Mile Flashbacks

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 8.52.22 PMFour 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?

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 8.55.11 PMBy 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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 8.53.45 PMIn 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.

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