Finishing his warm-up on a high school track in Plainview last month, Joe Picini stopped and faced the crowd of 18 friends and family members who had assembled to witness his one-man race against the clock.
"Hey guys, thanks for coming," he said. "We're trying to turn back the hands of time here."
Picini -- a longtime competitive runner who also coaches runners -- had set himself an ambitious goal. On this Sunday morning in mid-August, he was attempting to break a five-minute mile, a lofty achievement for any runner, particularly Picini, who was 10 days shy of his 57th birthday.
As it turned out, those hands of time refused to stand still: Although he was on pace in the first quarter mile to reach his goal, he slowly began to fade behind his pacesetter, and by the last lap, he was struggling. Picini missed his five-minute goal by 39 seconds, which may sound like a trivial amount of time in a round of golf or a senior league softball game, but it's a huge chasm in middle-distance running.
At the end of his four-lap effort at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School, onlookers applauded as Picini walked slowly around the track, hands on hips and still panting from the exertion made for a feat that most men his age wouldn't think of attempting. Had he been so inclined, there were reasons he could have cited to explain why he fell short of his target.
For weeks, he'd been battling an injury to his piriformis -- a gluteal muscle that helps provide the push-off power in the running motion. There was also the low-level cold he'd been fighting that, two days after his run, turned into a sinus infection and a fever.
But he declined to explain away his failure to reach his goal. "Just excuses," said Picini, who is a business operations consultant from Farmingdale. "There aren't any. This is what I did today."
At 5:39, his time was still enough to impress many of those on hand for what was jokingly called "The Last Mile." Had he made it, it would have put him in an elite class nationally. Only a few men his age have run that fast.
Picini has run the mile in under five minutes numerous times over the course of a track career that began at Deer Park High School, where he was an All-State runner. He last achieved that time at age 40, and he had come close in the years since. But in the fall of 2012, an acute case of patellofemoral pain syndrome -- an irritation of the soft tissues around the front of the knee -- left him unable to run for a year.
The injury made Picini realize that competitive mile racing -- with its requisite high-intensity training -- probably was something he needed to begin phasing out as he approached age 60. He had hoped to do it with a bang before turning 57 on Aug. 27, but the fact that he missed his goal by 39 seconds didn't really alter the perception that this chiseled, nearly 6-foot-tall, 164-pound man was in peak condition for his age.
"I think it's pretty amazing," said his 17-year-old son, Nicky, who was on hand with his mother, Michele; sister, Cami, 19; and brother, Frankie, 11.
"He can outkick me!" said Picini's friend, training partner and pacesetter, Bob Ostroff of Wantagh. Ostroff, 40, should know; he and Picini had worked for months preparing for the Plainview event.
Training for a target like this is not merely a matter of going out for a few Sunday-morning jogs through the neighborhood. The six-month program involved long, grueling sessions of shorter, harder runs on the track to build the speed necessary to run 75-second quarter miles, as well as stamina-building, weekly long runs of eight to 10 miles to help him, as coaches like to say, "carry" that speed over the course of four laps.
"It was an incredible journey," Picini said of his training.
Applauding the goal
It also is a lesson in the real value of goal-setting at an older age, particularly in the pursuit of greater health and fitness. "I applaud what he [Picini] did," said Hank Williford, a fitness specialist who does research relating to older adults at the Montgomery, Alabama, campus of Auburn University. "If you don't have goals, it's hard to get excited about going out there every day and training. The goals help you establish the motivation you need to keep going."
For Picini, the goal was born out of inspiration. During his rehab from the knee injury, he had read Neal Bascomb's book, "The Perfect Mile," about the attempt by Roger Bannister and others to break the then-mythical four-minute time barrier in the one-mile distance. Bannister became the first man to do it, in 1954.
"That became my 'vision quest,' " Picini said. "I'm just making it age-appropriate by going for a sub-five, not sub-four."
As it turned out, perhaps even that was too ambitious. But, as Picini admitted, "I like to dream big."
Nothing wrong with that, said Dr. Edward Phillips, an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, and founder and director of The Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Joslin Diabetes Center. "You've got to have the big goals," Phillips said, "but you also need the little goals to rein you in."
Phillips, who deals with a predominantly older population in his practice, said he is constantly talking with his patients about goals: how to set them and how to adjust them. "I tell patients, 'Has anyone talked to you about flexibility training?' " Phillips said. "They think I'm talking about stretching or yoga, but I say to them, 'What about flexibility of mind? How about some flexibility in your goals? How about trying something new?' "
Phillips adds that "new" doesn't necessarily mean going out and trying to run the fastest mile you can. It could be walking around the block, and doing it consistently. It could be swimming, biking, attending a yoga or exercise class, or wearing a pedometer to count the number of steps you take each day.
Picini's finish time should be commended, said Ryan Lamppa, president of Bring Back the Mile -- a group based in Santa Barbara, California, that advocates the return of this storied distance to high school racing (where 1,500 meters for girls and 1,600 meters for boys are now the equivalent competitive distances). Picini's 5:39 mile at nearly 57 years old, Lamppa said, is still "lower national-class level . . . certainly not a jog."
As Picini walked off the track after his run, it was still a bit early to start thinking about his next goal. But, as the name of his consulting company -- Dream Catcher Inspirations -- suggests, Picini likes to reach for the stars. So he may set his sights next on racing well at longer distances in road running, one more try at the mile, or something else entirely.
What comes next
While he conjures up his next dream, Picini said he will continue to run and train and maintain his fitness.
"This guy is obviously in superb shape," Phillips said. "And he's smart enough to know that that's the victory and the ultimate goal."
For now, Picini is enjoying the journey that took him back to the track that morning, and he hopes other older adults will be inspired to follow suit, no matter what their goal. "You must put your dreams in motion," he said.