My marathon training took a slight digression this week, when I took part in a time trial for one mile.
And now I’ve got a new personal best for the mile!
Curated by the excellent Marathon Talk podcast series, the annual Magic Mile initiative encourages Marathon Talk listeners to run a mile as fast as they can. Mile races are organised across Britain and Ireland (and further afield too) during the two weeks of the event.
And so I went along to the athletics track at Irishtown stadium in Dublin to take part in one of these Magic Mile events.
My previous personal best for a mile was 5 mins 56 seconds, which I ran during a track session while training for the 2012 Paris Marathon. While I’ve put in plenty of excellent speed work so far in 2013, this mile would fall right in the middle of my 2013 Dublin Marathon training. With Sunday’s long run, Tuesday’s threshold run and Wednesday’s recovery run still in my legs, I was hoping that Thursday’s mile would see me get under 6 minutes as perhaps the best I could do in the circumstances.
So, the plan was to reel off three steady laps of a second or two under 1 minute 30 seconds each, and then on the last lap simply hit the gas and empty the tank. Earlier this year I was doing sessions of 10 x 400 metres at around 1:22 each, with a 400 metre jog recovery between each. Could I keep up sub-1:30 pace for four laps in a row?
My preparations on the day were not ideal. Traffic in the area was heavy and delayed me. The taxi driver didn’t know how to get to the track; he took a wrong turn and at five minutes before the start time we pulled into a residential street, lost. Fearful of being late and missing my shot at the mile, I spotted a park that was near the track, and so I got out and scrambled across the field to the stadium.
Fortunately the other runners – around 20 guys from a group that trains regularly in the grounds of Trinity College Dublin – were still getting ready on the track, so I had time to change into my running gear. But apart from my dynamic stretching I didn’t get the opportunity to warm up or relax as much as I would have liked – or to appreciate the fact that I was back on a running track on a sunny afternoon.
To get ready for our mile, the group did two 200 metres with a minute rest. For the first one I went at my target pace of 45 seconds for the half-lap – I found it manageable but it felt a foolhardy speed for four full laps. I didn’t look at my watch for the second one and just focused on relaxing my head and legs.
Before we started, the last piece of administrative business was to ask another runner using the track to move to the outside lanes. This runner happened to be an Irish showbiz celebrity, and he could have worked up a huff of outrage at such a request, either of the “Do you know who I am?” or “I was here first!” variety. Fair play to him, though – he didn’t, and was happy to swing wide while history was being made.
We toed the starting line – an imaginary one, as there was no mile arc on the track. To avoid collisions and tangles we spread across the track in order of target time: sub-5 on the inside, then 5:20 and so on. Sailing under the flag of hope rather than expectation, I drifted in beside the 5:40 lads.
The starter counted down: three, two, one – go!
I got slightly boxed in on the first bend, and had to ease up to find a gap. But once I had liberated myself, I got into my target rhythm. Even in that first half lap the field was already strung out and I soon found myself in plenty of space – three-quarters of the field ahead of me, a quarter behind.
Hitting the first 200 metres in 44 seconds, I found it hard work; I knew now that marathon training had drained the batteries. But now I was in it and the only way out was through the finish line in a respectable time – or blow up in the attempt.
Split times were being called at each half lap but I can’t remember them now. I’m fairly sure I was on my sub-6 schedule for the first two laps. The 5-minute runners were a half-lap ahead of me now, and for an instant this pierced my ego – in a marathon you only see the runners at the same pace and ability as you, but on the track you can see clearly how far behind you are.
But I had to block out the idea of this being a race and simply focus on turning my own legs. I fixed my gaze on a moving, imaginary point 100 metres ahead of me on the track surface.
In a four-lap mile on the track, the third lap is the equivalent of The Wall in a marathon – physical and mental fatigue are suddenly shot through with a slight dread that the bloody thing will never end. Again, I had to block that thought; I was working almost as hard mentally as physically. I felt like I was running on the legs of a cold Sunday dinner chicken on a Monday morning.
With one lap to go, I was still just about on course for six minutes. Around the second last bend I tried to move up through the gears, and found some tiny smidgen of energy to propel myself incrementally faster. This may have been panic which I was trying to convert into adrenaline like a harassed holidaymaker at the bureau de change. “Relax your legs,” I said to myself down the back straight. This helped the transaction.
At the final half-lap split, with 200 metres to go, I was convinced that I was outside my 6-minute target. Truth be told, I was no longer aware of anything happening outside my own body. My head was reeling and I was only driving on fumes now.
Coming into the final straight, I glanced at my watch but didn’t compute the time except to have the clear feeling of being late. Not slow or behind schedule, but late. This probably squirted another dash of adrenaline into my rubbery legs and reeling head.
I fixed my eyes on the line and concentrated on lifting my feet and turning my legs as quickly as possible – I cycled, not ran, that last 100 metres.
Almost at the line, I heard the time called out: “Five forty-eight… five forty-nine…” Multitasking frantically, I dipped for the finish, reached to stop my watch, and cycle-ran on through the line. I had definitely beaten six minutes!
Once I had gulped in sufficient oxygen to restart mental activity, I looked at my watch. It said 5:50.54 – a new personal best!
In the blazing lunchtime sunshine I stood on the infield and took great pleasure in my new P.B. and in the sensation of blood returning to my head and my legs. Meanwhile, on the track the 5-minute lads continued with a training session. The track and the infield were two different and distant worlds right then.
I’m pleased with my Magic Mile – four steady laps, a strong finish and a new personal best. But of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t think “I should have dipped further and got 5:49!” And being on the same track as better, faster runners was a chastening experience. Am I too old now to improve enough to get closer to 5:00 or even sub-five?
Enough of that. I’m looking forward to my next two races – the Dublin half and full marathons. And right now I’m happy with my enjoyable Magic Mile experience.
Bring on the 2014 Magic Mile!