cheering on his November Project group twice weekly. That’s when he decided that every Tuesday he’d do his own speed work training; but because he innately likes moving around other people, he put out an open and free invitation for absolutely anyone to join him. Every Tuesday in Manhattan, his speed workouts had grown to as many as 60 people.
A few weeks ago, Honerkamp moved to Brooklyn with his fiancée. Here, his first Tuesday session happened quietly—just him. The following week, one person joined. Then, a public Facebook invitation featuring his face and an empty track behind it, declared: Join me next Tuesday in Red Hook. Just like that, his numbers shot up 12-fold.
I typically run alone. But in that particular moment, Honerkamp’s “running is just leaving the ground and moving forward,” mantras were completely welcome. Unfortunately, what running “smart” and faster meant to Honerkamp was 400 meters ten times (i.e. a 10×400). Basically, not-quite-sprinting 2.5 miles. Horrifying. “After three or four weeks, your pace starts to go down,” Honerkamp informs us matter-of-factly.
Plus, he reassures us, if you’re a runner who gets out there every day, “It’s a nice way to spice things up a little bit,” though in this case “spice” sounded suspiciously like “painful activity.” But then I remind myself I have never met a better runner than Honerkamp in real life—especially not one who apparently believes non-runners can endure the training of an elite runner who also happens to be a member of the American record-holding 4×1500-meter relay team—so in that moment, on the verge of moving myself around the track very quickly ten times, I decide that ascribing to Honerkamp’s “running ain’t no thang” mentality was a fantastic idea.
To start, a few warm ups. High knees; butt kicks; a 50-meter jaunt, while gradually accelerating. There was no time to think before moving, a good thing. Then, the main event. Fast runners—anyone who could kick out a lap around or below 1:30—formed group one. Group two, anyone slower than that, would run next, while group one took their break. And so on and so forth until each group had almost-sprinted around that godforsaken large oval ten times. “Err on going out too easy on the first couple,” Honerkamp coaches. Eventually, the goal was to work our way up to a 5k pace and stay there.
The first group, people who make it seem like running is as natural as standing, were off. A woman walked up to John, greeting him warmly. “We got so lost!” said Jeanie Tinnelly, who had just driven with her friend Gaurav all the way from the Upper West and East sides. Tinnelly has known Honerkamp since they were 13 and went to running camp together upstate. “I come to support John, mostly,” says Tinnelly. “All runners know this is how you get faster… it’s important to hold yourself accountable to the time.” Sounded like she’d spoken once or twice to Honerkamp before.
The first group finished their lap. It was our turn. My legs were leaving the ground and moving forward, just like Honerkamp said, before I could think about not wanting them to. Jeanie and Gaurav were right in front of me, my pacer beacons on a desolate landscape. “I don’t bite I promise!” Jeanie yelled in front of me. Two-thirds of the way around, things got difficult. But people were watching. Ugh. I’d keep going just as fast.
We zipped past the finish line. I huffed and puffed. “Good job,” says Jeanie and gives me a high-five. Gaurav says, “I’d much rather do a two-hour run than a 30-minute speed workout.” Of course, this was someone who ran an ultra-marathon about a month after the New York City marathon, but I totally got it. “Speed work scares me, but that’s why I’m doing it.”
Much more quickly than I anticipated, we were at lap ten (though, full disclosure, I skipped two laps to talk to people). All along Honerkamp was calling after us, “each step is one step closer to the end!” and other obvious yet very helpful statements that I would not have told myself. “You get to the eighth lap and you’re like, ‘What’s two more?’” says Jeanie. “It’s more mental than anything. And the last one is my favorite. It’s so exciting.” I couldn’t disagree.
“Last lap I would say pretend you have another one,” Honerkamp advises. Frightened, another woman adds, “But this is the last one, right?” “Yeah!” Everyone reassures in unison, and laughs. “Three, two, one!” Honerkamp counts down. Once again, with Jeanie and Gaurav in front of me, before I could live in my own pain for too long, it was over. They’d more or less sprinted two and a half miles, and I’d basically sprinted two. Afterward, everyone cheered and high-fived. If we saw or did nothing else for the rest of the day, a joint miracle had already been performed.
Honerkamp stuck around congratulating his troops. “I mostly do it for the social aspect,” says Honerkamp. “That’s George Mendes,” he says, pointing out the last guy who passed us, a Micheline-starred chef training for a half marathon. “People say they’re not runners, what’s a fake runner? Someone who dresses up for Halloween wearing tube socks and a head band?” This, I had figured out, was his standard and effective half-jokey rationale. “You just choose not to run; my job is to break down those walls for people who self assess and say, ‘I’m not a runner.’”
Then Honerkamp says goodbye to his own boss, Rob Smy, of New York Road Runners. “Everyone should show up, I don’t care whose boss is who,” says Honerkamp.
“The track is boss,” Smy counters.
“I take that back,” says Honerkamp. “The track is boss, and you run around it.”
The truly frightening had never sounded—nor, I could attest, felt—this easy.