Running on Tilt

5th Avenue Mile

Studies in pain

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Roger Bannister, in his book The Four Minute Mile, writes that when he broke the four minute barrier, he felt “like an exploded flashlight with no will to live.” At the Fifth Avenue Mile last weekend I was prepared for a peak effort, to see what it's like to be an exploded flashlight.

Five minutes was the loose goal, not Bannister’s four minutes. But after running a 5:01 at the 5th Avenue Mile last year and a 5:02 in an indoor meet at the Armory in March, running sub-5 would require only modest improvement. I hoped for low 4:50s, or better yet 4:40s.

My training has been focused on the New York City Marathon, and when training for a marathon, a mile is an extremely short race. Proportionally, the difference in distance between a marathon and a mile is the same as that of a mile to a 60 meter dash.

I had prepared for the race with a few abbreviated CPTC workouts designed for the milers. In one I ran half a dozen 400s at about 70 seconds each, and in another I bookended a few shorter items with 2:22 and 2:35 800s. Not the best paced workout, but it gave me confidence that if I were to take the race out in, say, 2:27, I’d have something left for the second half. In the workouts I chased teammates who had run in the 4:40s.

Runners in my 35-39 year old race wasted no time lining up for this thing. About twelve minutes before the race and just a few minutes after the 30-34s began their race, I approached the starting line but was only able to squeeze into the third row. I stood behind Central Park teammate John Milone, a solidly built redhead who beat me by a second in the race last year and who I figured would run in the 4:40s.

Milone took it out fast. I held back slightly and got caught in a bit of traffic. During the first quarter mile I was forced to zip through a narrow gap between two runners and during the second quarter I veered right to pass a few more.

I didn’t check the quarter split. At the half-mile mark, I gave in to temptation and eyed the clock: 2:27, or 4:54 pace. There were at least a dozen runners ahead of me.

John L. Parker, Jr.’s novel Once a Runner describes the third quarter of a mile race as “where the real melancholy [begins], when the runner might ask himself just what in the hell he was doing to himself…. [It is] a microcosm, not of life, but of Bad Times.” Parker’s description made me laugh when I first heard it, because it rang true to miles I have raced on the track. Mercifully, though, the half-mile mark in this race is at the crest of a hill, and it is all downhill to the finish.

I spotted the ¾ mile mark sooner than I had expected. The third quarter did not feel like such Bad Times, and with about 500 to go I accelerated into an extended kick. A runner with far more finishing speed darted past me on the right, but I pulled astride with several others on my left. Milone was still ahead of me. The finish line came in a rush. The clock ticked from 4:50 to 4:51.

Moments after the race I was sucking wind with the rest of them, but I had not achieved the exploded flashlight. Perhaps I didn’t take the race out fast enough, or that feeling is reserved for four minute milers, or perhaps not every race is supposed to feel like a hell hole.

I was pleasantly surprised later to learn that my net time was 4:49. It was good for 13th place, which is exactly where I finished last year with a 5:01. Adjusting for the second it took me to get to the start, my splits were 2:26 and 2:23. Milone finished at 4:44.

There is no finer time to watch a race than right after completing one’s own, and I enjoyed the rest of the morning and early afternoon cheering on teammates and my father-in-law, a natural sprinter who braved the mile.

And though I hadn’t felt the heroic pain described by Bannister and Parker, Jr., I did witness it on the faces of several runners whose expressions at the three-quarter mark were halfway between blank and Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. Chris Donnelly, who gutted out a 5:14 in the 40-49 year old race a day after racing a 5k, described the last 400 thus: “It seemed for the all the world like I was trapped in Zeno's Paradox. You know where you cross half the distance to your destination with each successive step and never, ever arrive.”