When the second weekend of September presented the opportunity to race the 5th Avenue Mile a day before running the New York City Marathon 18 Mile Tune-Up, I found the distance juxtaposition irresistible. Though I assumed the mere mile trek would be a comparative cake walk, I was soon reminded that such expectations can be quite deceiving.
As I walked the handful of blocks west toward 5th Avenue on that overcast Saturday morning, I had vivid flashbacks to my elementary school days. Each year our physical education class would face what seemed like nothing short of a herculean task: run a mile. For many, myself included, it was the most dreaded day of the year.
Four laps around the track seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. Having the shortest legs in the class, I always thought one or two laps should suffice. Now, decades later, I still had relatively short legs – very possibly the shortest among those who would soon be voluntarily lining up to test their speed. As I neared the start area, I marveled at how my perspectives toward running had changed.
The mile-long stretch of New York City’s famed 5th Avenue seemed like such an easy distance. After all, I had grown accustomed to incorporating the qualifier “just” whenever describing a 5K or even a 10K. I had forgotten that underestimating the challenge at hand often leads to surprises.
I had grown so overconfident that it wasn’t until I was lining up alongside the other runners in my heat that I realized I had absolutely no idea how I should pace myself. Looking around, I wondered what the chances were that I’d finish dead last. After all, with runners divided according to gender and age it was a much smaller heat than I’d anticipated. Though on this day I’d be running in the 35-39 age grouping, suddenly I felt as though I was 10 years old again. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been so nervous before a race.
At the sound of the gun my reflexes took over, and I just started running. My mind was as empty as the blanks in the starter’s pistol. As a steady stream of runners passed by me, I felt as thought I was moving in slow motion. Any sense of speed or effort was suddenly gone.
At the quarter mile mark my legs were slowing down and my lungs were burning. I stared at the sign in disbelief – surely I had tone farther than the equivalent of one lap around a track. Were my eyes playing tricks on me?
By the time I hit the halfway point, I was gasping for breath. In all of the distances I’ve completed to date, this measly mile had quickly become my most difficult. My chest and lungs were killing me. I just wanted to finish.
Miraculously in the final quarter mile, with the finish line in sight, I trained my sights on a runner ahead of me who appeared to be struggling too. From the safety of the finish area I looked behind me, not exactly sure what I’d see. Though there were some runners still making their way across the mats, I felt no comfort in knowing I hadn’t finished dead last. Gasping for breath, I half expected to see my old classmates milling around – I felt as though I had traveled through time back to Woodrow Wilson Elementary School.
The burning sensation in my lungs was real and painful. Initially I felt completely dejected. But as I headed back north I tried to wrap my head around the surreal experience.
As reality set in, I realized that I had let my mind get the best of me, and I’d started out too fast. Had I eased into the race – even a little – I probably would have fared better. I also should have considered practicing some mile intervals, so I had a better sense of what to expect. While I had enjoyed improving on the 800 intervals in my marathon training plan, they didn’t prepare me to properly pace a fast mile.
In addition to the obvious takeaways, I was also left with a number of questions. Why had my lungs burned – was it a function of hitting my VO2 max threshold to an extent I hadn’t previously done? Was the mile a distance that my frame and body just isn’t wasn’t meant to run well?
Despite feeling like the longest mile I’ve ever run, my official time of 7:06 revealed it had actually been my fastest. Ever. It may not have been the prettiest performance, but I survived.
Yes, I finished toward the back of the pack – just like when I was ten. But the intervening decades has given me the perspective to appreciate what really matters: the true enjoyment derived from running comes from within. Armed with a new distance PR to improve upon, I look forward to taking on the mile next year with the wisdom that only comes from experience, practice and, of course, age.