NEW YORK—There was something anachronistic about Dr. Norbert Sander as he stood by the Armory track in Washington Heights. His soft eyes gazed into the distance at the young runners—a charge of adrenaline imminently approaching.
Sander, 71 and debonair, wore a classic tan blazer with sepia-colored pants. He spoke in a cordial tone, greeting the youths who walked past him as ladies and gentlemen. Hip-hop beats boomed in the background as runners zoomed by him.
His coeval friends are spending the twilight of their lives in Florida, Hawaii, or Arizona, where the sun shines daily and real estate prices remain low.
But the Armory in Washington Heights is the perfect place for Sander to be on this numbing January afternoon. The Armory, more than anything, is a place for new beginnings.
The Armory is where indoor runners go to break records; Olympians such as Will Claye once ran and leaped on its premium six-lane track. The building displays a panoply of runners who made history through the official National Track and Field Hall of Fame.
Sander himself ran at the Armory during his youth, and he went on to win the New York Marathon in 1974. To this day, he is the only New Yorker to have ever done so.
Sander is currently the president and executive director of the Armory Foundation, and a physician who still makes old-fashioned house calls on City Island.
His walking pace has slowed significantly these days, but he still runs 30 miles a week.
Twice a week at 8 in the morning, Sander can be seen making his rounds at the Armory track. He’s not ready to give up running, or the Armory, just yet. After all, he had won a long, hard battle to reclaim this place more than two decades ago.
The Fort Washington Avenue Armory was once a military storage built in 1909. It held its first track meet in 1914. But by the mid 1980s, the place became a homeless shelter.
This is the story of how one simple man from Yonkers reclaimed the track by insisting that money should never stop anyone from doing something worthwhile.
Running in the Dark
Sanders recalls peering out his window, agape, to see his father’s plane fly past their humble apartment next to the Sacred Heart Church.
He grew up in North Yonkers, where the people around him also grew up and stayed in Yonkers. But his father was different. He was a pilot.
“We lived in an area where everyone is very insular,” Sander said. “But my father gave me a sense of adventure, a sense that the world is a big place.”
His father used to fly to places such as Morocco, Greenland, and Iceland.
“He taught me to never not do something because of the money,” Sander said. “If it’s worth the money, then go do it.”
But Sander didn’t need money to run.
As a child, what he enjoyed most were the evening track meets for the Sacred Heart Grammar School. There was something mesmerizing about the nightlights and the cheering crowd.
“Running is a part of my life’s fabric in a sense, it is a part of my being,” he said.
Whenever he came across an open space, he would sporadically run as fast as he could.
Running got him through medical school; running even saved his life once.
Sander used to take three months out of the year to do heavy construction to pay for his studies at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He installed pipes throughout Manhattan, from the east and west side of 42nd street to Upper Manhattan.
When his shift ended at 4 a.m., he would make his nightly 10-mile run to Yonkers through a sublimely quiet New York City.
During his residency at the Lincoln Medical Center in downtown Bronx in 1973, Sander continued to go for runs in the middle of the night.
All he had to do was “outrun the bad guys,” he said with a shrug.
He had to do precisely just that on some occasions, like the time when a group of men said they were going to throw him into the river.
He recalled slowing down purposely, and just as one was about to grab him, he sped up full speed to lose them. And that was how he avoided some possibly lurid endings.
First Meet, 1956
Sander has run almost everywhere, but there is one running place that will always have a fond place in his heart. The Armory.
He had his first meet there with the Fordham Preparatory School when he was a freshman.
Sander can still remember walking into the Armory on that first Saturday of December in 1956. There were no girls racing at the time. The boys changed in the lobby.
The floor was made of wood, and in the middle was a wooden ring they raced around.
“It kept getting dislodged,” he said. “If someone hit the rim it’d go flying.”
He points to the spot where he once ran a 300-meter handicap, but slipped on the wooden floor, and slid against the wall as he turned. It left a long raw burn on his side.
He recalled seeing glimpses of an American flag on the other side of the track. But most of it was hidden by smoke. Races were filled with cigar and cigarette smokers in 1956.
When he went home that evening after the race, he felt as if he had “swallowed a can of needles.”
“Your lungs were so tight,” he said.
That was the Armory in 1956. Although it didn’t have the best conditions, he felt that it brought the community together, that it was a crucial place for children to learn discipline at a deciding age. It was that discipline that later got him through medical school.
“It’s one of the few things in life that you can start and finish in the same day,” he said. “It exhibits a sense of completion, and that’s good for young people.”
The conditions of the track, however, continued to worsen. Tuberculosis broke out at the track at one point. By the mid 1980s, the derelict track became a homeless shelter.
Getting the Key
In 1990, Sander’s old track coach at Fordham Prep, Joe Fox, passed away.
The death of the coach meant the death of an era—unless, someone did something to revive the Armory, he thought.
And so Sander began writing op-eds for the New York Times and the Daily News, to see if anyone else remembered that feeling of disciplined youth, if anyone else felt that it was being lost.
People did. Sander rallied support, but no money.
He spent some time lobbying, writing letters to politicians, and just when it seemed like it was a lost cause, the stars aligned: the court ruled a new law that limited the number of homeless people one shelter could hold.
The Armory building was sheltering 2,000 men at the time, a number well above the legal capacity. A part of the building opened up.
The day when Mayor Dinkins found out he had lost his re-election, was the day when Sander got the key to the Armory.
As his campaign crew was leaving office, a member of his office told Sander to stop by and pick up the key.
“Goodbye and good luck,” he was told.
As Sander walked away with the key and into the rain, he thought of his father.
“If it’s worth the money, then go do it,” he told himself.
A New Armory
His friends, such as an owner of a chain of running stores, got in touch with a shoe company to get funding.
They reopened in 1993 with $70,000 from the company—although a new track cost $250,000.
They started charging fees for usage and getting more investments from companies. Sander said the money will come, if you keep moving forward; and it did.
From 1993 to today, some $50 million of public and private money had been spent on the Armory.
The old Armory track was renovated into the New Balance Track and Field Center, which is a 60,000-square-foot arena that holds 100 track meets each year.
It is also a new home to the Millrose Games, one of track and field’s most prestigious annual events.
After a century of having the games at Madison Square Garden, Sander brought the Millrose Games to the Armory in 2012. More than 200 athletes share the distinction of being both Millrose and Olympic champions.
Millrose Games are happening this year on Feb. 15.
The Armory still exists alongside a homeless shelter, but within its doors, struggling children decide to go to college.
Sander noticed how many of the public school children did not apply their discipline skills to anything more after high school. Some got pregnant, others ended up on the streets.
For the past 10 years, the Armory has been holding college prep courses in addition to its after school athletic programs. According to Sanders, 95 percent of the children in that program go to college. One was even accepted into the renowned Posse Foundation this year.
“I tell you, watching young people come and run here is a very positive experience,” he said. “It gives me energy.”
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