It’s been a couple weeks since the race, but I tried something new – a short race. One mile only. I wanted to see how fast I could go. Turns out I surprised myself.
My previous fastest mile on a regular surface was 7:41. Not ever really running for speed, I have no way of knowing how well that would translate to a shorter race. Also, I have a very steep downhill three mile run in which I clocked a mile at 6:38. This was leg 4 of Reach the Beach, coming down out of a mountain pass. Before Reach the Beach, I trained on some steep hills trying to get ready for this, and when a lot of runners had the brakes on (heel striking and leaning backwards to keep from losing control), I leaned as far forward as I dared and let fly. Over the course of three miles I passed over a dozen runners, and was passed just once by someone else. Other than the two of us, the rest of the pack was playing it conservative. I knew I should be conservative, too, with two more legs to run in the next 24 hours, but sometimes you just have to let caution fly.
And that’s what I did on New Years Day, too. This time, I knew I didn’t have to run another 10+ miles in two more rotations. No relay, just one mile, run as hard as you can and see what happens. The Millennium Mile is a downhill course, but not nearly as steep as the Crawford Notch, so I figured I could probably clock in around 6:30 at full tilt. I lined up near the 6:30 pace signage and waited for race time. As we got closer to the gun, I decided to ditch my track pants in spite of the cold. With one pant leg off, hopping on one foot trying to remove the other, the gun went off.
It took me maybe three or four seconds to finish extracting myself from my pants, and I was off. By the time I was ready to run, I was in with the 7:00 and 7:30 pacers, but whatever. Bob and weave, and see what might happen. After about a minute, I was clear of the crowding, and no longer passing many people. A little while later, there was the sign indicating a quarter mile on the course. As I passed it, I glanced at my watch, which read 1:30.
1:30! That put me on pace for a six minute mile. Holy crap! I didn’t know if I was running too hard or not, but I decided to try to stay steady at my current pace. When I go back and look at my watch data, I can see I actually slowed a smidgen at 0.25 miles… before the sign I had managed to get up to 5:33 pace, which I must have sensed was unsustainable. I settled in and worked hard for the second quarter mile. As I crossed the half way point, I snuck another look at my watch. 2:57. While I was not running the fastest I had for the race, I was running steady, and shaving seconds off of a six minute mile. I was three seconds ahead of a time so audacious that it wasn’t even a stretch goal.
It was time for the third lap, the place where you can win or lose your effort. Push too hard, and you’ve got nothing left for the final kick. Don’t push hard enough and you’ll never know how good you can be. I tried to stay steady. I was shaving seconds off of a six minute mile, and if I could just maintain pace, I would continue to do that. My breathing became more labored, and my muscles burned as I pounded through that next quarter mile. It wasn’t about form. I don’t know if I looked like a sprinter, a long distance runner, or a drunken wildebeest. All I know is that I pushed, and was rewarded at the three quarter mark with a time of 4:24.
I was now six seconds ahead of a six minute mile, and trying to hang on for dear life. As I sped towards the finish, I could feel my body burning through its reserves. At 0.85 miles, I started to slow. I tried not to, but I was running out of fuel. In an endurance race, my breathing takes on a regular cadence. If I’m running easily, I inhale for four steps and exhale for three. When I’m working hard, it’s inhale for three steps and exhale for two. If I’m breathing any heavier than that, it’s not sustainable… I’m burning out. It’s okay for short stretches… say a half mile or so uphill, or the last bit of a race. But not for long periods of a time. I had been pushing hard for 0.85 miles, and my breath was coming fast. Huge, gasping gulps and violent exhales, alternating on every step. I was a train running hot and heavy, but running out of coal to burn.
I began to slow in spite of myself… but slow is relative. I had run the majority of this race at a pace of under 6:00 per mile, and when I slowed in the final 0.15 miles, it was to a pace that was still faster than my goal pace of 6:30. And it was brief… because when I got close enough to see the clock ticking up at the finish line, I found a finish line gear I did not know I possessed. For the final 0.05 of the race, I ran as hard as I could, even briefly reaching a pace of 4:40! In the end, my finish time was 5:48.9, or 50 seconds faster than I’d ever run a mile before.
These two ladies, who started the race about ten seconds before I did, finished the race just a couple seconds before me. I’m behind one of them… it’s as close as I could find to a photo of me at the Millennium Mile. Maybe next year we’ll get a better photo!
Coming soon: a breakdown of 2016, and what I hope to accomplish as an athlete this year. Until then, stay safe and run hard.