(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
July 2001. The mile holds a special place in my memory bank. This was the first distance I ever ran for time, in 1954. I’ve raced the mile more often than all other distances combined.
But my best mile isn’t one that netted me a state high school title. It isn’t one ended before 4:20 had ticked away. These times are pleasant but ancient memories.
My best mile is as fresh as today’s run. It takes twice as long to complete as those old races and is my slowest mile of any day. But it’s the best mile because it gets me going and keeps me going.
The best mile also can be the longest one in ways other than distance and time. Ron Clarke, the Australian who monopolized the world records in the 1960s, once said, “The hardest step for a runner to take is the first one out the door.”
The laws of inertia state that a body at rest wants to stay resting, and one in motion wants to keep moving. These also are basic rules of running.
You can trick yourself into taking the first big step out the door by saying, “I only have to run one mile; I can do that in my sleep.” It’s more comforting to think this way than that you have to run five or more miles no matter what. Once clear of the doorway, the momentum usually kicks in and one little mile leads to many more.
How many more miles you run depends on how you’re feeling. That’s the second great value of the first mile, as a simple test of true feelings.
A profile on Kenyan Cosmas Ndeti appeared in the New York Times before one of his Boston Marathon victories. The lines that influenced me most read, “He runs according to the way he feels each morning, not according to any rigid schedule. He has been known to wake up, run for a kilometer, then climb back into bed.”
When this story ran, I was limping through a spell of achilles tendinitis. It had lingered for more than a month, without improving, as I’d tried to tough out “easy” half-hour runs.
Taking a clue from Ndeti, I listened more closely to what the achilles told me each morning. Because “miles” and not “meters” is my first language, I ran a mile and then decided what to do next.
If signs of trouble appeared or didn’t clear, and especially if they worsened, I forced myself to stop for that day and try again the next. The pain eased within a few days and disappeared within two weeks.
You might ask, why even bother with this trial mile? Why not just decide whether to run or not before dressing and going out the door?
“Listen to your body,” we’re told, and let it be the judge of what to do or not. But what do we listen for, and when?
The truth is that the body lies before most runs. We need a better test of feelings than what it says at rest.
If I heeded all signals of stiffness, soreness and simple resting inertia before the start, I would skip half my runs. And I’d go too far or fast in the other half when enthusiasm overrode the warning signals.
Right before the run is the wrong time to listen to the body. That’s when it likes to tell its biggest fibs – trying to convince you that it feels better or worse than it really does.
Sometimes running injuries go into hibernation between runs. You tell yourself at the start that you’re okay, you try to run as planned, you overdo, the pain comes out of hiding, and you suffer a setback by not stopping soon enough.
Just as often, though, the problem feels worst when you’re not running. You think before starting that you’re hurting and need another day off, when the warmup might have worked out the stiffness and soreness.
The trial mile, the best of your miles, acts as a truth serum. It gets you out the door and then 10 minutes later tells you honestly what you can do that day. Listen.
2019 Update. My fast miles are long gone, never forgotten. The most important mile remains the slowest one – the first. I still use it as a daily warmup and a go/no-go test. It’s needed more that way at 75 than it was at my best racing age, 25.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]