Running on Tilt

The Mohawk, the Mile and the Half

From Rochester to 5th Avenue, with bubbles

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Word clouds, when they were used as part of the recent Fox-Google Republican presidential debate, officially jumped the shark. But in anticipation of the Fifth Avenue Mile, I couldn’t help but imagine one last word cloud. The oversized word in the middle was “pain.”

The mile is more singularly defined by pain than any other race, including the far more grueling marathon. Perhaps this is because while the marathon is understood by most as an experience best left to hard-core runners or the temporarily inspired/insane, the gym-class mile run is an inescapable trial of youth.

Even the elites appeared terrified at this year’s Fifth Avenue Mile. Check them out on the New York Road Runners video before the start of the race. Bernard Lagat, who was about to win, looks like he is awaiting the verdict of a murder trial. Freshly mohawked David Torrence is the only runner who seems to be having fun.

There is likely a physiological explanation for pre-race anxiety. The mile is a short enough race to necessitate a fast start for a good performance. The mind thus subconsciously generates anxiety to get the blood pumping faster through the body, to reduce the shock. But why must we suffer before the race even starts?

One reason I run is that I never regret doing it. It represents delayed but guaranteed gratification. But there’s a flip side. The pre-run and specifically the pre-race is not gratifying. In the fifteen minutes before my heat of the 5th Avenue Mile, I, like the elites, stood pee-faced in the pen.

Would it help to get a mohawk?

A question circulated among running friends after the race. If a deal were offered whereby a mohawk would enable you to run certain times in the mile and marathon, how fast would those times have to be for you to accept it? My mohawk times are 4:10 for the mile and 2:35 for the marathon, safely out of reach. I’d rock a mohawk if it made me run a 4:10 mile. Failing that, I’ve got a family to consider.

Without actually taking a mohawk, I’d like to adapt the pre-race attitude of the mohawk. In discussing this issue, a fellow runner noted the adage that running is 90% mental. It is not. It’s 90% training and 10% mental. I hope to be in better shape for the mile next year, and to swap pre-race jitters with the smirk that Torrence wore at the start line. And why is Torrence the model and not Lagat, who, after all, was the most fit of all? Because Lagat may as well live on Mount Olympus, and for us mere mortals who willingly suffer this sport there’s no reason for the pre-race not to be fun.

Last year at the 5th Avenue Mile I ran a 4:49. This time I was hoping to beat that. I’m in modest shape, no better now than at this time last year when I was starting to ramp up for the marathon, but I recently set a half marathon PR of 1:22:48 in Rochester, and low-to-mid 4:40s seemed possible.

During the mile I didn’t hit my watch at the start and I didn’t check the clocks on the side of the road at the quarter mile mark. Those clocks in races tend to find us, though, and as I crested the hill at about the half mile mark I saw the truck way out front saying 2:30 something, which was discouraging, as I hit 2:27 for the half last year. On the other hand, I wasn’t certain exactly where the 800 mark was, and I had pulled alongside teammate John Milone, who I knew was capable of 4:30s. I kicked hard during the third quarter and John sped up too. With 400 to go, hanging on Milone’s shoulder, I was well spent and my legs were tingling. I fixed on a runner 10 meters ahead and made the decision to accelerate and get him (inspired in part by a recent blog post where curiosity gets the better of a struggling runner and he speeds up). I caught him, and perhaps a few others, though I didn’t catch Milone, who beat me by one second. I successfully explored the pain cave. But did I lack the ultimate killer instinct to take the sword to my teammate? It doesn’t matter. He was a better runner that day even though he didn't run his best, and there will be more races.

My time was 4:54, five seconds slower than last year. I was again 13th in my 35-39 year old age group. The goal for next year is to beat my high school PR of 4:41 and to finish in the top 10. A year is a long time, and for a mile so is 14 seconds.

As for the Rochester half, there were two highlights. Turning the corner of Frontier Field and coming down the last straightaway, I accelerated past a runner who I had been reeling in over the past five miles. I saw the clock at 1:22 and change, knowing that a sub 1:23 would qualify me for the New York City Marathon and half marathon, lotteries be damned. It was a most enjoyable finish.

The lasting image of the race, though, was near the five mile mark, where the race passes by the home on Highland Avenue in which I was raised. As my infant son Oscar watched me pass by, open mouthed in my sister’s arms, my mother shot bubbles from a battery-operated whale-shaped bubble gun I had gotten for Oscar as fun-insurance on the eve of Hurricane Irene’s arrival in New York City. Later, I heard from my mother on this subject. “We were trying to encourage the runners with the bubble machine. The elite runners were too focused on the race to notice the bubbles, but in the next wave, the runners were trying to grab them. Some were leaping up to swat the bubbles as they ran by. A couple of runners said, ‘More bubbles!’”