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February 9, 2009

A Night for the Ages

Admin note: At long last – race day arrived! This installment also describes my then-5-year-old’s introduction to the world of running and racing, which conveniently took place on the same day as my one-mile race.

Sadly, although the evening was somewhat monumental for me, I don’t have any pictures to post here; five years ago, I wasn’t quite in the habit of carrying my camera everywhere I went, and the pictures my friends took were fairly disappointing. So you’ll just have to trust me – it all happened. The following story is completely true.

I’ll have the epilogue to this series as my next post, and then we’ll call it a wrap on this whole Homeric affair. If you’ve made it this far into the series: thank you, congratulations, and here’s where the outcome is finally revealed.


Chasing Roger Bannister

Part 8: A Night For The Ages

The four-minute mile was broken at an evening track meet, with a race start time of 6:00 pm. Roger Bannister spent most of May 6, 1954 in similar fashion as almost every other day: doing his medical rounds at St Mary’s Hospital in London. He boarded the train at Paddington Station for the trip to Iffley Road track at Oxford for the evening’s meet, and had a light meal at a friend’s house before heading to the track.

It was comforting to remember these details as I was treating my patients at the hospital on the day of an evening track meet where I planned to race the mile. I returned home after work, picked up my son and some friends, and started the 2-hour car ride to Los Gatos High School, site of a weekly all-comers meet. En route, I snacked on some of my son’s animal crackers, but otherwise was too nervous to eat. Both of us had been awaiting this night for several weeks – in addition to my own ambitions, my son was excited to enter his first running race.

We arrived at the track just in time for my son to enter the 100 meters. As we watched all of the other heats before us (the heats are progressively younger and slower), I gave him some last-minute reminders about staying in his lane and running only as fast as he felt like. I also encouraged him to observe what the other runners were doing, but he was much more enraptured by the starter’s pistol than the actual task at hand.

Eventually his turn came to run. As the pistol fired, he flinched and froze, and didn’t start running until the other kids had already taken several strides. Finally he took off down the track, mostly running but occasionally skipping, looking around at the people watching, swerving across the lanes, and casually bopping his head from side to side. Fortunately, he wasn’t in danger of bumping into anyone, since all the other kids had already finished.

Approaching the finish line, he was unsure of when to stop, so about 5 meters from the line he stopped running, turned around and asked me where the race ended. I jogged up and crossed the line with him, then gave all the congratulations and encouragement I could muster. However, there were only a few minutes before I needed to race, so I walked him to the bleachers so he could play with a friend. The whole process seemed a bit baffling to him - but he did ask when he would be able to do another race. I took that as a positive sign.

I returned to the track and started my warmup, and soon thought that for some reason, the track seemed a bit odd. The straightaways were shorter than usual, and the curves were much more rounded, so that the track was almost more circular-shaped than oval. I was puzzled for a minute … and then it hit me.

“Hey,” I asked a girl who was also warming up, “is this a 440 track?” She answered yes, and my first thought was, Wow - a 440-yard track! I just wrote an article about a 440 track! That’s got to be a good omen, right? It seemed promising that the first one I had ever actually seen would be here, tonight, for my quirky/obsessive little tribute to Roger Bannister and the classic one-mile race. It was like the final small dose of inspiration I needed to seize the opportunity of the evening.

I lined up one row behind the frontrunners to start the race, and as we took off into the first curve, inspiration quickly turned to abject fear. I realized that unlike a marathon, there was almost no room for error in the mile race. A lapse of concentration or any bad stretch of merely 20 yards could be the difference in finishing above or below five minutes.

I finished the first lap several seconds ahead of pace, but almost in a panic. Was I going too fast? There was no earthly way I could maintain this speed. I slowed considerably in the second lap as a large pack of runners moved ahead of me. My pace remained slower than average in the third lap, and for a brief instant I thought I was hopelessly behind pace - yet somehow I willed myself into a small kick with about 1½ laps to go.

Entering the final lap, I had about 72 seconds to get under five minutes, and I knew I still had a small chance. I immediately sprinted to begin the final lap, and tried to build momentum down the backstretch (which suddenly didn’t seem so short anymore). Into the final curve, I heard the PA announcer calling the times of the winners, who were finishing in the mid-4:30s.

He kept calling times out as I raced down the homestretch with less than ten seconds to go. 4:57, 4:58, 4:59, and I lunged my body at the line. I crossed the finish line and took a sharp left turn to collapse onto the infield - but on my way down I glanced at my watch, and saw the most glorious numbers I have seen in a long time: 4:59.97.

Subtract a tenth or two for my initial distance behind the start line, and it gave me a legitimate margin below 5 minutes. I had done it.

Lying there in the grass, I felt and thought everything at once. Elation to have achieved this goal that once seemed unattainable. Relief that I wouldn’t ever have to race this distance again if I didn’t want to. Humility, that as fast as I just ran and as exhausted as I was, that Bannister ran fifteen seconds per lap faster, more than 50 years ago (not only that, but nearly a dozen people beat me in tonight’s race). I felt respect for Alan Webb and Hicham El Guerrouj and everyone who races this event regularly as their means of earning a living.

Mostly, though, I felt incredible pain.

My chest and my legs and my head seemed completely deflated from the inside, like someone would need to scrape me of the ground with a spatula. My body felt like it was made of lead, and my joints locked in place with arms and legs extended downward. I remained there, staring at the sky for what seemed like forever, before I finally regained the strength to get to my feet and go look for my son.

I found him in playing in the bleachers – and as I was glowing with pride, it occurred to me that he had no idea what just happened. I didn’t know if he even watched the race. So we had this somewhat anticlimactic exchange:

Son: How was your race?

Me: It was great. I did well.

Son: Is it my turn to do another race now?

Me: Sure. Let’s go.

A few minutes later, he was lined up for the 60-meter dash.

His second race unfolded much like the first: turtle-like reaction time off the line, nonchalant trotting down the track, meandering across lane lines, finishing after almost every other kid. This time, however, there was one big difference.

This time, when he crossed the finish line, he jumped up, raised his hands in the air, and gave me a high-five and a big hug. He ran to a friend of mine and gave him a high-five. The kid was clearly enjoying himself now. Afterwards, he stayed on the infield grass, having impromptu footraces with his friend after the meet ended – and the excited grin on his face as he raced through the grass seemed like the perfect ending to the evening.

Before we headed to the car, I took in the surroundings and the events one last time. The beautiful late-summer Northern California sky turning from pink to dusk. Walking across the infield grass of an old-school track with my son, chatting about his two races at his first-ever track meet. Watching him give out high-fives and enjoying his feeling of accomplishment. Running my first-ever five-minute mile on the same evening, in dramatic fashion. Slurpees and chocolate-chip cookies awaiting us on the ride home.

I mean…should I just retire from running right now? How can I ever top this evening? There must be people who have run for decades without experiencing such a confluence of milestones and memories as the two of us did here tonight.

So where do we go from here? 50 years ago, Bannister continued to race, however briefly, after breaking the four-minute mile - most notably in a head-to-head duel with John Landy dubbed the “Mile of the Century”, which was the first race to see two men go under four minutes - before retiring from competitive running to focus on his medical career. For all of us, from elites to amateurs, there are seasons when running goals take paramount importance in our lives, and others when they take a back seat to other pursuits.

Honestly, as far as my son and I are concerned, I don’t know what’s next for either of us. For every landmark passed in life, there is always another one on the horizon, just far enough out of reach to challenge us, but near enough to draw us in. Maybe it is related to running, maybe not. My son and I will certainly both find new pursuits to engage us - perhaps together, but probably separately – in the years to come.

Maybe we’ll enjoy our experiences together again like we did on this night – but if we don’t, I’ll at least make sure that we talk about them over Slurpees afterward.

See previous installments of this series on sidebar at right.


Drs. Cynthia and David 2/10/09, 1:40 AM  

Beatiful blog Donald. Just stumbled across it and it's hard to stop reading!

Your account of training for the mile is refreshing, but brings back painful memories of track in high school. I wonder what you think of this account by Mark Allen of his training using the Maffetone method? (granted he was training for the IronMan not the mile) http://www.markallenonline.com/heartrate.asp


Mark 2/10/09, 5:35 AM  

So well written, man! I have really enjoyed this journey!

Anonymous,  2/10/09, 10:45 AM  

Very nice word play in this segment's title - "A Night for the Ages" indeed! Well done!

Dan - Morgan Hill

Alisa 2/10/09, 1:12 PM  

Awesome...what a great account. I have been following along just not commenting as much as normal.

Ian 2/11/09, 3:21 AM  

Fitting end to an inspiring series Donald.. fantastic writing, I hope I get to share such times with my children

Dave 2/11/09, 2:15 PM  

Donald, I loved this. More important I think is that your son was racing too. Next Saturday, Feb 21., my son and I are going to crew an aid station for the Crosstimber 50 milers...

Dori 2/11/09, 3:14 PM  

Great post, Donald. I loved the way your son was excited for the sheer joy of running.

Your account brought to mind my first one mile race. It was a road race, and my goal was to go under 10 minutes. I ran as hard as I could and I ran beyond my expectations. It was over 9 minutes, slow by most people's standards, but I felt the same sense of accomplishment as your little boy did. And like you, incredible pain as I headed across the finish line.

Rainmaker 2/16/09, 8:31 PM  

.97...seriously? You had a whole 2 one hundreths of a second you could have taken and still been under. I think ya could have paced it a little more precisely next time. ;)

Just kidding, congrats!

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