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January 29, 2009

The Marathon and the Mile

Admin note: Although I had previously pledged to focus on the mile for the year, I found it much harder than I imagined to tear myself away from marathon training. For many years, racing the marathon was the end-all and be-all of my running existence – and much of this article is a love letter to the race I was temporarily leaving behind.

Also, remember what I said before about my being a track geek? Well, the nerd coils are burning pretty hot underneath this article as well. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Chasing Roger Banister

Part 3: The Marathon and the Mile

This spring, I find myself at a curious crossroads in my training regimen. My favorite race, April’s Big Sur Marathon, is rapidly approaching, yet my mind is dwelling to my main objective for the year: training to run a five-minute mile this summer.

The close proximity of these dates has triggered a cognitive drift between the two events, which represent bookends in the catalog of classic distance races. Both have a wealth of history, tradition, and drama. Both are fairly well known and appreciated by casual observers, and both offer easily identifiable barometers of one’s ability.

The marathon has the most famous origin of any athletic event. In 490 B.C., the vastly outnumbered Athenian army, after defeating the mighty Persians in a crucial battle at the city of Marathon, dispatched their messenger Pheidippides to carry news of the victory back over 24 miles to Athens. As the legend goes, he arrived at the city, uttered the exclamation “Nike!” (meaning, “victory” – or possibly foreshadowing the rise of an athletic company juggernaut some 2400 years later), and promptly died of exhaustion.

Ever since its inclusion in the modern Olympiad, the marathon has had a remarkably colorful history. For the first three Olympic Games, the distance of the race varied - anywhere from 24.8 miles to 25.4 - based on geographic logistics of the host cities. Prior to the 1908 London Olympics, King Edward VII established the official distance by the least scientific means imaginable: he lengthened the race to the modern-day standard of 26.2 miles so that the royal family would have the luxury of watching the race start in front of their home at Windsor Castle, and the finish in front of the Queen's viewing box at Olympic Stadium. (On a related note: if you’ve ever bonked in the 26th mile of a marathon, feel free to direct your cursing towards the British royal family.)

Marathoners were long considered the rogues and misfits of the running community. Competitors in the early 1900s often took mid-race breaks to indulge in cigarettes and brandy, which was thought to improve their stamina. Through the years, the race has attracted more cheaters than any other sporting event, as would-be tricksters have tried to steal the glory of a victory by cutting the course, hopping on horses or subways, or hiding in the bushes before emerging ahead of the pack in the final miles.

Obviously, the marathon’s checkered history hasn’t limited its popularity, as participation levels have exploded in recent years. As more runners take part in the event, many become focused on benchmark times that have gradually seeped into the popular conscience – of which the most obvious example is the list of qualifying times for the Boston Marathon.

Aside from Boston, however, round numbers offer the most enticing goals. To both participants and observers, running a 2:59:58 seems far superior to a 3:00:05, with vastly more significance than the mere seven seconds would indicate. The hour marks (whether it's 3, 4, or 5) are highly visible milestones that many runners strive for years to attain – as I can attest to from personal experience.

At one point, my marathon PR was 3:03, and for more than a year I was obsessed with the quest to dip under 3 hours. It took several attempts and a few agonizing misses, and I wasn’t content to stop the chase until I finally nailed it. The fact that my eventual breakthrough race was a 2:56 seemed relatively insignificant; I would have been equally satisfied in the result even if it had taken up to three additional minutes.

Similarly, the mile has its own symbolic benchmarks - measured in even minutes instead of hours – and the first-ever four-minute mile is the most classic example.

Think about it: would we celebrate Roger Bannister and remember his name 50 years later if he had run the distance just 7/10ths of a second slower (4:00.1 instead of 3:59.4) that day in 1954? The time still would have been a world record – but it was the round number that had, over the years, acquired a mystique far larger than the simple act of running around the track faster than anyone in history. Even to this day, despite the passage of 50 years and an ever-increasing number of runners who have reached it, the four-minute mile remains one of the most glamorous accomplishments in athletics.

For recreational runners, other minute barriers loom just as large. Many high schoolers frame their entire season around beating a five-minute mile, while older athletes would be thrilled, just for one time, to run a mile under six or seven minutes. Being somewhere between “high school” and “older”, I frequently imagine that I’m capable of a 5-minute mile, although I’ve never actually tried it.

Just as they did for the marathon, the round numbers of the mile entice me like a siren’s song. What’s worse, somehow I already know that if one day I run a 5:03 but never go “under the zeroes”, it would be a haunting conclusion to my season’s toil. The benchmark times are like beacons that continually call us beyond the measures that we would otherwise consider acceptable, and won't let us rest comfortably until we arrive.

Sadly, while the marathon has broadened its appeal in recent years, the one-mile race hovers on the brink of extinction. Almost all major national and international championships today race the “metric mile” of 1500m, which for many reasons is unforgivable (as I’ll describe in a future article). Thankfully, a handful of meets still exist where world-class runners gather to race the mile. These contests are typically the headline events, with sentimental monikers such as the Miracle Mile (in Vancouver), the Dream Mile (Oslo), or the Golden Mile (Rome). Others are named after track and field giants, such as the Bowerman Mile at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon.

Finally, the question I’ve been pondering lately: Is it possible for a runner to excel at both the mile and the marathon?

At the international level, the answer is a definite “no”. Nobody has ever won world championships in both events – although two legendary men have come close. Finland’s Paavo Nurmi won Olympic gold in the 1500m in 1920, and later set a world record for the 20K (13.4 miles). Perhaps the greatest distance runner of all time, Czech Emil Zatopek (at right), set an unprecedented triple by winning golds in the 5K, 10K, and marathon at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. However, the marathon and one-mile “double” has remained unattainable to all who have tried to accomplish it.

It’s not hard to understand why. The two events feature dramatically different physiological and psychological demands; one requires explosive bursts of speed and precise race strategy, while the other rewards a prolonged, calculated effort that gradually builds to maximal exertion. That’s not to say that runners can’t find satisfaction in pursuing both disciplines – just that it’s nearly impossible to simultaneously do well in both.

So it is that I find myself training for the marathon, but thinking about the mile. And since I’ve spent the vast majority of my running years at one end of the distance spectrum, I feel like a relative newcomer to this brave new world of one-mile racing.

Honestly, that’s a huge part of the mile’s appeal. Much of my satisfaction this summer will be in knowing that I took on a new challenge and gave it my best effort, regardless of the result. Unless, of course, the end result is that I run a 5:01 - in which case my only reward will be whole new set of neuroses.

While that’s not exactly what I need, at least it might provide continuing fodder for my writing career.

See previous installments of this series on sidebar at right.


Mark 1/30/09, 4:56 AM  

Well written, enjoyable...keep it coming.

Annette 1/31/09, 9:57 AM  

I'm intrigued. Can't wait to see where this journey takes you.

David 1/31/09, 6:54 PM  

I have been lobbying for a one mile race here in Central Florida. I have as much determination to see it happen as I do about running a 7 minute mile: remote but attainable with persistence.

Anne 2/1/09, 11:37 AM  

I'm loving the series, Donald, and I think it's really cool that you've set your sights on a new goal that's just as tough as a marathon mentally, and in many ways physically.

Still not sure what to think of this season of Lost. The riddles-within-riddles-within-riddles seem to be coming rapid-fire, but perhaps that's what happens when you keep traveling back and forth in time at a moment's notice.

Gretchen 2/1/09, 3:40 PM  

Whoa you weren't kidding about these posts coming in rapid-fire succession. I like it though. I just read all 3 articles so far...good stuff! Nice reading for a post-marathon day too. (somehow I clocked a 2nd-fastest-time-ever on minimal training. I can't figure it out!)

It's not only that the mile has those minute-based time goals. The 4-minute mile is so cool because of all the symetry...you know: 4 laps, 4 minutes, 1 minute per lap. Each lap is a beast of it's own making, so different from each other even though they are on the same track. The 1500, with it's 3 and 3/4 laps, could never be as beautiful.

Rick Gaston 2/3/09, 12:59 PM  

"As the legend goes, he arrived at the city, uttered the exclamation “Nike!” (meaning, “victory” – or possibly foreshadowing the rise of an athletic company juggernaut some 2400 years later), and promptly died of exhaustion."

Not enough gels? Was it the Gatorade? I know, not enough salt and he died of hyponatremia because they thought he was dehydrated and gave him more water. Hmmm or was it really dehydration after all?

Liking the series, just went through the first three during my lunch break.

Rainmaker 2/16/09, 8:09 PM  

I'm just catching up on the whole series tonight. Great stuff thus far. How right you are with respect to whole numbers being the end-all-be-all for whether or not my own PR's matter. It's amazing how much breaking a few more seconds makes it feel like the race was 'worth it' or not.

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