Flying Under The Radar With Bobby Curtis

Bobby Curtis, shown here running 1:01:54 in his half-marathon debut at the Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon in September, is hoping for a strong first marathon this Sunday in New York City. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Competitor.com contributor Duncan Larkin went on a run with top American Bobby Curtis just a few days before Sunday’s ING New York City Marathon. He shares his experience with the soft-spoken marathon debutant in this exclusive first-person piece.

Written by: Duncan Larkin

Bobby Curtis, shown here running 1:01:54 in his half-marathon debut at the Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon in September, is hoping for a strong first marathon this Sunday in New York City. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Bobby Curtis doesn’t exactly stand out in a hotel lobby, especially that of the New York City Hilton on Sixth Avenue, a place where hundreds of runners–including the top elites–stay when they’re in town for the ING New York City Marathon. It’s convenient location is but a short jog to the finish line in iconic Central Park. This lobby is a spot where someone like Emmanuel Mutai, the fastest marathoner in history, could be standing in the concierge line next to Joe Marathoner–or the likes of defending champion, Gebre Gebremariam.

But I recognized Curtis, with a lean look and fit frame distinguishing him from the masses scattered about the room.

Curtis, one of the top American runners at this year’s race, sauntered over to me. We had originally agreed to meet at 2 p.m. I was a bit late; he was right on time. Bobby was wearing Reebok trainers and in his hands he held a pair of racing flats. There were five days until the big race in The Big Apple, which would be Curtis’ marathon debut. He didn’t look that nervous.

“Are you OK with a few miles jog?” he asked me.

I was. But I wasn’t OK with what was in store after that: two to three miles at 5:00-per-mile, his race pace.

“I’ll sit on a bench while you do that part,” I told him.

While we jogged down New York’s cavernous avenues on the way to Central Park, I asked Bobby about Sunday’s upcoming endeavor.

“I’m really going into this thing with realistic expectations,” he told me. “I’m kind of flying under the radar.”

“You’re one of the top Americans,” I exclaimed. “At today’s press conference, there wasn’t a vacant seat near you. You aren’t necessarily flying under the radar, Bobby.”

He shrugged. Bobby is a laid-back guy and so he shrugs a lot.

“I mean there are a lot of people, Americans, looking up to you,” I said. “You ran a 61-minute half marathon in September.” (It was 61:52 to be exact.)

“Look, I’m not Ryan Hall and I’m no Meb Keflezighi,” he responded. “It’s my first marathon and it’s New York. I’m going to go into this thing with realistic expectations. I’m going to go out conservative at the start. I’m probably not going to be running with the leaders in the beginning.”

Curtis is a Villanova University graduate. A multiple Big East Champion and an All-American in both cross-country and track, he trained under the esteemed Irish miler, Marcus O’Sullivan. Though he graduated from college three years ago, Curtis likes to talk a lot about his former coach. Sullivan remains a key figure in Curtis’ development as a runner. And the more you learn about Bobby—like the fact that his father passed away when he was just seven—the more you realize that O’Sullivan has taken on something of a paternal role for Curtis. “Marcus doesn’t really tell me specifically what to do, running-wise anymore,” Curtis says. “He’s just there for me.”

“So are you self-coached, then?” I ask.

Earlier this year at the Payton Jordan Invitational, Curtis (277) finished second in the men's 10,000 meters in a personal best, 27:24.67. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Bobby shakes his head and proceeds to tell me about Nic Bideau. “Nic”, an Australian who helped coach Cathy Freeman to an Olympic gold medal in the 400m and 5,000-meter man Craig Mottram to his Commonwealth Games silver, is Bobby’s official coach. It was O’Sullivan who introduced Curtis to Bideau.

“Nic will tell me what kind of mileage and workouts to be doing on a daily basis,” Curtis says. “Marcus is pretty casual. He’s there in an informal sort of way. You could say he’s my mentor.”

By that point we reach the part of Central Park where Bobby will head off for his solitary race-pace miles and I will sit on a bench and wait for him. He takes off his long-sleeved shirt and begins a series of odd-looking stretches. I ask him his philosophy on stretching.

Though he appears to be going through some sort of standardized routine as he prepares for his run, Curtis admits he’s “pretty lazy” and only does moderate stretching. “I’m not a foam-roller kind of guy,” he says. “I’m not the kind of runner who sits in front of a television for hours doing stretches.”

I ask him what kind of stretcher he is and he tells me he’s into “activation exercises.”

“I like stretches that will give me a quick result,” he says while crouching down, raising his hands in the air, and then suddenly dropping them like a sumo wrestler. At that point, Curtis stands up straight, dons his flats, taps his watch, and takes off down the gravelly bridle path.

After 30 minutes, he returns, breathing normally. A small pool of sweat has formed under his arms, but that’s the only visible sign of his efforts.

“Did anyone recognize you out there?” I ask.

Bobby smiles. “Nope.”

“Under the radar?”

“Under the radar.”

On our run back to his hotel, I ask Bobby about what it means to him to be running through America’s largest city, a city of eight million people, as one of the fastest prospects, and possibly the top American on Sunday.

He shrugs.

“C’mon, Bobby, you are living the dream, right?” I ask.

He chuckles. “I don’t know. That phrase always makes me laugh. I mean, I could tell people that I’m living the dream, but if I do, someone else could point out that I’m seven minutes slower than some unknown Kenyan guy in Eldoret. It’s all relative.”

I ask him what it means to be a professional American long-distance runner on the brink of his big debut–if he’s feeling any extra pressure to perform well in his first go at racing 26.2 miles.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” he says. “If I were an NFL quarterback and choked, then people would be calling for my hide, but that’s not how running works in this country. We’re more forgiving.”

I remind him of the Letsrun.com peanut gallery.

He continues: “People that I care about know that my first marathon may not go as expected and they will tell me that it’s OK. It’s not the end-all-be-all.”

We reach the end of Central Park and stop running. Soon, we reach the hotel lobby. Bobby shakes my hand and I wish him luck as he disappears into the elevator.

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