It hurts my eyes.
It’s the first thing you notice in Albuquerque. The sun was strong enough to make me squint just coming through the airplane windows as we descended. I came from the land of ice and snow, where winters are long and dark and cloudy and grey. I liked the brightness but it was a sudden change.
I met my associate who would act as our photographer, a thin bald man with a reputation that preceded him. Let’s call him…Schrodinger. We went to pick up our rental car and everything seemed kind of familiar. It would to you too if you are a fan of Breaking Bad, which was shot entirely in and around Albuquerque. People come to this city to go around and see all the locations used for the show. I didn’t have time for that. I was here to cover a track meet.
And why in the heck are the USATF Indoor Championships here? It’s an out-of-the-way place. You don’t need to run indoors here; it was sunny and 68° on both Saturday and Sunday. It’s at a mile of altitude and that affects distance runners, a point made by Nick Symmonds in a Millrose Games interview.
It’s here because it’s not somewhere else. There aren’t that many places it has been or could be. Since 1970, the indoor nationals have been held in just four cities; New York, Atlanta, Boston, and now Albuquerque. Through 1993 they were in Madison Square Garden and were open to foreign athletes as well as Americans. Then the meet moved to the Georgia Dome (whose track is now in Boise, Idaho), then back to New York in the Armory for a year, then to Boston’s Reggie Lewis Center. Since 2010, the meet has been in Albuquerque.
The meet needs a 200 meter banked track and those are hard to find. Just three US cities of more than 500,000 people have them: New York, Boston, and Albuquerque. None of those cities have bid against ABQ so the meet is here.
Schrodinger and I got to our room in a 60s-style motel, a no-name place old enough that it should have been run-down and seedy and nasty. It wasn’t. It felt weird. As we were unloading our bags, we saw a skinny blonde guy exit the next room and begin running down the road. We couldn’t be certain because we only saw him from the back but it sure looked like Ryan Hall. The maids said “that guy goes out and runs a lot”. We never saw him again.
We walked down to the convention center to pick up our press passes and begin work. The first thing we saw when you walk into the exhibition hall was the back of the homestretch bleachers. It felt more like a high school graduation than a major sporting event until we walked around and saw the track. When the athletes run around the board track it rumbles and shakes and sounds like waiting in line to ride an old wooden roller coaster.
The first day’s action had plenty of field events and a lot of qualifying heats but only two finals. The women’s 3000 meter final was a study in yellow. Brooks outfitted the majority of the field, all in matching yellow tops. On the first turn of the final lap, a yellow flag was raised. In Breaking Bad, yellow meant caution, and it meant that something was about to happen. It certainly did here.
We walked back to our motel–I to write, Schrodinger to edit and upload photos. Before long it was time to go find some food and get blotto. There was one place I’d heard of that I wanted to check out: Burt’s Tiki Lounge. The name made it sound hopelessly outdated, the kind of place where I might run into Charo or Don Rickles, where I could down a big fruity drink among potted palms while carvings of angry Polynesian gods glared at me. We went. It sucked. The only thing “tiki” about it was the name. I expected Jon Taffer to come in and start yelling at the management. Despite my disappointment, we found plenty of beer in Albuquerque.
Strangely we still woke up early enough to get out for a couple of miles. We went out in shorts and short sleeves despite the 38° temperature because 38 in New Mexico does not feel like 38 in Ohio. We ran slow and it felt hard. Schrodinger blamed the altitude. I blamed a climb of 256 feet in less than a mile. Neither of us blamed the previous evening’s activities.
We only ran a mile straight up Central Avenue and back to the motel but we got a better picture of what this part of Albuquerque was about. The University of New Mexico, always referred to as “UNM”, is a large feature of the city due to its 35,000 students but only mentioned in passing on Breaking Bad and never shown. We realized we were staying on what was once known as Route 66, still the route for the classic western road trip (which explained the ancient but well-preserved motels). Even Breaking Bad‘s rundown hangout for drug addicts and prostitutes and drug-addicted prostitutes, the Crossroads Motel, was in very good shape.
The city, or at least the par we saw, is artsy and sometimes in ways I’ve never seen. Example: the former Albuquerque High School, replaced in 1974 by a new building (the one seen in Breaking Bad) has been converted into loft apartments. Doors, handrails and blackboards were preserved in the conversion, and the library and gymnasium are still used for their original purposes by the tenants.
We found the anachronism we were looking for at The Frontier. The barn of a restaurant sits across Central Avenue from UNM and it brings in customers from all walks of life. College kids, suburbanites, travelers, old men in flannel shirts and bolo ties and Wrangler jeans with crisp creases ironed into them. It smelled like what you think New Mexico should smell like and tasted even better. Schrodinger ordered huevos rancheros: “what kind of chiles do you want on it?” He asked what they had and after what seemed like dozens of options he went with the first one he heard (the only one he could remember). The décor is Western Art straight out of fifty years ago; John Wayne paintings, horseback Native American figurines. Whole oranges in a wire basket slowly dropped into a juice machine. Tortillas were hand-made. The employees wore white aprons and paper “soda jerk” hats. True elevator music played over the speakers. All without irony. It has all worked since the day it opened in 1971 so why change? And everybody, everybody, seems to love it. At Burt’s Tiki Lounge I was looking for an experience that would have been ridiculed in Jan and Michael Stern’s Encyclopedia of Bad Taste but The Frontier gave one that they would–and did–celebrate in their Road Food. Michael lists it as one of his ten favorite restaurants in the entire United States.
Getting back to the motel yanked us back into the moment. Disqualification. Controversy. And a response nothing like it had ever been before. The history of track and field is littered with athletes who got unjustly screwed by the powerful so this was nothing new. But back then people only knew about it if they were directly told or read about it in the newspaper. Reviewing the incident’s video would have been either difficult or impossible. News reports would have tried to take an unbiased view and present both sides. A small number of people would have been steamed but nothing would have happened.
Not now. People knew about this all over the world within hours of the disqualification. Everyone could view the video and read the rulebook. Citizen reporting didn’t pretend to be objective; blogs, the bastard grandchildren of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism, know that objectivity doesn’t exist.
At the track I bumped into a senior official I know, one who’s been around forever and has seen his share of controversies. He couldn’t talk about the issue but asked me if I’d seen the video at USATF.tv (of course I had). He said “that video is the best”–and here he paused two seconds for effect–“view of what happened.” That was his silent message that it was the only view of what happened, that no other video existed.
People everywhere were bitching about USATF like it is a single entity, Star Trek’s Borg or an army of zombies that can be controlled at will. It isn’t. The right call was made at first. Salazar challenged it once, was rightly denied, and challenged again, and was rightly denied again. Peter denied Jesus three times, but senior officials would not let it happen to Salazar. Another individual told me “The officials who made the decision and appeal are certain they made the correct call. When it got kicked upstairs to women’s chair, that’s when things changed…People are disgusted at the process.” The organization isn’t rotten to the core, only at the top.
The rest of the day turned into a regular track meet and a great one at that. Favorites won. Upsets happened. Records were broken. Athletes walked around and mixed with the crowd. Nick Symmonds was spotted sitting a row behind Miss New Mexico. Either he was unaware of her presence or he didn’t care. I’ve seen better fan turnouts for championship meets but I’ve seen plenty of worse ones too.
After another afternoon of work, Schrodinger and I set out for our last evening out in Albuquerque. We stopped at a hip little joint called the Standard Diner. It’s a Route 66-era Texaco service station turned into a diner and bar. Across the way Sarah Brown quietly shared a milkshake with her coach and friends in a rounded Naugahyde corner booth.
What about that altitude the Symmonds mentioned? Its effects appear to be greatly exaggerated. Ten men in the 1500 recorded indoor PRs, nine in the women’s race. Symmonds ran his best time of the year despite being sick. Mary Cain ran the fastest indoor 1500 ever at high altitude, and the third-fastest of her career.
Breaking Bad took Albuquerque and made it into a blank slate, a boring tranquil suburban existence juxtaposed against a terrifying underworld. We didn’t see the whole place but I suppose that could be true for people who have lived there for years. What we saw was the Duke City, a place that has both the old and the new. The city supports this track meet and college and pro athletes come in all winter to train and race. We were happy that it was here and we want to come back.
The only Breaking Bad location I stopped at was Taco Cabeza. Jesse Pinkman was right. Nobody got shot at Taco Cabeza. But they didn’t even have tacos. It was all boarded up.