This week our 'Top Moments' series involves long time contributor and historian to the sport Reuben Frank, who gives his picks for the top performances he's seen in person. While he currently covers the Eagles full-time for NBC Sports Philadelphia he continues to contribute to track and field through the SJTCA at sjtrackblog.com.
If you know Reuben he excels at putting together rankings and lists and with his passion for the sport we were excited to see what he would come up with. This was also a good opportunity to dive into his own beginnings with the sport both as a fan and athlete as well as his experience providing coverage, those questions can be found below his top picks and are definitely worth a read as they provide even more insight into some New Jersey running history.
Without further ado here are the top moments Reuben Frank has seen in New Jersey track and field history.
Reuben Frank's Top Moments
1) Kevin Byrne vs. Marty Ludwikowski, Millrose Games, 1975
The whole Teaneck distance team took the bus over to New York for the 1975 Millrose Games but mainly to watch the high school mile. We had raced against Kevin Byrne in XC (he won) and the Bergen Catholic sophomore was only 15 but already a folk hero. We were there to cheer on Kevin in his hugely anticipated showdown with Cherry Hill West's Marty Ludwikowski.
Expectations were massive, and the crowd was pumped. I remember they ran the HS mile just before the Wanamaker Mile, so everybody at the Garden was pumped, and as it turned out the high school mile gave the fans the race they really wanted. Kevin took off and led the first lap on the old 176-yard Madison Square Garden track, but Marty took the lead on the second lap and the two of them quickly gapped the pack and just hammered each other lap after lap. Kevin reclaimed the lead with about 1 1/2 laps to go, but Marty quickly countered and moved back in front.
The way Marty and Kevin approached the race -- running confidently and aggressively from the gun, responding to each others' moves, racing side by side for a good chunk of the race - struck a chord with the crowd at the Garden and they responded by just screaming for the duration of the race. As the race went on and Kevin and Marty battled, it just got louder and louder and louder. I had seen Yes in the same building a few months earlier and I remember thinking, "This is louder than that Yes concert!" I mean, it was bonkers. Just imagine 17,606 people screaming their heads off for a high school race. It gives me chills today just thinking about it.
Marty had a slight lead coming off the final turn, but Kevin was right there and closing on the last straight. Marty leaned, Kevin dove, and the roar was deafening. Marty hung on to win with a meet-record 4:15.5, a South Jersey record that stood for 27 years, until Marc Pelerin of Cherokee ran 4:15.16 at the 2002 Bishop Loughlin Games. Byrne was second in 4:15.6 and would go on to win Millrose the next two years, breaking Ludwikowski's meet record with a 4:08.0 running for Paramus Catholic in 1977, then the No. 4 time in U.S. history.
Astonishingly, Kevin's meet record stood for 39 years later, until Noah Affolder of Carlistle, Pa., ran 4:07.24 after Millrose moved nine miles north, from the Garden's sluggish banked boards to the Armory speedway. About 20 years after Ludwikowski's triumph, when he was coaching at Manhattan, I met him at XC sectionals at Kingsway, and I said, "Hey, you won the greatest race I ever saw." He smiled and immediately said, "Millrose." About 10 years after that I got to announce the Robbinsville Relays with Kevin and I asked him if it was really as loud at the Garden that night as I remembered. "It was louder," he said with a laugh. It was the greatest race I ever saw and will never be topped.
2) Michelle Rowen vs. Janet Smith, Meet of Champions, 1983
I had just started out at the Gloucester County Times in Woodbury in the fall of 1982 and I wasn't even covering track in the spring of 1983, but I made the trek up to South Plainfield just to watch the final Janet Smith-Michelle Rowen showdown.
The rivalry between Smith, from North Edison, and Rowen, from Washington Township, was remarkable. They remain two of the greatest runner in U.S. scholastic history and their showdowns both in XC and track in 1982 and 1983 were unforgettable. They both ran 17:40 or faster at Holmdel. They both ran sub-10:20 for 3,200 meters. They took turns beating each other and breaking each other's records, and their ultimate showdown came at the 1983 Meet of Champions at South Plainfield.
Janet had run 10:30.1 at states to edge Rowen, who ran 10:30.6. But Rowen had set a state record of 10:12.8 at the S.J. Group 4 meet at Deptford, and the same day Smith had run 10:18.6 at the C.J. Group 4 sectional at South Plainfield. They were two of the top 20 times in U.S. scholastic track history, so the anticipation of the Meet of Champions showdown was immense.
I took my favorite spot for big races - in the top row of the backstretch opposite the finish line - and stared in disbelief at my stopwatch when Michelle came through the 1,600 in 5:01. As she began gapping Smith, the crowd roared louder and louder until she crossed the line in 10:20.6, finishing 35 meters ahead of Smith, who ran 10:29.3. Rowen, Smith, Meg Waldron and Jodie Bilotta all came through New Jersey at the same time, and all four remain among the best in state history. Their battles were historic and unforgettable and none was more riveting than the Rowen-Smith duel at the 1983 Meet of Champs.
3) Rob Novak 800-SMR double, National Scholastic Outdoors, 2005
It would have been easy for Rob Novak to skip the sprint medley or maybe run the 400 leg instead of the 800 to save himself for the open 800 a day later. But Rob wasn't wired that way. He was the ultimate team guy during his years running for Bordentown and he often talked about how he'd rather win a relay than an individual race.
At 2005 Nationals in Greensboro, the sprint medley was Friday and the open 800 was Saturday. I'll never forget the disbelief and disappointment I felt for Rob when Bordentown sprint med leadoff Mike Steffen false-started. But the benevolent starter, instead of DQ'ing Bordentown, just yelled out, "OK, back in your lanes!" Steffen and Dan Millan ran the 200s for Bordentown and Fred Mendenhall the 400. Novak got the stick in sixth place but had the lead by the gun. He split 1:48.6 and gave Bordentown - a small Group 1 school tucked just below Trenton - the national title in 3:24.19, two steps ahead of Mumford High of Detroit.
One thing I remember is that it was a very hot day, and Rob needed to get out of the sun and off his legs but he stuck around and made sure he congratulated his friendly South Jersey rival Ian Waterhouse and his Rancocas Valley teammates, who had run 3:29.72 in the previous heat for sixth place overall. The sprint med was thrilling, but it was only the warmup for the next day, when Novak lined up next to U.S. No. 1 and favored Karjuan Williams of River Ridge, La., the national indoor champ.
Rob usually ran from behind, but he took off from the gun and took it to Williams, who found himself three meters back with 200 to go. Williams was fresh and Rob had split 1:48 the day before, and coming off the last turn Rob's form was starting to break down and Williams was closing. But I don't know if I've ever seen a tougher runner than Rob, who would go on to run a sub-4 mile as a post-collegiate. He gutted out that last 100 and somehow held off Williams, by a stride, Novak in 1:49.84 and Williams in 1:50.14. Before I spoke with Rob, I caught up with Williams, and all he said was, "If we ran again, I'd beat him," as he moped across the infield and out of the stadium. What a sore loser! As for Novak, the first thing he did after the race was find Steffen, Millan and Mendenhall so he could share the victory with his teammates.
Reuben Frank's Background In The Sport
What was your first involvement with the sport? Athlete at Teaneck?
Yeah, like a lot of kids, I got cut from the baseball team and didn't want to sit around, so I decided to try track. This was 9th grade at Thomas Jefferson Junior High in Teaneck. I started out as a discus-800 guy, of all things. But I used to place in dual meets in the discus and I really enjoyed learning the event.
I was a hell of a half-miler, limited only by my complete and utter lack of speed. I spent that whole summer logging miles and ran XC, indoors and outdoors as a sophomore at Teaneck. Our favorite long run was from Teaneck High out past Dwight-Englewood looking for Brooke Shields and then down to the Englewood Boat Basin and back to the high school. I got to race at Garrett Mountain and ran against legends like Kevin Byrne of Bergen Catholic, Tom Tomai of Ridgewood, Rich Rothschild of Paramus and Joe Hurley of Don Bosco.
Because of my dad's job, we moved to White Plains, N.Y., after my sophomore year at Teaneck, but that one year at Teaneck, running for coach Ted Amendola, was really the pivotal year for me where running became a huge part of my life. And it still is.
When and where did you first start covering the sport?
I covered a few meets while I was at the Gloucester County Times, my first job after college, and that was a period where Michelle Rowen was running 4:41 and 10:20 for Washington Township, future Olympian Jack Pierce of Woodbury was at Morgan State winning Penn Relays track MVP and future NFL star Flipper Anderson was running 10.4 and 21.2 for Paulsboro, so it was a pretty good way to start out. But I didn't start covering XC and track full-time until I got to the Burlington County Times in the fall of 1985.
One day soon after I started, my boss - Wayne Richardson, a dear friend to this day - apologetically told me I would have to cover cross country and track. I was elated. In my years at Burlington I was so lucky to cover 25 straight Penn Relays, every invitational, conference and county meet and state meet, two Olympic Trials and write about Olympic gold medalists like Lamont Smith, Carl Lewis and Carol Lewis, college All-Americas like Tonya Lee, Michelle DiMuro and Mike Morrison and high school studs like Jon Anderson, Gerard Reynolds and Michelle Brown. And get to work alongside track obsessives like Jim Lambert, Rich Bevensee, Paul Schwartz and Ed Grant.
I loved every minute of it, even the cold, windy, rainy April relay meets. I got to watch some of the most talented runners, jumpers and throwers in the world through track and met some of my best friends through track.
When I left the newspaper in 2010 and began covering the Eagles full-time for NBC Sports Philadelphia I missed the sport so I began announcing meets - Easterns, states, Burlington County Open, Woodbury Relays, Meet of Champions - and then in 2014, as newspaper coverage of the sport continued to wane, the South Jersey Track Coaches Association asked me to start a track and field blog, which continues to this day at sjtrackblog.com. I'll always find some way to be associated with the sport. It's one of the most important things in my life.
Any interesting stories?
When I started at the Gloucester County Times in the fall of 1982 I was new to the area and had probably never even set foot in South Jersey. The office was in Woodbury, and one of my first discoveries was a little running shop in Woodbury - right across the street from the paper - called Sports East. Back then running was still kind of a fringe activity and there weren't many places you could go to get running shoes, race applications, running gear, etc.
Sports East was a dream come true. It was a tiny little storefront but it was just jam packed floor to ceiling with stuff. Racks of singlets, boxes of shorts, running shoes all over the place, hats and gloves, piles of warmup tops, spikes, running books, boxes of old Runner's Worlds, giant bins of used running gear. You name it, they had it. I once bought a pair of used Toms River East running shorts for $3 and I wore them for 20 years. I fell in love with that store and stopped in there a few times a week, before work or during my lunch break.
I quickly became friendly with the quiet, amiable guy who ran the place. I remember buying a pair of white Nike Cortez Nylons from Sports East, and I'd always pop in and scoop up all the new race applications because I was running two or three 5Ks or 10Ks a month back then. I'd always pop into the store on Monday before work and tell the that nice dude behind the counter about my latest race, and he'd be all excited for me. He'd ask about my splits, how fast I went out, how challenging the course was and what races I had coming up. I'd tell him my times and he was always so impressed.
There was no real running community back then, so that little store became my running community. This guy spoke my language. He was just so nice and supportive. I was at a new job in a new part of the country, I knew literally nobody outside work and I had no money, and it helped me start to feel settled knowing I could always bop into Sports East.
After about a year at the paper, I was assigned a story about a local man, Browning Ross, who had fought in the Navy in World War II, became a star runner at Villanova and raced the steeplechase in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. He was being enshrined in some local Hall of Fame and could I talk to him and write a story? Wow, a track Olympian lived right here in Woodbury? That's incredible! I told my boss I'd love to do the story, just let me know how to get in touch with him. "Oh, he owns the running shop across the street."
The wheels in my head began spinning and the realization suddenly hit me that I had been bragging for a year about my stupid 45-minute 10Ks to a two-time Olympian. And he never let on. Not a clue. He was always so impressed by my silly little PRs and would congratulate me on accomplishments that must have seemed so pedestrian to him. I must have seemed like a complete idiot running into the shop and bragging about some 10K time I just ran in Lansdale to an Olympic steeplechaser.
I went over there to interview Browning for the story, and we had a good laugh about the whole thing. I was like, "WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME?" He just smiled. Of course he didn't tell me. With Browning, it was never about him. It was always about everyone else, and that's how he lived his life. Browning died in 1998, but I think about him all the time. Because I learned so much from him. And most of it had nothing at all to do with running.