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February 3, 2009

The Beautiful Race

Admin note: If you’re surprised that I can muster so much infatuation for one race, perhaps you just haven’t read my blog for long enough. The bad news is, it only gets worse from here. I described a previous article as a love letter to the marathon; in that case, consider this one the romantic ramblings of a starry-eyed runner toward his new obsession.


Chasing Roger Bannister

Part 5: The Beautiful Race

Is it possible for a race to be beautiful?

I’m not talking about a situation where the course is in a scenic location, or the athletes who run it are particularly good-looking, or a winning strategy by one particular runner is admirable in its execution. I’m referring to a case where the race distance itself, and the format in which it is contested, are models of intrinsic beauty, consistent at every level of competition.

Brazilians frequently refer to soccer as joga bonito, “the beautiful game”. They speak of the fluid motion of the game and the constantly evolving tactics of the players as living poetry that transcends the actual participants involved - meaning that the game is just as beautiful to observe when played by amateurs as by the legendary Brazilian national team.

If an equivalent event exists in the track and field world, it would have to be the traditional one-mile race. Roger Bannister termed the mile the “classic Anglo-Saxon distance.” Coaches consider it to be the ultimate test of strength and endurance, requiring both pure speed and remarkable stamina to succeed.

The unit of measurement dates back to the Roman Empire, and was used throughout Europe for many centuries. The mile was also the standard measure for determining plots of land and establishing road networks in the New World. In the modern era, America has stubbornly (and many of us would say, thankfully) resisted global conversion to the metric system in nearly every facet of life – with the notable exception of track and distance running.

Prior to the 1970s, most tracks in America and Europe were 440 yards per lap - exactly four laps per mile. The one-mile race lent itself to dramatic execution, much like a four-act play, or a symphony in four movements. A successful race required a strong opening, a solid, thoughtful effort through the second lap, and perseverance and determination through the third. The final lap then built upon these with a climactic final crescendo toward the suspenseful – sometimes tragic, sometimes inspirational - conclusion.

Dividing the race into four equal segments gave the mile a mathematical symmetry: with each lap, runners knew precisely how they stood in relation to their target finish time - and just as importantly, so did the crowd. During the chase for the four-minute mile, track stadiums around the world would reach a fever pitch whenever a runner passed the half-mile under two minutes, or the ¾ mile anywhere close to three minutes.

The four-minute mile had an especially elegant symmetry to it: four laps, one minute per lap. In Bannister’s day, races were timed by those old-fashioned sweep-arm stopwatches, where the second hand made one revolution per minute. Thus, a runner keeping four-minute pace would circle the track in perfect synchronicity with the arm of the watch. The aesthetic appeal of a man doing such a feat contributed to the race’s mystique during its heyday in the 1950s.

Now compare the stylishness of the mile to the 1500 meters, or the “metric mile” that is most commonly raced today. Whereas the mile is aesthetically perfect, the 1500m is a complete hodge-podge. The distance is exactly three-and-three-quarters laps around today’s 400m tracks. It starts along a strange arc drawn across the curve of the track. It doesn’t finish where it starts.

Spectators and runners alike are often confused by split times: is the first split given at the first full lap? Or the initial three-quarters of a lap, when there are three even laps to go? Can either of these lap splits tell anyone what kind of finishing pace the runner is on? Can metric splits (at 500m or 1000m) give spectators an appreciation of how fast the runners are moving?

Sadly, as the metric system became the international standard, the 1500m rapidly grew in prominence - despite fierce resentment from elite athletes of the day. John Landy, Bannister’s Australian rival, has said, “That’s not a race at all. It’s shame we’re stuck with the 1500m. It’s a tragedy. It’s awful. There’s nothing graceful about it. It’s ugly. It has no elegance. The mile is a vastly better race.”

(Not only that, but for Americans, the mile has a stranglehold in the popular conscious, especially among runners. Split times are always broken into minutes per mile. Pace groups at every major race use minutes per mile. In my whole life, nobody’s ever asked me how fast I can run a K. With the exception of my one Canadian friend, kilometers are simply meaningless – it’s a measurement to which nobody can relate. If that makes us lazy, so be it.)

Now that almost all tracks have been converted to meters, the closest we can get to capturing the beauty of the mile is the 1600m - exactly four laps around the 400m track. (As an aside, shouldn’t this be considered the metric mile? It’s only 9 meters short of one mile. It’s as close to equivalent as you can get. Why arbitrarily make the race another 100m shorter? Europeans really frustrate me sometimes.) And yet, it’s not quite the same. Most runners will agree that the mile adds an additional 2 to 3 seconds for those extra 9 meters, so mile times are often extrapolated from the 1600m - but shouldn’t mile times actually be accomplished instead of estimated?

To their credit, most American high schools favor racing the 1600m over the 1500, but these races still lack the historical comparison to their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Part of the excitement over Alan Webb’s 3:53 mile in 2001 was that he was the first high school student in more than 30 years to go under 4:00, and he broke a schoolboy record that stood for 36 years. Nobody kept track of 1600m times 35 years ago - and even if they did, would anybody care? The mile is a benchmark that resonates much more clearly.

So as I’m training and racing around the track this summer, monitoring my progress with 400m and 800m split times, in the back of my mind I know that at some point, I’ll have to actually mark off those extra 9 meters before I time myself in the mile. With all of the time and interest I’ve dedicated to Roger Bannister and the mile, there is no way that I would be satisfied with racing 1500m, or even 1600m.

In a perfect world, this beloved event would remain unchanged through the generations - much like futbol in Brazil – and all over the world. Sadly, the track and field landscape has driven the one-mile footrace to the brink of extinction. However, I can still dream of finding a 440-yard track someplace, where I can run not just the same distance as Bannister, but also the same “beautiful race.”

See previous installments of this series on sidebar at right


Gretchen 2/4/09, 7:43 AM  

Well, I guess you already know how I feel about your thoughts on this one.
That being said, I do have to contest your assertion that a 1500 runner might be confused by split times. Unless it is a runner's first time racing the distance, it's never confusing. The split time, say a 75, takes on a meaning beyond that of the mathematical. I don't have to multiply it by 4 (or 3.75) to know exactly what it means about my race. A 74 or a 78 or whatever the number, tells me something very specific. And the same split means something very different if it comes in the first lap versus the third lap. That last 300? Well, that too can be a number of it's own meaning. A 54 says good things, a 60 says I probably choked.
Anyway, this has nothing to do with the mile, except to say that a race can become very much internalized, become a part of who you are. When that happens, the mathematics of the splits, regardless of exactly how they are divided, do become poetry, much like the Brazillian soccer games.
(See, you're never going to be criticized by me about too much runner-geekiness.)

Rainmaker 2/16/09, 8:15 PM  

I was watching indoor meets on TV at some point over the last week - funny how much of the 1500 vs 1600 played into discussions during the races. It was great fun watching though, since it included many different age groups - including some HS'ers.

Oh, and I completely agree that the 1500 instead 1600 is stupid. Very stupid.

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