As I have gotten back into running in the past year, I was curious how 39 year old me would stack up to 18 year old me, but the only comparable distance for that would be the mile. Luckily, two recent races gave me the chance to see.
Memories on the Track
I run longer distances now than when I was younger. In high school, I preferred mid-distance races and ran the 1600 (mile) and the 800 (1/2 mile). I was never that fast in either, but I took both seriously and was good enough to be able to contribute points to the track team.
After graduation I left both distances behind. I might occasionally push myself on a run to see what my split would be, but the result usually served best to show me how much older and slower I was. 18 year old me always seemed to be in the background waving his 5:07 PR in my face and telling me I didn’t belong anymore.
I don’t know that I really quit feeling this way until the past year. Pushing myself to run halfs and then my first full marathon, I accomplished something 18 year-old me never thought I would and carved out a new identity as a runner.
In most ways I feel like a stronger runner today than when I was in high school. I have more knowledge about training, more tools to assist me, and a stronger work ethic. The more confidence I gained while running longer distances, the more I wanted to know how I stacked up to younger me. I wanted to see how much slower I really had become. The only way to test this was through racing a mile. As I started laying out my race calendar for the year, I put two races early on the board that would let me see how far I had come.
The Raleigh RunDown Downhill Mile
The Sir Walter Team team set the 2o16 Raleigh RunDown Downhill Mile took place on June 17th. I had never run an all downhill race before and thought this sounded like fun.
What Am I Doing Here?
The course runs along a section of Centennial Parkway in Raleigh near the State Farmers’ Market. It’s wide, has only a few gentle curves, and features a total elevation drop of around 130 feet giving it the feel of a soap box derby course for runners.
I told Andrea that I thought I would probably be mid-late pack, and didn’t want to embarrass myself. She was very reassuring until we parked and started walking over to the start. The other runners walking with us were lean and fit, like the group in the middle of the start line for a 5k. She looked over and said something like “Yeah, these people are serious.”
As I walked up the hill to the start, I worried I didn’t belong and that I would embarrass myself. I knew this was likely to be a smaller, faster crowd than I was used to running against. Watching the women bolt off the line for their heat didn’t help. I was not used to that much speed at the start of a race, either because it didn’t make sense for the distance or because I couldn’t see it from my position in the pack.
Soon it was time for the mens’ competitive heat. I sized myself up against the other runners and settled on lining up in the third row to be clear of the fastest runners. We waited for the clock at the finish to reset from the women’s heat. My mouth was dry from the nerves growing larger every minute.
Blazing Down the Hill
After a false start, we were off. The lead group separated quickly and the pack started to thin out along the road. I went out faster than expected, so I worked to find open space and settle into a pace that felt right. I pushed myself hard, but felt good about how I was doing. Soon we passed a guy on the side of the road calling out times, and I wondered if that was the 1/4 mile point. It couldn’t be, could it?
I kept on my pace, and came to the Salming flags I knew marked the 1/2 mile of the race. Really? I still felt good. My lungs and legs burned a little, but my body felt relaxed and gravity helped me along. I started to pass a few people and before I knew it saw another guy calling times from the side of the road. I knew he was the 3/4 mark and felt a sense of euphoria. Usually the section of the mile between the 1/2 and 3/4 marks were the worst for me; you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, but you feel the weight of how hard your body is working. On a flat track, it’s the symbolic “uphill”.
Here, though, I had passed it without noticing. The turnover in my legs increased. I could see the finishing arch in the distance, and as it grew larger I moved faster. I could feel the distance evaporating and felt energized, passing some people and watching others push ahead in their kicks. I saw 5:09 on the clock and reached across the line for a time of 5:13.
Modern-era Personal Best
Andrea told me I looked pained coming across the finish, but I was smiling on the inside. I had secretly hoped I could run around 5:10, but thought a more realistic stretch goal would be around 5:40-45 and wouldn’t have been surprised if I ran a little over the 6 minute mark.
I congratulated the people I ran to the finish with, then turned to find Andrea and clap for the people coming down the hill. This race was a joy to run. It gave me the feeling I had when I was a child and ran just for fun, fast and without abandon. Even Andrea, who doesn’t normally race for speed, left wondering what she could have done in the race and thought about it for next year.
I had a mark I could hold up to 18 year-old me and give the “I’ve still got it” smile. At the same time, 18 year-old me probably would have muttered something under his breath about the race being downhill and that it didn’t count (things my seven year old son actually said the next day). In my heart, I felt he had a point. Gravity and the course provided a boost to my time, and the only way to really measure myself was to head back to the track.
My Imperfect Mile: the 6/21 Pop-Up Miles
Luckily, the Sir Walter Miler guys also hold a series of Pop-up Miles every Tuesday in June. Organizers disclose the location the weekend before, and you show up at the track to race. No medals or t-shirts. It’s a smaller crowd, most of whom ran a mile in the low 5’s or 4’s. I recognized some faces from the RunDown.
Psyching Myself Out, Again
I knew it would be tougher than the downhill mile, physically and psychologically. Most people don’t like running on a track, much less racing on it. The course doesn’t change. There is no point where it gets easier. You know how far you have left at any given point. You know where the wind will smack you in the face.
Aside from that, a race on the track leaves no place to blend in or hide. There are only a handful of people racing at one time, and what spectators there are can see everything unfold. It is immediately apparent when you chip away at a lead or start to fall apart.
Most races on a track are shorter and give you less time to recover from an early mistake. If something goes wrong with your race plan in a 5k or a marathon, you may not have a good day but you have time to adjust your expectations and recover. With the mile, you don’t. By the time you collect yourself the race is over.
Still, because of all these things there is something awesome about racing a mile on a track. There’s a symmetry in four laps that isn’t too monotonous and allows you to track your splits. Likewise, the course doesn’t change much from place to place or over time; 18 year old me may have balked at my downhill mile time, but he would have to respect whatever I ran on the track.
For So Few People, This Seems Crowded
The organizers provide two heats: an “Over 5:30” and an “Under 5:30”. I opted to run in the “Over 5:30” heat. I lined up in the “Over” heat, figuring that was probably the right place for me. I lined up on the starting line at the end of the front stretch with 12 other runners, men and women of all ages (I can’t remember the last time I was in a field that small).
I planned to start fast, tuck in with the lead group, let them set the pace, and then make a move towards the end of the race. At the end of the first turn, though, I found myself boxed in. I watched two runners peel off at the front and start to distance themselves from the pack. I didn’t like the pace, and thought I could do a little better so I made the decision to try and break. This meant slowing down, finding a path to the outside, and then trying to accelerate towards the front of the pack. I ran out of room on the back straight and had to tuck back into the pack. I wasted a lot of energy in the process and now have a greater appreciation for those who can run a “patient” race.
In the next lap I exchanged places with one person and saw another move ahead of both of us and add some distance. I worked harder than I had the Friday before. I felt a twinge in my quad that grew harder to ignore with every step. The heat and humidity weighed on me, and the wind gusted at times in both stretches. My lungs and legs burned.
The third lap was what I expected. The distance was no different from the Friday before, but it felt longer, slower. I struggled to keep my pace and battled my fatigue and anxiety through the lap.
Into the final lap the faster runners waiting for their heat offered encouragement. “Get those knees up”. “Keep going”. “One more”. I started my kick midway through the back stretch, closing on one runner that had passed me earlier, pulling even with her at the end of the turn and pushing as hard as I could to the finish.
I barely heard the footsteps from behind as a guy in a red shirt bolted past with a strong kick, and all I could do was laugh. I may have had another gear but didn’t know how to find it that night, and even if I had I don’t think I could have accelerated enough to catch him.
I crossed the line in 5:40, almost thirty seconds slower than what I had run the Friday before. It felt good, though. I hadn’t run that fast since high school, and though it wasn’t close to my best I think 18 year-old me would have at least respected it.
I stayed to watch the “Under 5:30” heat and then ran the “bonus” 800m race after. I then hobbled to my car with an apparent muscle strain and went to my kids’ swim meet.
A Lesson Learned
Sometimes when we push ourselves to run longer and longer distances, we can forget how much fun the shorter ones can be. I appreciated the chance to test a different aspect of my running, and for these events in particular I like the smaller crowds and closer connection to top runners, even though I’m not in their league. With longer races they finish so much earlier and everything gets lost in the crowds.
I am not as fast as I was in high school but I haven’t lost as much speed as I thought, either. More importantly, I get that it really doesn’t matter. I’m a different runner today than 18 year-old me. I don’t need to compete with my past and the less I do that the happier as a runner I will be.
Two miles, one big life lesson.