Monday, January 16, 2012

Racing the Mile

My friend Marcus and I spoke in the summer.  "When I turn 40, I'm thinking about trying to run a 4-minute something mile," he said.  Read, 4:59 mile.  "You in?"  I said I was up for the challenge and once I'd finished a short rest period in late November, began training just for this race.

For a month and a half, I did 2 or 3 speed workouts a week at different tracks where I could find them.  It turns out that many public schools with nice all-weather tracks also have nice, all-weather fences and all-weather locks on them so there are limited choices.  Only the private schools or cinder tracks seem open to me getting in my speed work.

Speed work can be very painful.  As I would start running, I would think, "Ok, here it comes," as the first strides around the track quickly grind down to a contest of will.  Do I have the will to keep up this pain until the white line that looms in the distance across the track?  Will I make it across the line before I lose total control of my legs or my sense of balance goes such that I stumble on the turns?  Will I keep enough oxygen in my system so my eyes continue to work?

As race day came, I was determined to feel a lot of pain.  My A-goal was a 4:59 mile.  My B-goal was a 5:08 mile (1 second per lap slower then my goal) and my C-goal was simply to be in a lot of pain.  My real question was - could I take the pain?  For inspiration, I would recall the story of a Navy Seal going for the record underwater swim.  In an olympic sized pool with his buddies standing by, the dove under water and swam back and forth, taking no breath's until ... he simply blacked out and stopped swimming.  His buddies would dive in, haul his lifeless body out, and pump air back into him until he started breathing.

I wanted to have that kind of will and feel that kind of pain.

The indoor track meet had record attendance and as such, there were 2 heats of women's miles and 4 heats of men's miles.  My race started an hour behind schedule.  Still, I felt warmed up, running in the warmth for the first time in months.  Well, besides a treadmill.

In the mix right after the start.  In orange racing singlet.
I lined up behind the front line in our 12 person Elite mile race.  I was running with the fastest guys so when I was immediately off the back of the pack, I didn't mind.  As I came around the first half of the 8-lap race, I glanced at my watch.  "Crap," I thought.  "Too fast."  I had gone out almost 2 seconds faster the my goal.  I put on the breaks.

Lap 2 and way behind.  Thanks Julienne for the pics!
Oops, too much break.  I came around the first lap 2 seconds slow.  Still losing ground on the people ahead of me, I stepped up the pace a bit.  At lap 2, I was 4 second behind my goal.  "Man," I thought, "I have got to go."  Just like I did in practice, I began to swing my arms more consciously and started pushing.  Half way through the race, I was still 4 seconds down but glad to not be losing time.

I had run 800m repeats in practice and they had nearly crippled me, trying to run at full speed.  Now, I had just completed the same distance and felt fine.  I didn't feel fresh, but I didn't feel the strain of "rigging" up, when the lactic acid in one's legs and arms start to restrict full range of motion.  I had planned on fighting through this feeling but now in the excitement of the race, I barely noticed it.  Was I even going fast enough to feel it?

I have not raced the mile in 22 years and my inexperience was showing.  Still, as we moved into 6 laps, I passed the first runner.  We were coming into the back straight when I caught him.  I was worried he would fight me and force me to pass on the turn.  Instead, I glided easily by him and finished my 6th lap.  The coach from our summer track sessions was by the line and said, "Good, good," as I began my 7th lap.  The race was passing by my disembodied consciousness so quickly, it wasn't until the the end of the first turn of the 7th lap that I remembered that now was "go" time.

I had practiced so many times on a 4-lap to a mile track that 8-laps was just the little change that again showed my inexperience.  I finally began pushing and passed another running with 1 lap to go.

I pushed and pushed on the last lap, hoping for the leg burn that I had grown to expect after even a single fast lap of the track.  I began to get the tingle and slightly off-beat step in the final turn so I knew I was satisfyingly tired.  Still, I had planned for this burn to last 1/2 the race.  Again, there were so many new things about the race that I wasn't focusing properly.

Crossing the line.  Note the two runners behind me.  Thanks Julienne for the pics!
As I crossed the line, I was too tired to grab the paper from the line official.  I was glad to see I was exhausted.

Later, after my breathing had calmed down, I walked to the race table.  I found my time - 5:04, and found that I was pleased.  It was clear to me that I have the fitness to run faster.  It was my race inexperience that caught me off guard.  I had run the last 6 laps at the pace I needed to reach my goal.  For the next race, to be held the next weekend, I would not put on the breaks if I found that my first 1/2 lap was too fast.  It was that one move, I feel, that cost my my goal.

Interestingly, looking at the Jack Daniel's (I know, not that one) race time prediction charts, I found my best 5k time from the summer - 17:24.  Then I slid across to my predicted mile time based on that performance.  5:04.  Well, I thought.  At least I'm consistent.