If I’m honest, my relationship with running was in a bit of a rut earlier this year. Not a scary end-game, ‘we’ve grown apart’ kind of rut, just that a-bit-too-comfortable-watching-boxsets-on-the-sofa-together kind of thing. I was contentedly meandering though medium-pace miles, but I needed something to re-ignite the passion and I found it in the exquisite agony of the mile.
Like many other runners, in my haste to add miles I’d overlooked the mile itself. It’s fairly typical in a running culture that prioritises further over faster, with runners barely pausing to collect their medals – let alone improve their times – before progressing up the distance ladder.
But this, I’ve found, is a missed opportunity. Over the last few months my quest to get faster over those 1609 metres has changed my running in lots of positive ways. Short and fast(ish) is a shot in the arm both physiologically and psychologically. And running my 800m, 400m and 200m repeats to hit target splits to the second, I’ve felt reinvigorated, focused, engaged, and more than occasionally a little sick.
This is running that forces you to tune into your body’s feedback, acutely feeling – and controlling – slight variations in pace that wouldn’t register on longer runs. Training morphs from blunt instrument into precision tool. You dissect every section of your sessions with a surgeon’s scalpel. As you run your repeats you’re driven every inch by calculations of lap splits and target paces, you can’t hide in the vagaries of perceived effort zones. You have to deliver. And along with the rewards you reap in your muscle fibres and your VO2 max, it builds your mental strength as you learn to manage the ebb and flow of sustainable suffering.
Another big positive I’ve found is that my mile training has made me think more than ever about form. A mile isn’t an all-out charge, it’s too far to simply let rip, so you must balance effort with efficiency. You need your biomechanics to be at their most fluid. You’re running at the business end of your effort scale, but paradoxically you need to minimise your effort. You must try to relax, to flow. Your ground contact must be minimised, your head high and steady. You must cycle through your full list of form of cues as your push your pace to the brink of everything unraveling. And that is all seriously good for your development as a runner.
The payback from all this goes, quite literally, further than the mile. While in mile training I’ve set a 3-mile PB in our weekly handicap run, beating a previous best that was set deep into my fullest and hardest marathon training cycle, when my weekly mileage was far higher and I considered myself at the zenith of my running fitness. I’ve also set a 5K PB and I have an improved set of 10K digits firmly in my sights. I have confidence in my speed. I feel like I’d added an extra gear, and can cruise more efficiently in the gears below.
The perfect distance?
Still, as welcome as these bonuses have been, this has really been about discovering the magic of the mile itself. Roger Bannister once said that the mile has all the elements of a drama, and when you run the distance yourself, you start to understand the compelling narrative it offers from the first stride to the last. Each of those four laps of the track are distinct chapters, the bends and straights the pages within them. If you’re on the road, it’s the digits on the GPS or the passing lampposts, or the twists and turns of a familiar route.
My first crack at a mile run was a solo effort on the elongated oval at the top of Regent’s Park that hosts regular team RW speedwork sessions. I had an idea of what I thought I could run based on my recent 3-mile efforts, so I applied the hammer in a considered manner, pushed through the purgatory of the third lap and finished the fourth with a decent marker to plan my speed sessions around, and to start refining the general ambition of ‘faster’ into a concrete set of target numbers.
A month or so of speedwork later, on a rainy evening in East London, I shaved some seconds off that original time in a low-key race at the Mile End track. It was both satisfying and another step on the mile learning curve.
The Dream mile
Then came the undisputed pinnacle of my mile journey so far. RW web editor Ben Hobson and I were given oppourtunity to run in a Nike Milers race on the track at the Olympic Stadium on the afternoon before the Anniversary Games kicked off. It was dream-come-true stuff, waiting below the stands in the ‘call room’, with adrenaline rising and nerves tingling. Then to come out onto that track, the very same oval I’d watched Bolt, Rudisha, Farah and others make history on back in 2012, was simply incredible. I felt more 14 than 42.
I approached it more as a race than a time trial. I had a plan. Well, sort of. There were two pacemakers, one running 4:40 and the other 5:40. As I knew that trying to stick with the 4:40 pace group would be suicide, I’d let (as it turned out two of) them go. I concentrated on maneuvering myself into a good position on the shoulder of the 5:40 pacemaker, with my plan to sit there for the first two laps and see how things played out. If anyone broke, I’d follow. If not, I’d see how I was feeling by Lap 3 and make a break/push on at some point.
The first lap flashed by and I saw from the clock that we were a few seconds ahead of target pace. I tried to relax and find my rhythm and as nobody broke away, I slowed with the pacemaker’s adjustment on Lap 2. I felt pretty good – comfortable enough that I could glance at the (empty) stands and savour where I was. Not wanting to break too soon, I stayed tucked behind the pacemaker until the second bend of Lap 3, then I moved wide coming off the bend and kicked on.
The final 500-or-so metres were about the most enjoyable I’ve ever run. I tried to incrementally push the pace every 100m as planned, my lungs and legs were increasingly voicing their displeasure via my central governor, but I was floating above it. I felt strong, controlled, fluid, everything I wanted to be. I seriously doubt I looked close to any of those things, but at least I felt it. I also had enough brain capacity left to soak up the surroundings and appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime situation.
I crossed the line in 5:28, and though it wasn't quite my fastest mile, I seriously doubt it’ll ever be replaced as my favourite. But it certainly won’t be my last. I’m fully converted; from now on this most romantic, mythologised and dramatic of distances will always be part of my own little running story.