Montgomery County

Duel on the track: Reporter vs. Amsterdam’s standout sprinter

What can Daily Gazette reporter — and ex-high school sprinter — Jeff Wilkin do with a 150-meter lead
Izaiah Brown, left, catches and flies past Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin in their 400-meter race at Amsterdam High School.
Izaiah Brown, left, catches and flies past Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin in their 400-meter race at Amsterdam High School.

Izaiah Brown was ready.

The Amsterdam teenager — state record holder in the 400-meter run — stood in lane two on the Amsterdam High School track. He was at the end of the straightaway, near the first turn.

I was also on stand-by, in lane one. I was minutes away from my first sprint on a high school track since 1973, and Mr. Brown had generously given me a 150-meter lead.

My position was halfway up the straightaway on the far side of the track. Izaiah would run a full lap, a complete 400 meters. I would only have to run 250.

The great race was all for fun, and the chance for Brown to wear a “GoPro” camera — a camera that can be worn to record all types of motions. Amsterdam track coach Kevin Wilary treated the exhibition with some dramatics. He stood on the track infield, not far from Izaiah, and gave commands to both contestants.

“Runners take your marks,” he said, in strong voice.

“Get set . . .”


Young Izaiah has run his last race for Amsterdam High. He’ll enter Rutgers University this fall on an athletic scholarship, and begin studies to become a dentist. He’s tall, slender and deceptively strong. You’ve got to be tough to run the grueling 400.

“It’s like a punishment, almost,” said the 18-year-old Brown, before we stepped onto the track’s red surface. “From start to finish, it’s such a hard race. You’re going basically full speed and you have to maintain that full speed straight to the finish.”

Brown’s personal best for one full-speed lap around the track is 46.40, the state record set at the NYS meet last month at the University at Albany. While the race is both a physical and mental challenge, Brown said running it well can reward runners with feelings of euphoria and accomplishment.

“It is a pure joy, running out there,” Brown said. “It’s great having competition with you. And when everyone finishes, you all turn around and congratulate each other because you know you all just went through a horrible race, the guys are all panting, you’re tired, sometimes you can barely stand up. It takes a toll on your legs, but getting across the line is probably the most victorious part because you made it through it.”

It wasn’t always so easy.

“I thought I’d do track to keep myself fit — you know, typical boy dream, make yourself look nicer,” Brown said. “When I was younger, I was scrawny, like the little kid in the corner who did nothing.”

He knew he had serious talent by his freshman year. So did bunches of other coaches and runners; Brown cracked 50 seconds for the first time at Schenectady’s Eddy Meet. He didn’t just sneak in at 49.8 or 49.9 — his 47.8 broke the state record for freshmen.

Speed went up and times came down. Brown has a system when the starter’s pistol is fired.

“I have tunnel vision,” he said. “I see the people in front of me, its almost like a targeting system . . . I see legs moving in front of me, and I catch up to them.”

Going out hard

We both went out hard on this windy, 78-degree afternoon. I had some early speed, but knew I was a marked man: The Izaiah Brown targeting system had been engaged.

I ran toward the track’s second turn, using a long stride that has only rarely been utilized in recent years. I knew there was a human rocket behind me, but I had my breathing rhythm, was pumping arms up and down and my calf muscles felt pretty good. The second turn was just ahead.

At 60, I had been given 150 yards. But I had spotted my opponent 42 years.

Back in the day

During the early 1970s, I was a quarter-miler for Aquinas Institute in Rochester. In those days, the 400 was the 440-yard dash. By my senior year in 1973, I was probably running in the mid-50s for most meets. My personal best was 52.9, off a relay split.

My friend Mark Whalen was our top quarter man, a strong, muscular kid who generally ran around 50 or 51. And while other Aquinas runners could have bested me in the 440, Mark and I were our top entrants in the quarter. I’ve always been proud of the fact we took 1-2 in most of our races.

To prepare for my “race” against Izaiah, I solicited advice from two former teammates.

“Run hard until you get to your top cruising speed,” said Dennis Heizyk, our hurdles and jump events king. “Maintain that until the final straightaway, then kick up to whatever you have left.”

Greg Fox, who ran the two-mile, took a more humorous approach.

“Use your Gremlin and you might come in second,” said Fox, who remembered my first car. “Besides that, oxygen is a must halfway through the race and plenty of Advil after.”

My brother Tim, who covers horse racing for The Times Union, set the odds — 1-9 for Izaiah and 1,000-1 for me. “Maybe they should have an ambulance follow you around the track,” he suggested.

Very clever. That’s the routine for races at Saratoga and other race courses, just in case horses and jockeys get into trouble.

Even my doctor offered some words of counsel. It was just a coincidence, but I had my annual physical with Dr. George B. Hughes shortly before my trip to Amsterdam. “Start low and stay slow,” Hughes said, kind of amused by the whole endeavor.

I did have a secret weapon, thanks to Bob D’Ettore. D’Ettore, another ’73 Aquinas graduate, has remained at our old school as a physical education teacher and football coach. I asked him if I could borrow an AQ track jersey.

D’Ettore mailed the maroon and white singlet to Schenectady with a note: “Good luck in your race,” he wrote. “Do us proud.”

For that, I probably should have asked Bob to mail me an Aquinas quarter-miler.

Down the stretch

I had nearly completed the second turn and was preparing for the final straightaway. I had heard Izaiah likes to run after people and knew he had to be close — like a wolf running down a rabbit.

He was. He didn’t just pull even and pull away; he sprinted past me and accelerated toward our finish line at the end of the straight. No “Whoosh!” or “Swoosh!” or any other science-fiction, turbo-charge sound effect. Just quiet, efficient, pure speed. As the second choice in this race, at 1,000-1 odds, I wasn’t going to stay with him. Not even driving an AMC Gremlin.

The 400 isn’t even Brown’s favorite race. He likes the “4-by-400” relay, where four guys each do one lap. We used to call it the mile relay, before all this metric business took over.

“It’s such a team effort, its not just you alone,” he said.

“You all depend on each other, and it’s also fun to watch because competition is really just high. Especially when we go out to big meets like states and stuff like that, it’s just a thrill to run out there.”

Brown will leave Amsterdam, but hasn’t run his last laps on the school track.

“This is the track I grew up with, it’s always going to be my home,” he said. “I’m going to come back for track meets, I want to be able to help and tell my story, tell how I came from not thinking I could do anything to me being one of the best athletes in the country. It’s a good story to tell, and I want to encourage other athletes to strive big and reach for the stars.”

Brown probably beat me by 40 or 50 yards, or 50 or 60 meters, take your pick. I maintained my stride and finished as strong as I could.

In the end, Coach Wilary said Izaiah ran his 400 in 47-something, his third-fastest time on the Amsterdam track. I was 54-something for my 250 meters, not real fast but not a real dishonor for such an outdated 440 man. Good thing I had that Aquinas jersey — running in the old colors probably took 10 seconds off my time.

Both of us were breathing hard at the end. We shook hands, and the polite Izaiah paid me a great compliment.

“You made me work,” he said.

Maybe not that hard, but it was nice of him to say that. We joked around a little bit, took some pictures, and Izaiah promised me a rematch. Maybe I’ll only be 950-1 by next summer.

Impressive youth

At Amsterdam, I was once again glad to finish second. I was more impressed with Brown’s quiet strength and confidence. I’ve met a bunch of cool high school kids over the past year, like Schenectady High actress Genausha Moses and Shenendehowa actor Nick DeMasi. Like Genausha and Nick, Izaiah is fun to talk to. Just a regular guy who makes you feel good about the coming generation.

As years go by, Brown may find out something us more-experienced quarter-milers have learned. Speed does fade away.

But class never does. I think Izaiah Brown will always have class, on and off the track.

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. His blog is at

Categories: Life and Arts

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