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The magic of the mile

LATE ON A FRIDAY EVENING: the mid-June sun is lingering, a soft breeze blows, and I’m standing on a red clay track behind a line of white chalk along with eight other middle-aged guys. We’re all outfitted in similar singlets, shorts and racing spikes. I’m uncharacteristically nervous before a race.

The sound system is blasting classic soul as the race starter issues instructions. He shows us the first place prize: a handsome bottle of Dom Pérignon champagne. A few seconds later, his pistol sounds BANG! and we lunge towards the first corner, elbows high as we jostle for position on the crowded inside lane.

It’s the Cambridge Classic Mile, and we’re the 15th race of the evening, officially the Master’s Invitational 40+ heat.

After watching so many other races by kids, teenagers and younger adults, it’s good to be underway at last. The first loop of the four-lap mile will not feel especially hard, I know, but it’s important to find the right pace early, neither too fast nor too slow, one that gives me a good shot at my goal, a 5:30 finish.

My teammate Steve passes me on the backstretch. That’s okay because I know he’ll probably finish 10–15 seconds ahead of me, like in training. I follow him around the second corner and back up the home stretch to complete the first lap in 82 seconds. If I can do that three more times, I’ll finish in 5:28. Unfortunately, I am way back in the pack, half a dozen runners ahead of me. I’m not last, but I’m close.

I’ve never raced a proper mile before. Although everyone knows about “the four-minute mile” and Roger Bannister, who first broke the barrier in 1954, it’s not a common race distance and hasn’t been for a long time. Virtually all tracks are 400 metres in circumference, and the standard middle-distance race is 1500 metres, which is an asymmetric 3-3/4 laps. To race a mile, you have to start nine metres behind the usual finish line, cross that short gap, and then race the classic four laps, because the mile translates into an awkward 1,609 metres.

As a teenager, middle-distance was my athletic forte, both the 1500 and the 3000. As an adult, I now race everything from the 5K to the marathon. So the mile is a throwback to another, pre-metric era, and also to my adolescence. It’s also a lot faster than I’m accustomed to running. I last raced the 1500 when I was 17; I’m now 53. My best time back then was 4:27, which equates to a 4:45 mile. I’m hoping to be only 45 seconds slower now, a little over half a lap. I’m not trying to turn back the clock, maybe just slow it down a little.

All I remember about my high school track races is that they hurt. The pace quickly takes you anaerobic; by the end, all feeling drains from your arms and legs; afterwards, you want to throw up, although the feeling passes quickly enough.

My high school track coach, Mr. Marks, wasn’t interested in running. His specialty was basketball. He chummed with the girls and the sprinters when we travelled to meets around the lower Fraser Valley, south of Vancouver. We didn’t train, and he offered almost no advice. I won most of my races by coming from behind, passing my competitors in the last half lap, a strategy I had figured out for myself.

In my last year of high school I qualified for the B.C. regionals. I had read the classic English short story, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, by Alan Sillitoe. It’s about a delinquent teen named Colin Smith, who defies the conventions of authority by deliberately losing a cross-country school race in a dramatic show of adolescent spite for his superiors.

In my crucial race at regionals, Mr. Marks insisted I follow the same old come-from-behind strategy. But by mid-race, I found the pace too slow, and took the lead instead. From there, I ran harder than I ever had before, trying to drop my nemesis who was following closely behind, the guy I usually passed in the closing half-lap. Instead, he passed me in the final 50 metres, and I came in second.

I didn’t mind so much, because together we’d raced almost 10 seconds faster than the week before, and we’d both qualified for the provincial championships after all. But Mr. Marks was furious and refused to talk to me on the bus ride home after the race.

I didn’t want detailed coaching advice from him (although I probably could have used that). I just wanted to know from a fellow runner, someone who’d been through the crucible of a 1500-metre race, why it had to hurt like that.

Did my competitors feel the same sense of dread as me, pre-race? And the same feelings of doubt and weakness on the third lap? I never got that from Mr. Marks. So, like Colin in the short story, I felt proud that I’d defied his commands, even if it cost my school a victory at the regional track meet.

Into my second lap in the Cambridge mile, I feel strong and perfectly paced. In the course of that lap I pass two runners, guys who started at an unsustainable pace. As I cross the white line after lap two the clock reads 2:45, exactly half my goal. I turn my mind off the fact that two laps remain and focus my attention on running in the moment. Steve is 20 metres ahead; I can hear no one behind. The music and finish line crowd are a distant echo across the infield as I scurry down the backstretch. My spikes make a satisfying crunch-crunch-crunch on the rough track surface, far different from the silent rubberized track we train on. The light is golden and the air is cool.

Suddenly, I feel a twinge in my left hamstring. Ah-hah. I was wondering about that. I strained the muscle a week ago while running a fast 400 in training, and have been worrying quietly about it since then. I thought it had healed completely, and was completely unaware of it for the first two laps of the race.

I push a little harder. It fires back at me with a jolt. I don’t limp or pull up, and thankfully it doesn’t cramp. But I’m cursing under my breath and wonder if it will get any worse. My real enemy, a flicker of doubt, crosses my mind.

I run the home straight for the second last time. I can hear my running friends cheering, a posse of four, plus family members, who’ve come to watch. They’re all long distance types like me. One of them races ultras (50 miles and beyond), another does Ironmans (the grueling triathlon distance that takes half a day to complete). Why have they driven out of town to witness this dinky little race, one that’s over in a comparative blink of an eye?

I think it’s the mystique of the mile. We all love the drama of track, the symmetry of the distance and the legend of Bannister. This race pays homage to all that, with a finish line plaque set on a large granite boulder that claims the annual race celebrates “the infinite possibility of human achievement.”

For several years, this race had Mercedes Benz as a sponsor, and offered a free car to anyone who could break four minutes in the final, open race. No one ever did, because the old natural track has a slow surface, and because that threshold is still a huge challenge. In almost 60 years, only about 1,200 people have broken the barrier, worldwide. More individuals have climbed Mt. Everest, also first conquered about half a century ago.

The mile world record for males is down to 3:43. But no female has ever broken 4 minutes, with the world record at 4:12. The Canadian record is 3:50, set 12 years ago by Kevin Sullivan, our best middle distance runner in a generation, who made the 1500 metre Olympic final in 2000 and finished an excellent fifth place.

Quite abruptly, the most significant recent event in the history of the mile happened only two weeks before our race. British runner Anthony Whiteman became the first master’s runner ever to break four minutes, prompting the headline “sub-4 at 40.” Our little Guelph Victors training group of six watched the race on YouTube and gasped at the pace – less than 60 seconds per lap, as compared to our 75–95 seconds when we race the mile. Only two in our group, Aaron (32) and Lisa (28) would keep up with Whiteman for as little as half a lap, running at an all-out sprint for 30 seconds.

As a runner, you really only compare yourself to those ahead of you, whom you term “fast.” Watching Wightman, not so far from us in age, was sobering, almost disheartening, even if he is a former Olympian. It was beyond fast, for a stretch as long as nearly four minutes. Ouch!

Canada’s best current miler is perhaps Taylor Milne, who lives and trains in Guelph. He will try to qualify for his second Olympics in a couple of week’s time, racing the 1500. His mile PB is 3:54, set earlier this year, and he was the first one to break four minutes for the mile in Guelph, an event we all witnessed two years ago. It electrified the crowd at our local track, due to the magic of the mile.

He was “down” with one lap remaining, the clock reading 3:01, but we could see him accelerate on the backstretch and then grind it home with a final kick, gaining himself the precious few seconds needed to go sub-four. Two hundred people erupted in cheers, just like they had for Bannister. Most of us had never witnessed the feat, and it took our breath away.

Certainly, no one is threatening to win a car in our races this evening. The best high school runners finish here in about 4:45, and in the final, open race, the 20-somethings run as fast as 4:15. Our teammate Aaron manages a gritty 4:53 in the Ages 20–34 race, his personal best. He’s the only Guelph Victor to break five minutes. The rest of us have more modest goals, like mine, or sub-6, or sub-7. My teammates and I have been training for five weeks for this race, a twice-weekly regime of race-pace and faster 200, 400, 600 and 800 repeats – about two or three kilometres worth per session. It’s a tiny amount of mileage compared to our usual marathon training, but the intensity leaves me just as fatigued afterwards.

As I enter the last lap, I tell myself that the next interval is the real deal. I’m unsure of my time but know I’m likely a little “behind” my target pace. Can I run a faster last lap, like Taylor, and claw back a few precious seconds? I’m working at maximum effort as I round the last corner and push through the final 100 metres. My vision is a little blurry and all appendages numb as I strive for the white line, cross it, then come to a quick halt – hands on knees, body quivering, mind gone mushy.

5:34 says my watch. I’ve fallen short of my goal by a few strides.

I turn back to see my buddy Sandy finish in 5:54, beating his target by six seconds. He’s elated, even though he finishes in last place for our heat.

With the mile, everything is measured in seconds. So my disappointment is small, but tangible. Four seconds amounts to about 20 metres, not a large gap, but it matters to me. I’m annoyed that my leg acted up and distracted me from my task on the third lap. (On the last one, I’m not sure it made any difference, as every part of me hurt by then.)

But my chagrin is short-lived. I’ve raced my fastest mile ever – six seconds better than the one I ran in training two weeks before – as do all my teammates. Ed Ross, a 56-year-old Air Canada pilot, smashes his seven-minute target with an impressive 6:39. Steve, who’s 45, finishes just ahead of me, in 5:23. I place fifth in the race, out of nine runners.

The organizers stage a commemorative final lap to close the event, and invite all runners and spectators to participate, at a jog or a walk. Our sixth training partner, Lisa, who did not race tonight as she’s still coming back from a recent marathon, jumps down from the bleachers to the track. She’s wearing a long black dress and … a pair of track spikes she just purchased on sale.

“Race it?” she beckons me with a grin. I decline, as my hamstring is now very tight and sore.

Off we go, and Lisa immediately dashes towards the front of the large pack, passing all but two young males, treating the fun lap like a real 400 race. They tear down the backstretch, an incongruous sight, her loose dress flying around her legs and those tiny white shoes kicking up puffs of red clay as she chases two guys in regular race attire. Sandy and I have a good chuckle as we jog our cool down lap.

Lisa’s cocktail 400 tells me that the feeling of speed and freedom you get on the track is an addictive thing. To an outsider, going around in circles might seem boring. But to us, it’s a challenge and a fascination. And the best distance of all is the mile, four quick laps, the perfect mid-point between speed and endurance, one with a wonderful history and a future that beckons still.

• • • • •

Extra goodies for track lovers

Photos of the Guelph Victors team at the Cambridge Classic Mile, June 15, 2012 (thanks to Paul Nielsen)

Video of the Midget Girls race finish in Cambridge (6-minute miling by very young kids, so inspiring!)

Video of Taylor Milne setting the Canadian record for 2000 metres in 2011, Guelph, Ontario

Video of Anthony Wightman running a sub-four mile on June 2, 2012, first ever by a master’s runner

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Cousin Susan on the West Coast #

    Always a great read, Art….congrats!

    June 17, 2012
  2. beth ellis #

    Sis Beth location northwest

    Way to go bro……….

    June 18, 2012
  3. Ann Hedley #

    Sister Sarah from your hometown, and keeper of the high school yearbooks . . . a mile in 5:34, sounds miraculous to me!

    June 19, 2012
  4. Wonderful reading, Art! And congrats on your result!

    June 19, 2012

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