(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from March 2004. It was submitted to Runner’s World but went unpublished there.)
Running starts with a mile. In the metrically challenged U.S., anyway, the mile is the key word in a runner’s vocabulary and the basic unit of running mathematics.
The first question you hear when telling someone that you run is likely to be, “What’s your best mile time?” (Coming a close second is, “Have you run a marathon?”)
We Americans run our races in meters and kilometers. But we insist on taking mile splits and quoting mile paces. We train by mileage, not kilometer-age.
Students in my college running classes start by learning the meaning of the mile. They run a timed mile the first week, not as a race but to draw their fitness baseline. Then they learn to apply the pace-per-mile standard to runs of multiple miles.
Running started for me with a single mile. That one now holds my oldest memories, which I fondly relive in this Year of the Mile.
In 2004 we honor Roger Bannister for the gift he gave the sport 50 years ago. I salute him for what he gave me in May 1954 by inspiring my first timed mile.
After hearing from my track-fan father about Bannister breaking the four-minute barrier, I set out to run half his speed, which put my target at eight minutes. That wasn’t slow for a 10-year-old with no training as a runner.
Our little Iowa town didn’t have a proper track. Our home block measured (by counting steps) about a quarter-mile, with an uphill on one side and a downhill on another. This became my “track.”
Four pals paced me, running a lap apiece. Without asking permission, I’d taken my dad’s precious stopwatch for the timing.
The first result: a 7:23 mile. The later result: extreme soreness from the waist down, including sharp pains in the lower legs that I’d later learn to call shin splints.
This painful “race” shelved my mile ambitions for several years but didn’t cure my fascination with the event. I came of age as a miler in the Golden Age of Miling.
Don Bowden ran the first sub-four by an American in my first year as a high school miler. Herb Elliott completed his unbeaten career in the mile in my last year of high school.
Jim Beatty ran the first sub-four indoors during my first year of college. Jim Ryun broke the high school four-minute barrier the year I broke 4:20.
Four minutes or faster wasn’t in these legs and lungs. But improvement had come steadily and added up nicely in the 10 years between the first mile time and the final PR as a 20-year-old.
PRs eventually become permanent, but times keep changing. What goes down comes back up if we run long enough.
Fifty years after that first timed mile, I’m completing an almost-perfect circle. My time has gradually gone back to where it had started. What better way to celebrate the half-century, then, than by running another timed mile the first week in May?
Jeff Galloway gave me this idea. At 18 Jeff ran his first marathon, a 2:56 in his hometown of Atlanta. Forty years later he tried to match his original time in the Thanksgiving Day race.
The 2:56 escaped him last fall, but this was no failure. Not many runners can say they’re still active 40 years after their debut at any distance.
I’ll celebrate at a much shorter distance than my friend Jeff did. My dream run would be a return to Coin, Iowa, there to circle the same block as in 1954.
But this can’t happen at anniversary time. I’ll run instead in my current hometown of Eugene, Oregon – not at famously fast Hayward Field but four laps on a gravel road, with 90-degree turns and some ups and downs.
I won’t train for mile speed this time because there was none of that training the first time. I won’t take a formal warmup for the same reason.
The target won’t be the original mile time of 7:23, which seems faster to me now than in any year since 1954. The numbers on a watch don’t count for much anymore.
The numbers that matter are those on the calendar. In this anniversary mile the reward will be to glimpse again the little kid who first ran around the block 50 years ago.
UPDATE FROM 2015
I did return to my old hometown in the first week of May 2004, but not for the reason described above. It was for my mother’s funeral. A run around the block, with the Methodist Church marking its start/finish line, wouldn’t have been right that day. So I just stood outside the church and let memory do the running.
[Hundreds of previous articles, dating back to 1998, can be found at joehenderson.com/archive/. Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in as many as three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Latest released was Going Far. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]