For the athletes competing in this Sunday’s New Balance 5th Avenue Mile professional women’s heat, there is only one thing on their minds: Eat, sleep, break the streak.
The streak in question belongs to the reigning, defending champion, Jenny Simpson, who is going for her eighth 5th Avenue Mile title overall and seventh consecutive victory. Since 2011, Simpson has broken the tape seven times, with 2012 being the only blotch on an otherwise perfect record in New York City. Since then, she’s been dominant. But as the adage goes, “streaks are there to be broken,” something Simpson is all too aware of.
“The longer it goes on, the more likely it is that someone will break it,” she admitted. “I keep telling myself that I can't win this 20 years in a row. So, if I am beaten, I won’t hang my head like I am a failure.”
However, she doesn’t plan on the streak ending this Sunday. “It adds another dimension of motivation for me,” she added.
“Knowing that I’ve stood on the start line, as nervous as everyone else, and pulled it off seven times—that’s the thrill I want again. I also want to see how good I can be and it feels like winning 5th Avenue has become part of the measurement of success for me each year.”
It’s worth noting that despite her wealth of experience, Simpson still wakes up with butterflies in her stomach on race day. But rather than succumb to them, Simpson, who is an ambassador and special advisor to Rising New York Road Runners, as well as a New Balance athlete, channels that energy out on the course.
“As soon as I arrive in New York City and am surrounded by my competitors, I sense that the race is coming and it’s time to be serious,” Simpson said. “I’m lucky in that I always sleep well the night before. But the moment I wake the next morning, I immediately think ‘Today is race day.’”
That overnight transformation further fuels an incredibly competitive desire to win. “I worry that someday—at any given race—I will wake up and I won’t care as much as I did the prior year,” she said. “But so far, without fail, I wake up and feel nervous.”
Last year’s 5th Avenue win has a behind-the-scenes story that makes it one of Simpson’s favorite triumphs in New York. On race morning, some added nerves were thrown into the mix for her and the New Balance team as Simpson mulled over her choice of footwear for the race.
Leading up to race day, she’d worked with New Balance for more than a year on a prototype racing shoe. “The whole idea of the shoe was how fast can we be over the mile?” she said. Being part of the design team for a shoe built for a middle-distance event, which Simpson calls her “heart and soul,” was “incredibly exciting.”
After months of brainstorming, testing, and retesting, the 5th Avenue Mile was earmarked as the ultimate proving ground. The apparel brand left the decision in Simpson’s hands: run in your normal racing flats or try the new prototype. Not an easy decision when there was plenty on the line—including the historic streak.
Still on the fence, “an unexpected level of rainfall” added to the drama, she recalled.
“We hadn’t really discussed or considered how does this shoe behave or how good the traction was on wet NYC roads,” she explained. “We had a last-minute chat with the shoe team, going over what might seem like a lot of insignificant things such as how deep were puddles on certain parts of the course. But when you’re running this hard and giving it everything you have, you don't want to slip and lose the race.”
“You also don’t want to slip and injure yourself and not be well going into the next year of your career,” Simpson added. “So there really was a lot on the line—the proof of concept, as was the well-being of the athlete.”
Instinct took over. Simpson laced up the prototypes and took them for a few practice strides. “I just felt really confident,” she recalled. “We worked so hard, building to this moment. There was that element of ‘If we don’t race in them, we won’t know how good they are,’ so there was that curiosity, too.”
The rest, as they say, is history as Simpson stormed to another 4:19 finish. Four of her seven wins have clocked in at 4:19. It was even sweeter when Simpson’s teammate Jake Wrightman broke the tape in the professional men’s field wearing the same shoe, which will later be released to the general public as the New Balance FuelCell 5280.
This Sunday, as she chases her eighth title, Simpson will leverage her years of experience as she navigates 20 New York City blocks.
“It doesn't get any easier,” she stressed. “I have a strong sense of what it takes to win and have different strategies, but every year I'm one of the most nervous people on the start line because it’s so hard.”
Everyone who races the 5th Avenue Mile—pros and amateur runners alike—has their own strategy. Some count the streets; others key on the quarter-mile signs or pick a person in their heat to race. For Simpson, the New York City crowd is her secret weapon.
“Early in the race, I am definitely aware of the streets and counting the blocks,” she said. “If you're not in the lead, you can't always see a lot because there is a lot around you, so I look up look for the streetlights.
“About halfway, we're now competing so intensely, it becomes difficult to look at the streets. When I hit that downhill, I hit it hard and then I pay close attention to the noise of the crowd as it begins to swell. That's is the most exciting thing.”
In all her years of racing 5th Avenue, Simpson has learned how to judge the reactions of the assembled audience.
“If you're approaching the finish line in the lead and you are [comfortably] on your own, there seems to be this general spirit of cheer from the crowd,” she noted. “It feels completely different when someone is coming for you. Sometimes it can be me coming from behind, but it's more nerve-racking when it's someone chasing you, like last when year when Colleen [Quigley] chased me to a close finish. It’s the one day all year where I really rely on the crowd to sense how that last quarter mile is going.”
In partnership with New York Road Runners and USA Track & Field, NBC will broadcast the professional athlete races live on NBC at 12:30 p.m. ET. Rising New York Road Runners is proud to present the New Balance 5th Avenue Mile broadcast, which you can stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App, or with a subscription to NBC Sports Gold’s Track and Field pass.