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February 28, 2009

Let Us In the Sound (or, Synchronicity II)

"Here’s where we gotta be - love and community -
Laughter is eternity if joy is real."
- U2, "Get On Your Boots" (following post)

**
One of the first albums I purchased with my own money was Synchronicity by The Police.

I remember all of the hype that preceded the newest release from the biggest band in the world, and the glowing reviews from my friends who quickly purchased their copies as soon as the album came out. And the day that I gathered my lawnmowing money and rode my bike 10 miles to the shopping mall to buy the cassette tape still ranks among my fondest memories of childhood. It was the summer of 1983, and I was 12 years old.

Almost immediately, I fell in love with the album. It was imaginative and melodic and seemed to stretch the boundaries of traditional rock music. The songs were stories whose topics ranged from the mundane to the bizarre, with enough literary and pop culture references to keep me scrambling for my encyclopedia (to this day, the only reason I can identify Scylla and Charybdis is thanks to the lyrics to “Wrapped Around Your Finger”). It also featured one of the greatest ultrarunning theme songs ever written (classic concert clip - trust me), a full twenty years before ultrarunning became popular – talk about being ahead of your time.

The music from that album stays with me to this day; the lyrics still bounce around my head from time to time, the melodies are easily retrieved from the recesses of my brain, and recalling how much I loved the music brings back good memories from a sometimes awkward period of my life. In other words, it did everything that first favorite albums are supposed to do.

A lot of this came back to me yesterday, shortly after my 10-year-old son initiated the following exchange:

Son: They said on the radio that this is going to be a good week for U2 fans.

Me: Yes, it is. Do you know why they said that?

Son: Yeah – they said the new U2 album comes out on Tuesday.

Me: Right.

Son: I want to get it.

Me: Don’t worry - we’re getting it.


Of course we are. I’ve written about our father/son bonding over U2 in the past, so it’s hard to say which of us is more excited about picking up the new release from the biggest band in the world. This is a turning point of sorts for the two of us; usually, I’m the one who introduces him to new songs – but my son’s the one initiating the interest this time around. I know that shouldn’t make me feel like a proud father - but in a corny way, it kind of does.

Having been around long enough to endure some shaky U2 offerings (Zooropa, anyone?), I’m just hopeful that the thing doesn’t stink (in that regard, some initial reviews are somewhat promising). Being na├»ve enough to not know any better, my son believes it’s going to be awesome.

For his sake, I hope he’s right. I’d love for this to become a first favorite album, affecting him just like the one I had a few decades ago – but I realize that’s a tall order for any band, especially one that’s been around for nearly thirty years. Then again, you never know.

From my standpoint, if the new CD gives my son and me a little bit of laughter and joy together, I’ll happily accept it.

**

Before the music segment, a training update: If anyone needs to get his boots on lately, it’s me. The miles are starting to add up, but not nearly as many or as easily as I’d like them to. For each of the past few weeks, I’ve finished with about 10-15 fewer miles than I originally planned. And I’ve got seven weeks until my first 50-miler of the season. So in addition to being the first single from the U2 album, this track seems rather appropriate to my training regimen nowadays.

Also ... the official video is copy protected, but can be seen at this YouTube page. For an audio-only version (with the new album cover as wallpaper), click to play below.

U2, "Get On Your Boots":

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February 25, 2009

Jokes on the Run

For the past couple of months, our family has adopted the practice of bringing a nightly joke to the dinner table.

Predictably, most of the jokes are either nonsensical (from our 5-year-old), juvenile (from our 7- and 10-year-olds), or completely lame (that would be me) – but every now and then, a good one sneaks through and cracks us all up. In any case, it’s a nice way for us to lighten the mood and enjoy each other’s company on a nightly basis.

Our new routine is also a departure point for my most recent Monterey Herald column. My friend Mike and I sent e-mails to all of our running partners, asking for their favorite punch lines from jokes told on the run over the years. After we collected their responses – and filtered out all of the dirty ones – we used the rest as fodder for the article that appears below. And for some added fun, I've thrown in an audience participation part after the post just for Internet readers.

**

Running Life 02/12/09 “Jokes on the Run”

Everyone knows about the healing power of laughter – but did you know that it can also make you a better runner?

Nothing makes a run seem shorter and easier than someone sharing a great joke along the way. The longer the joke takes to tell – and the more mileage it preoccupies – the better. Whenever someone tells a “shaggy dog story”, the pace of the group inevitably picks up, adrenaline surges, smiles appear, and fatigue dissipates. Whether you are the storyteller or the listener, the effect is the same.

That’s why it’s wonderful to have someone in your running group who stays up to date on the latest jokes. It’s also a great idea to have a “joke day” run when everyone in the group is required to bring a new joke to share. Include some stakes to make it interesting: the worst joke teller has to buy beer or coffee after the run.

We’ll get you started: there once was a running club that valued humor so much that they issued every member a copy of The World’s Best Joke Book. Each joke was numbered and everyone memorized the book. That way, instead of telling the whole joke, a runner could just yell, “Number 23!”, and everyone exploded in wild laughter.

One day a new runner joined them, and tried to embrace the joke tradition by yelling, “Number 71!” There was a long, absolutely dead silence and the pace slowed dramatically. Finally one of the group members said, “Nah … you didn’t tell it right!”

Obviously, this kind of group misses the point of utilizing jokes on the run. The benefit is in the telling. It’s in the anticipation and mystery of the punch line. It makes time go faster. It gives camaraderie to the group.

As longtime runners, we have more than a few all-time favorite jokes that are told in our group over and over again. When somebody new joins in, it won’t be long before he (or she) hears all of the group favorites. And his reactions to the jokes are closely observed – sometimes, the amount of laughter might even determine whether he is invited back to the next run. Have we mentioned yet that we take joke-telling seriously?

We’d love to share our best jokes here, but they would take way more column space than this skinny sidebar allows us. Besides, we’re told that this is a family-oriented newspaper, and most of our jokes would definitely tarnish that reputation.

So what we’ll do instead is to give you some of our favorite punch lines. The next time you see us or e-mail us, feel free to ask for the “the rest of the story.”

This might even be a fun game: can you identify any of these jokes just by their conclusions? Here are 10 punch lines that have entertained our running group through countless miles:

1. Somebody stole our tent!
2. Just you and me!
3. I hate playing golf with your dad.
4. European!
5. It’s the nuts - they're complimentary.
6. Oh, look - he's moving!
7. What? They gave me a chihuahua?
8. The chicken is a ventriloquist!
9. I got it in France - they've got a lot of them over there.
10. I don't know ... it all happened so fast!

If by chance you recognize any of them, we give you complete permission to use these jokes to improve your next run.

**
*Special blog bonus feature! If you know any of the jokes attached with the punch lines above, feel free to type them in the comment box below, so I don't have to e-mail everybody separately. Thanks! *

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February 22, 2009

WIN Detergent Review

Shortly after posting my review of ProWash laundry detergent, I received an offer to review WIN high performance sport detergent, another product targeted at the apparently much sought-after demographic of sweaty, stinky athletes. I agreed to the review (of course), but with two laundry-related posts in the space of six weeks, I fear that I might be morphing into the Martha Stewart of endurance bloggers - so let’s just knock this one out quickly and move on.

I won’t bother to retell the story of why I defer all smell-related assessments to my superhero wife – that’s in the ProWash review if you need a reminder. I’ll just tell you that I’ve been using Win (sometimes written in all caps on the website, other times not; I’m not positive which one they’ve officially settled on) for the past few weeks in the same manner that I used the ProWash, with similar results.

WIN makes my workout clothes smell great after going through the wash. Under the circumstances, there was an obvious question that needed to be asked, which led to the following exchange between my wife and me:

Wife: I used that WIN stuff with this load of clothes.

Me: How did it work?

Wife: Pretty well, I think.

Me: Better then the ProWash?

Her: Um … I can’t really tell.


I guess the take home message is that there is more than one product on the market specifically designed to clean athletic clothing. Whether you can actually tell a difference between any of them is up for debate; if my bloodhound of a wife couldn’t distinguish them, I’m betting that you won’t notice a huge discrepancy between brands either. So you’ll need to weigh some other factors in your decision-making process.

How about marketing? While the ProWash website features testimonials from satisfied everyday athletes (such as, ahem, me), WIN promotes itself as the official detergent of the US Olympic Team – which begs a couple of questions: 1) Do Olympic athletes smell worse than regular schmoes like us? Because I’ve been on some post-race buses where the lingering funk was almost deadly. I can’t imagine what world-class funk would do to me. Also, 2) Was there a competition for the Olympic Team detergent? Wouldn’t it have been cool to see some kind of televised contest between ProWash, WIN, and that hyperkinetic OxyClean dude? We could have called the show Laundromat Idol, and I would even have volunteered my wife to be the Kara DioGuardi of the judges panel.

OK, so maybe marketing isn’t the deciding factor (although, since I mentioned it, the WIN website has some pretty cool press coverage in its buzz section) – so let’s break it down by cost. In the ProWash review, I linked to the best price I found: three 24-oz bottles for $23 at Amazon.com. WIN is also sold in bulk on Amazon at eight 21-oz bottles for $46 – so by volume, it looks to be a better bargain (that’s 27 cents per oz for WIN compared to 32 cents for ProWash, for any of you math-challenged readers out there).

Finally, by now there have been enough of these detergent reviews on various blogs for one additional message to register: there’s really no excuse for your workout clothes to reek anymore. Try one of the products I’ve reviewed on this site, or take the suggestions of people who have left comments on the review posts (my reviews or anybody else’s), and take it upon yourself to do away with the exercise funk once and for all.

If you’re like me, with a spouse at home who has long suffered with your stinky self, chances are that she’ll be grateful to you for making the switch.


See previous product reviews on right sidebar. If you have a product you'd like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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February 18, 2009

Masters of Puppet

“Master of Puppets I'm pulling your strings –
Twisting your mind, smashing your dreams –
Blinded by me, you can't see a thing –
Just call my name, 'cause I'll hear you scream.”

- Metallica, “Master of Puppets” (video below)

OK, so those aren't the most cheerful lyrics to start a post – but since today’s topic is addictions, they seemed perfectly appropriate.

Earlier this month, Pamela tagged me to do the list of five addictions, which only posed a problem in that I have so dang many to choose from. Eventually, after eliminating the, um … “adult oriented” ones and ranking the others by a weighted scoring system, I came up with my list. God bless you if you think I’m kidding.

So in no particular order, here we go:

1. Death Magnetic: As much as I immerse myself in music, my method of audio delivery remains somewhat old-school. For example, my car features a mere single CD player. Every so often, I’ll keep the same disc spinning over and over again, because there isn’t anything else that would justify the effort of manually switching the CDs.

Within that framework, you can better appreciate what I’ll say next: last November, I put Metallica’s new album into the car CD player, and it has remained there ever since.

Honestly, it took me somewhat by surprise; I was one of those who thought Metallica’s best days were behind them. About three songs into the new CD, I distinctly remember thinking, “Holy cow – this is the real Metallica again!” The best songs on the disc are as good as anything they’ve ever written, and the 75-minute album is remarkably strong from start to finish.

Also, two related notes on this topic: 1) To many people, Metallica’s high water mark was 1986’s Master of Puppets, whose title track is a harrowing description of cocaine addiction (see how these topics tie together?), and is performed in a live video below that is definitely not for the easily offended. And - because I’m generous about these things - the band’s first video from Death Magnetic is linked below; it’s eerily similar in style and content to their first-ever video (for One) that was released in 1989.

(I know, I’m off to a rambling start – I’ll try to keep the others shorter … )


2. Diet Pepsi: I’ve alluded several times to my sleep deprivation issues – but for whatever reason, I’ve never been much of a coffee drinker. That’s why I give thanks every day to the man who created Diet Pepsi.

From a sleepy runner’s standpoint, it’s almost the perfect concoction: a caffeinated drink that tastes fantastic and has zero calories. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you how much of this stuff I drink on a daily basis.

Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m so hooked on this soda, that if for some reason it ever went off the market, I’d throw about 2 weeks of detoxes before staggering around incoherently and checking myself into Sober House so I can cry with Dr Drew and Amber Smith. Yes, I worry about these things sometimes.


3. Lost: OK, it’s a time travel show now. It’s geeky science fiction run amok. I normally don’t fall for these genres – but I’m along for the ride wherever (or whenever?) this series ultimately takes us.

Obviously, I can’t begin to do justice to the amount of complexity and intrigue at the heart of this show that appeals to me – but a couple of anecdotes might illustrate just how far in the tank I am for Lost nowadays: 1) I’ve come to think of Doc Jensen as a dear family member who I welcome into my house two or three times per week, and 2) on Valentine’s Day, I got my wife a box of chocolates with a gun hidden underneath. And if neither of those things make sense to you, don’t worry about it … I won’t waste your time trying to explain it all here.

(Before you ask – it was a toy gun. But only because I couldn’t afford a real one.)


4. Drymax socks: At one point, I was contractually obligated to tell you all about Drymax because they were generous enough to provide me some products to review (see review on right sidebar). Well, that was several months ago … and I’m still crazy about these socks. In fact, they’re the only brand I’ve worn ever since I got my hands on them.

We’ve had a couple weeks of heavy rain here, and I’ve done several recent runs through muddy, sloppy conditions – including all kinds of puddles and stream crossings - without any foot or blister issues at all. It’s gotten to the point that whenever I overhear someone talking about socks, I blurt out “Do you know about Drymax?” before going into some little spiel. A few of my training partners have tried them as well, with good results; when it comes to these socks, I’m like the Pied Piper of Carmel Valley lately.

Just take my word for it: try Drymax socks. You can thank me later.

Finally - this is somewhat off-topic, but I’m going to switch directions a bit with this last item …


5. NOT Facebook

This is probably going to sound crass … but I simply don’t understand the widespread fascination with Facebook. I’ll admit that it’s a pretty awesome social networking device - and yes, I’ve got a page there, and I’ll even be your friend if you want to track me down … but for the life of me, I can’t figure out why so many people are so freakishly compulsive about this site, especially when it comes to the minutiae.

I mean … I have friends that I probably wouldn’t recognize on the street if I tripped over them. I don’t honestly care if Susie is in a cheeseburger mood tonight. Getting a superpoke doesn’t necessarily brighten my day. And I’m not interested in joining the People Who Think Pluto Should Still Be A Planet. Really now - aren’t there better ways for me to waste my time? Besides, I thought that’s what blogging was for.

I guess my point here is, if you find me on Facebook somehow, that’s cool – drop me a note if you want to add to your friend tally. But if you really want to earn my friendship, here’s what you do: take me to a drive-thru for a tall Diet Pepsi, so we can talk about Lost plot twists and listen to Metallica CDs in the car while we’re waiting.

After all, these addictions don’t feed themselves – and I’m always on the lookout for a good enabler.

**

On to the musical portion of the post! My original intent was to embed the first video from Death Magnetic, called “The Day That Never Comes,” in this post. However, Metallica is notoriously protective of redistribution of their content (remember the Napster fiasco?) - so if you want to watch it, you have to click here.

However, since I don't want to leave you completely empty-handed - and just in case you’re completely obsessive like me – here’s a live version of “Master of Puppets”, filmed when Metallica were at the height of their powers in the late 1980s. Fair warning: it’s filled with plenty of F-bombs (both spoken and visual), so viewer discretion is advised. It’s definitely a hardcore scene – but when I was a teenager, there was no other environment I would rather have been in. Sometimes I wonder how many of the idiots in these crowds are also wearing a tie and sitting behind a desk somewhere today; I know I can't be the only one. (Click to play)

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February 17, 2009

The 10,000 Hour Rule

So then … where were we?

The primary downside of doing a long series (I mean, besides boring nearly everyone to death with one long-winded treatise after another – but that should go without saying) is that you get way behind on the “normal schedule” of posts – or at least, whatever passes for normal around here. So now’s the time when I try to play some catch-up.

Since starting the Bannister series last month, I’ve written two Monterey Herald articles, received three products that are now awaiting reviews, and been tagged with
some chain as punishment for not following through on yet another chain that I thought I had successfully neglected. You could say that things are piling up; over the next couple of weeks, I’ll begin to remedy that situation.

I’m starting with the simplest approach today, by reprinting a Monterey Herald column I wrote in January. As a general rule, topics from this blog seldom crossover to the (slightly) more sophisticated realm of legitimate journalism - but in this case, I made a bit of an exception. The column starts with a premise from Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, and extrapolates it to the community of runners. It’s basically a reminder that the path to success isn’t typically convoluted or complicated - rather, it’s very simple, and very long.

It’s also a reminder of one more point that should be obvious by now: clearly, my
man-crush on Malcolm Gladwell knows no bounds.

**

Running Life 1/29/09 “The 10,000 Hour Rule”


Most runners probably don’t think they have much in common with the likes of Mozart, or The Beatles, or Bill Gates. However, according to Malcolm Gladwell, we have more in common than we ever realized.

Gladwell is the author of Outliers: The Story of Success, currently sitting atop bestseller lists nationwide. In the book, he analyzes countless factors – many of them unknown to the people they most impact – that determine why some people enjoy abundant success in life, while others toil in frustration and obscurity.

One of his revelations is the “10,000 Hour Rule”: in order to maximize any given talent, you need to spend approximately 10,000 hours practicing it. This rule partially dispels the myths of the child prodigy or the naturally gifted artist that many of us accept at face value.

For example, Bill Gates is widely considered a genius – but he also happened to have extraordinary access to cutting-edge technologies as far back as junior high school, and he spent nearly every night and weekend of his youth experimenting with computer programming. Mozart wrote symphonies at age 4, but the body of work he’s recognized for was composed after he had spent another 10 years perfecting his craft. And by the time The Beatles broke on the American scene, they had developed their songwriting and polished their musical chops in thousands of shows in various foreign nightclubs.

The 10,000 Hour Rule has implications for runners as well - in fact, veteran runners have used a variation of it for a long time, known in running circles as the 10-Year Rule. Basically, it says that runners will get gradually faster during their first 10 years, before their performances plateau for another 10 years, then decline precipitously over the next 10 years.

It doesn’t matter what distance you run, or what age you start at: whether you’re 15 or 55, your best race times in any event will improve for up to 10 years if you train consistently. If you could somehow manage to run 1000 hours per year, you’d develop abilities on par with some of the greatest achievers of our age. Yes, natural talent also plays a role – but not nearly as much as most people attribute to it.

(Sure, at first glance, training for 1000 hours per year – 3 hours per day, every day - seems shocking. However, if you ask just about any Olympic athlete, they’d tell you this is consistent with their typical regimens. There’s a reason why it’s so hard to make it to the Olympics.)

Perhaps the most well-known novel about running is Once a Runner by John Parker. In one famous passage, the author ponders how somebody becomes a great runner: “What was the secret, they wanted to know … and not one of them was prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes."

In other words, there’s no secret, and no trick. Do you want to be a better runner? Go for a run. Wake up the next day and do it again. Keep doing it until you wear out the bottoms of your shoes, then buy some new ones and start again. Repeat that process over and over until you’ve done it for 1000 hours, then 2000, then 10,000.

It’s really quite a simple process. Sometimes we just need to be reminded.

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February 12, 2009

Torch Bearers

Admin note: As you've probably guessed, even after running a 5-minute mile, I still had lots of lingering thoughts about the overall significance of Bannister’s accomplishment, and whether such a momentous occasion could ever happen again in modern times. For multiple reasons, I can’t envision a scenario where anything similar would ever occur. This epilogue to the series touches on a few of those reasons.

Why I thought to conclude a series about the most famous distance runner in history with an analogy to a hockey team is still, even five years later, somewhat puzzling to me. I think I had always known about the Canadiens’ (and please don’t write to correct me on the spelling – that’s how it’s written. Apparently it's a French thing.) story, and was just waiting for a time when I could work it into an article without seeming like a complete departure from the subject at hand.

Finally … thanks again to everyone who stuck it out with this series, especially to those who commented or e-mailed me along the way. I’m sure you had no idea what you were wading into when this all started; so if you actually made it to the end, you are to be congratulated.

**

Chasing Roger Bannister

Epilogue: Torch Bearers


Painted on the inside of the Montreal Canadiens’ locker room is a passage from Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae’s famous World War I poem In Flanders Fields: "To you from failing hands we throw the torch; Be yours to hold it high."

The Canadiens (or Les Habitants, or “Habs”, to its loyal fan base) are one of the most storied franchises in all of sports. The team has won 24 Stanley Cups since 1916, including at least one in every decade of the 20th Century. More than 40 of its players have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Current champions perennially mentor and guide the organization’s stars of the future, and the tradition of winning championships is passed from one generation to the next.

Above their lockers, modern-day players see the Flanders Fields text inscribed in foot-high letters that wrap around the walls, lined atop facial profiles of great Canadiens of the past. As they suit up for each home game, under the gazes of legends such as Maurice Richard, Jacque Plante, and Guy Lafleur, the message to today’s players is clear: You follow in the footsteps of great men. Your actions should be worthy of the proud tradition.


I’ve written a lot this year about Roger Bannister (probably – if we’re being honest – way too much). More than 50 years ago, he broke through a physical and psychological barrier that had long resisted men’s efforts to overcome it. His reasons for doing so were fairly straightforward: atonement for a poor Olympic showing, ambition for the honor that came with being a world-record holder, and a competitive drive to accomplish the feat before one of his rivals.

There was one final reason, equally important but far lesser-known, that drove Bannister’s fervent pursuit of the four-minute mile: he wanted to score a victory for the amateur athlete. Neal Bascomb explains this in The Perfect Mile: “Bannister knew that the gentleman amateur was fast becoming a dinosaur…But [he] was not ready to relinquish the values he had learned…For Bannister, breaking the barrier would be affirmation that the amateur was still capable of realizing athletics’ most coveted prize.”

In the 1950s, most Britons stubbornly cherished a notion that was becoming rapidly antiquated: that athletics were purely a young man’s fancy, before he turned his attentions to the important responsibilities of adulthood. The British universities of Cambridge and Oxford took particular pride in promoting the amateur ideal, and Bannister recognized that the Iffley Road track at Oxford would be a particularly appropriate setting for the barrier to be broken.

With hindsight, we can see how Bannister’s era was a time of pivotal change in athletics, from strict amateurism to professional enterprise. With each passing decade, top-tier athletes have been able to earn increasing dollar amounts from sponsors and appearance fees, enabling them to pursue their goals without the burden of maintaining a secondary career.

The pendulum has swung so far in this direction that the notion of a world-class athlete having a day-job is anachronistic. In fact, it is probably impossible - although I hesitate to use that word in a column about Bannister - for a runner to succeed on the world-class level without devoting at least 40 hours per week to conditioning, strength training, and form drills, as well as modern-day luxuries like massage, physical therapy, and lab testing, among other things. In other words, being an athlete in 2004 is a perfectly acceptable career.

Consequently, today’s world-class runners barely resemble - in either appearance or lifestyle - their counterparts of 50 years ago. Their talents are so highly evolved, and race strategies are so different (for example, the mile has almost become a prolonged sprint), it’s almost like they practice a whole different sport. In general, this remarkable evolution is a good thing - but one downside is that the sport of running loses some of its connection to the past that is prized in other long-established sports like hockey or baseball.

Today’s Montreal Canadiens are essentially playing the same game that their forbearers knew; sure, they may skate a little faster and benefit from modern advances in equipment, but the fundamentals are the same. The same thing can be said (putting aside the unspoken elephant in the room that is drug abuse) about baseball’s storied traditions from one generation to the next.

Yet somehow, it’s hard to imagine that Alan Webb or Hicham El Guerrouj are inspired in any way by Roger Bannister or John Landy as they lace up their shoes every day before heading out to the track. After all, they certainly can’t identify with the off-track burdens and expectations their predecessors commonly faced. Nobody ever pressured Webb to quit running so he could begin a real career, and El Guerrouj probably hasn’t worried about feeding his family for quite some time now.

And while these changes are understandable, they might also cause those links to the past to be eventually forgotten. That’s where you and I come in.

Perhaps the amateur athlete that Bannister worked so passionately to glorify hasn’t become extinct; perhaps he just looks a little different now. He’s no longer the guy competing at the Olympics – instead, he’s competing for an overall win or age-group award at the local 10K. Maybe he or she sits in a cubicle all day, or drives a backhoe, or coaches a soccer team, or raises children at home, while also training for a marathon. The same ideals that Bannister embodied on the world stage can still be found, only now they’re on the much smaller scales of local running clubs and all-comers track meets.

It’s likely that those of us who attend to jobs, families, and other obligations beside running can identify with the heroes of the past far more easily than the athletes who are competing on television today ever could. By these standards, the torch of Bannister’s era has, in fact, been passed - not to the modern-day elites, but to us.

Those of us who diligently train for no recognition other than personal satisfaction also follow in the footsteps of great men. By persevering with our training, by striving toward new personal goals, and by repeatedly testing the limits of our abilities, we hold the torch high. Hopefully, through the years, all of our actions will continue to be worthy of this proud tradition.


See previous installments of this series on sidebar at right.

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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.


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February 8, 2009

Indelible Images

Admin note: By this point of the series, I was clearly perseverating – and not in a good way – on the amount of pain that would be involved with trying to run a five-minute mile. The training had been largely completed, and I was just counting the days until an upcoming track meet where I’d finally step up to the challenge.

In the meantime, all I could do was to dwell on all the horrifying aspects of racing the mile – which in hindsight, shouldn’t have surprised me. I turn into a madman during a marathon taper; there’s no reason for me to think that awaiting a one-mile event would have been any different.

Finally … there are a lot of great rock songs about pain out there, wouldn’t you agree? Another one of my old-school favorites follows this post.

**
Chasing Roger Bannister

Part 7: Indelible Images


Nowadays, whenever people think about Roger Bannister’s historic race, they probably have one particular mental image burned into their memory.

Norman Potter’s photograph of Bannister crossing the finish line on May 6, 1954 has become one of the most iconic images in sports. It captures Bannister just before the tape, his head tilted back, thrusting across the finish with what Neal Bascomb describes (in The Perfect Mile) as a “tortured yet glorious expression of abandon” on his face. Recounting the moment later, Bannister wrote, “I leapt at the tape like a man taking this last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him.”

Over the next 50 years, the photo of the man breaking through a seemingly impossible barrier has come to symbolize the struggle of all athletes to accomplish ambitious goals. It is often reprinted in running magazines alongside articles about pushing through mental boundaries, or the power of positive thinking.

Yet the more I learn about Bannister’s run, the man himself, and in particular, his psychological approach to racing, I’m much more impressed by some of the less famous images of Bannister taken shortly after running the four-minute mile.

Immediately upon crossing the finish line, Bannister’s legs buckled and he, in his words, “collapsed almost unconscious”. Two men took him by the arm on either side and pulled him off of the track so that other runners wouldn’t stumble across him as they finished the race. Bannister eventually tried to stand again, but his legs simply gave out, and he “felt like an exploded flashlight with no will to live.” Finally, his coach Franz Stampfl made his way over, lifted Bannister up, and supported him while awaiting the official results of the race.



Newsreel footage shows him resting his head on Stampfl’s shoulder, with his arm draped around the neck of another supporter. Shortly after this moment, an AP photographer snapped another remarkable image of Bannister - still in a state of near collapse and agony, unable to support himself while awaiting the results.

Several minutes had elapsed since the race, and Bannister remained unable to stand under his own power. He hadn’t yet been able to speak, either - and to make matters worse, he still didn’t know if he had broken the barrier. Indeed, the first words he would eventually utter were “Did I do it?”


Much more than the finish line photo, it’s these lesser-known photographs that accurately capture the supreme exertion that was put forth that day, and the tremendous physical toll it exacted. Such an effort is even more admirable when you realize just how much Bannister feared it. He had known going into the race what the necessary cost would be, and it intimidated him.

As physically gifted as he was, Bannister considered himself somewhat fragile mentally. He found it difficult to summon up courage for an all-out effort, and was often fearful of doing so during his buildup to an important race. He was apprehensive of both the effort and the results: if, for example, he were to run a ¾ mile time trial in 3:00.3 seconds instead of 2:59.8, it would create a pocket of self-doubt about his ability to run a four-minute mile. He admits in his book that, “racing has always been more of a mental than physical problem to me.”

The added stress of racing in front of a crowd created an increased sense of dread for him. He wrote, “The spectators fail to understand the mental agony through which an athlete must pass before he can give his maximal effort. And how rarely, if he is built as I am, he can give it.” Nobody would ever accuse Bannister of excess bravado before a major event.

But in the days preceding May 6th, Bannister decided the time had finally arrived to give that maximal effort, and stayed determined to see it through. He knew that he was not capable of many such attempts, and later wrote, “In my mind I had settled on this day when, with every ounce of strength I possessed, I would try to run the four-minute mile.”

There are times in life when only an incomparable effort will suffice to accomplish a goal – and Bannister knew that May 6th, 1954 would be such a day. He wasn’t necessarily excited about it, but he knew that no alternative would be acceptable.

I often think of Bannister’s post-race pictures as I’m on the verge of exhaustion in the midst of a track workout. Although I’ve made noticeable improvement this summer, the prospect of racing the mile remains somewhat daunting. My workout history tells me that even if I have the ability to finish under five minutes, I probably won’t break the barrier by a large margin. Ultimately it will require a Bannister-like effort to have a breakthrough race - and I must admit to being a bit intimidated by it.

I’ll have the immense advantage, however, of knowing that many others have faced those same demons and ultimately found success. Bannister was a true pioneer in that he showed us what is possible and how it can be done; afterward, those of us who have similar struggles merely try to emulate him and follow in his footsteps.

Doing it the right way - in this case, by giving one supreme effort, with every ounce of strength I possess – seems like the best way to honor his accomplishment. If doing so leaves me unable to stand or speak for several minutes afterward, so be it.

**
“I feel the pain of everyone –
And then I feel nothing.”

- Dinosaur Jr, “Feel the Pain” (click to play):


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February 5, 2009

Lego Bannister

Admin note: this wasn't part of the original Bannister series - but it seemed like a necessary interlude.

*
Don't tell me! I know what you're thinking: this guy is completely bonkers for Roger Bannister. He's writing a seemingly endless series with one platitude on top of another, completely obsessed with something that happened 55 years ago. He's commandeered Bannister's story and gone off the introspective deep end to attach some greater personal significance to his own modest aspirations. That's what six consecutive articles have revealed about me so far, right?

Honestly, it's tough for me to contradict any of that. However, in my defense, I'd like to suggest that I might not the biggest Bannister geek on the face of the Earth (top 5, maybe). Nor am I, despite all the details and photos and links included in these past posts, the most resourceful or inspired.

I suggest it, because that kind of honor would have to go to whoever came up with this:


It's a Lego reproduction of one of the most famous pictures of the 20th century - which happens to be the topic of my next article. It's also absolutely ingenious.


If you're like me, you'll scroll back and forth between the two pictures for about 15 minutes, marveling at the amount of detail that is captured in the Lego creation. You'll admire the cleverness that it took to come up with such an idea in the first place. And you'll take a small measure of satisfaction that you're not the most deranged Roger Bannister fan out there.

However, chances are that you're not like me - in which case you'll have to humor this indulgence of mine just a bit longer before we resume our regular frivolous programming. There's light at the end of the tunnel, I promise; give me three more articles, and we'll call it a series.


**

Addendum: All hail the power of Google!! After I typed in "Roger Bannister Lego", it took me about three seconds to find a video about the photographer, Mike Stimpson, who created the picture (as well as many others). It's become a signature style of his, as the following clip explains: (click to play)


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February 3, 2009

Taste the Pain

Admin note: By this point, I had been doing track workouts on a regular basis. My split times were dropping from week to week, but one thing that never resolved was the amount of pain involved with running fast. Looking back, I’d still place those workouts very near the top of the list of things I dreaded most in my entire running career.

And yet, they were a necessary means to an end - as the following piece explains. Also, on the topic of pain – and since it’s been a while since I’ve included any music video here – there’s a very fitting old-school rock video at the end of the article.

**
Chasing Roger Bannister


Part 6: Taste the Pain

Reporter (to Clubber Lang): “Clubber, what is your prediction for the fight?”
Clubber (long pause, staring at camera, scowling): “Pain.”
- from Rocky III


Runners are accustomed to dealing with pain. Even those of us who are passionate about our sport would have difficulty arguing that, for the vast majority of the time, running is an inherently uncomfortable activity.

Everyone has heard of the “runner’s high,” or being in a zone where running becomes effortless and the miles just float by - but let’s be honest: the percentage of time spent in such a zone is extremely small in comparison to any runner’s overall mileage. The predominant physical satisfaction of running only comes afterward- whether it’s the immediate relief of being finished, the satisfaction of achieving a goal, or the more gradual rewards such as an enhanced body shape or higher energy level for our daily routines.

Unfortunately, in order to reap these rewards, there is a price of pain to be paid.

After a great race or exceptional effort, muscle soreness seizes us for the next few days, reminding us of the damage we inflicted upon ourselves. Hard workouts leave us sore and fatigued, and several weeks of conditioning take a cumulative toll on the body. When I’m training for marathons, one of the first indicators of my improved overall conditioning is a constant lingering soreness in nearly every muscle group, lasting for several weeks or more. Those aches tell me that I’ve been working hard, and that once I finally start tapering, I’ll be primed to race.

(In fact, dealing with pain has become such a constant fact of life that when I periodically take a long layoff from running, it strikes me as strange when my legs don’t hurt if they are touched. Runners live a somewhat deranged existence sometimes.)

All athletes deal with pain. In any sport, on almost any level, pain is a factor in how events transpire and which competitor prevails. What distinguishes runners and endurance athletes is that our pain is entirely self-inflicted, whether in training or in competition.

Part of the strategy in team sports (think football) or contact sports (martial arts) is to inflict pain on your opponent while trying to avoid it being repaid. Compare this to running a 10K, where any individual’s actions are basically independent of everyone else. The only thing that allows us to succeed is the ability to override the constant pleas of our rational brain to stop the senseless physical assault on our bodies. Some competitors handle this factor better than others.

Therefore, in addition to high VO2 max and anaerobic threshold, an athlete’s intrinsic capacity to cope with pain is a prime factor in becoming successful. For example, an abnormally high pain tolerance is the reason many cyclists cite when discussing what sets Lance Armstrong apart from the rest of the peloton (although the fact that he has the highest recorded VO2 max on record certainly helps).

As a marathon runner, I was a bit ignorant of the physical toll taken in training for shorter races. I thought that since I would be running shorter distances and fewer days, my body would handle the strain without significant problems. I very quickly learned that running fast hurts. A lot. And it’s a really good way to injure yourself if done foolishly (that lesson only took me a few weeks to understand).

Throughout this season, I’ve had more aches and pains throughout my entire body than during any marathon buildup. My elbows hurt from pumping my arms so fast. My abdomen hurts from stabilizing my flailing limbs during interval after interval. There's soreness in all of my leg muscles that feels like I’m continually on the verge of a muscle strain. And that’s just the pain that occurs between workouts, when I’m not actually running.

On the track, I’m never certain that I’ll summon the willpower required to make myself run fast. It’s an entirely different type of pain than experienced when running long distances.

Think of it this way: imagine that running a marathon is like developing a severe sunburn on a hot day. The pain doesn’t feel too bad to start with, but after several hours, it can become excruciating. By comparison, racing a mile would be like stepping into a shower of scalding hot water, and staying there for (in my case) about five minutes. The resulting burns to your back would be the same, but the manner in which they are acquired is dramatically different. Either way, you’re going to get fried – but which method would you prefer?

During my warmup for each track workout, my stomach gets queasy with dread, and it feels like I’m staring at the burning water, steeling myself to jump in. Almost immediately after I start an interval, I wish I could just quit, to refrain from torturing myself. On most days, I’ve somehow been determined enough to finish the workouts, only to spend the rest of the day dealing with the post-exercise soreness while recuperating. For this novice miler, such experiences are the new normal.

It all begs a question – namely, what is it that drives us? Why do otherwise rational people inflict such misery upon themselves day after day, for no recognition or immediate reward?

Sports psychologists have a field day with this question. Some say that the pain is a form of physical penance for earlier excesses (of food, alcohol, etc), and that the ritual suffering cleanses our conscience until the next time we indulge. Others compare the cycle of suffering and pleasure to that of drug or alcohol abuse - except that we experience the painful component in advance of the euphoria, instead of afterward. There are numerous other theories of how athletes continually drive themselves into repeated bouts of discomfort, but I honestly don’t think it’s that complex.

For me, the main reason that I toil the way that I do is because it is the only way to get better. Despite what many advertisers and product manufacturers want us to believe, there is no easy path to becoming a faster runner. It takes the dedication of hour after hour, hard mile after hard mile, and in many cases, agony after agony.

Sure, I would much rather do easy runs, take days off, and avoid discomfort as much as possible - the problem is, I could never be a 3-hour marathoner that way, or a 5-minute miler, or accomplish any other goal that is truly meaningful to me. I suspect that anyone - from Olympians to back-of-the pack runners – will offer a similar justification.

Finally, here’s the good part. Even though we anguish in striving strive toward meaningful goals, the satisfaction and reward we reap upon accomplishing them is usually worth all the suffering it took to get there. Above all else, that’s the reason we can inflict pain upon ourselves: because a small part of us knows the pleasure we will eventually gain is far greater.

On some days, it’s hard to convince ourselves of this, but then we start to see progress. That’s where I am right now with my mile training - seeing improvements in small doses that encourage me to continue this training cycle towards its eventual conclusion. I’ve slowly forged a sense of confidence that I can break through the five-minute barrier. I also know it will be enormously painful.

So to properly prepare myself, I just have to maintain the motivation to keep jumping into that hot water.

*
“Walk away and taste the pain-
Come again some other day -
Aren't you glad you weren't afraid?
Funny how the price gets paid.”

- Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Taste the Pain” (click to play):



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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.”


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February 2, 2009

May 6, 2004

Admin note: despite all of my praise for and infatuation with the mile, I still hadn’t quite gotten around to actually, you know … racing one. I decided to wait until my April marathon was finished, then picked the perfect date to switch gears into mile training.

In this installment, I also mention a book that captivated me during the Bannister project; it’s one I’d whole-heartedly recommend to anyone who wants to know the story in greater detail – just in case there are one or two strange souls out there who somehow find these blog articles too short. It’s definitely in my top-three running books of all time. A link is provided in the post.

**

Chasing Roger Bannister

Part 4: May 6, 2004


Fortunately for me, the 50th anniversary of Roger Bannister’s 4-minute mile fell on a Thursday.

I planned on using the date as the official start of my summer track workouts in pursuit of a 5-minute-mile – and I figured an all-out one-mile time trial would quickly tell me if my ambition was realistic, and gauge exactly how much work I had ahead of me. The timing worked out perfectly to recruit some running partners to help my cause.

Our group regularly does track sessions on Thursday mornings, so I hoped to convince some of them to race the mile with me. A few days prior to the date, I told my training partners about my plans - and I was delighted on May 6th to find that three of them showed up anyway.

The morning didn’t exactly have the same meaning for all of us. I, of course, had been counting down the days until the historic anniversary, and was very anxious to see precisely where I stood in relation to the five-minute goal. The others just welcomed the opportunity to do some quality speedwork.

Perhaps that’s why they gave me a perplexed look as I wished them a Happy Bannister Day - and why, after I explained the occasion, they uttered one of those humoring, drawn-out “Ooohhh…” expressions usually reserved for meeting your three-year-old daughter’s imaginary friend. Perhaps they appreciated the significance of the day after I told them, or maybe they just decided to temporarily accommodate my craziness. Either way, I had my pacers.

Coincidentally, I wasn’t the only one who thought to mark the anniversary by doing a one-mile race. In fact, Roger Bannister himself organized a meet at Oxford’s Iffley Road track on May 6, with the one-mile race as the featured event – so I figured that if I was crazy, at least I was in good company. In true Bannister style, the Oxford meet was open only to amateur runners: no sponsors’ logos were allowed on uniforms, no advertising money was accepted, and no prize money was awarded.

On the same day, at the Nike Invitational track meet (advertisers, logos and sponsors welcome, of course) in Eugene, Oregon, America’s top high school miler, Galen Rupp (pictured), would attempt a sub-four mile of his own, racing against a world-class field. Throughout the day and night of May 6th, running clubs all over the world would gather for the exact same reason ours had - to remember a great accomplishment of the past, and to honor Bannister’s ambition and ideals by recreating the race.

And so it was that four of us stood at the start line in the morning twilight, and commenced our own one-mile time trial.

During the first lap I felt great, running smooth and strong, but nervous about how my body would respond to the lactic acid lockup that was inevitably coming. I hit the 1-lap split in 75 seconds - exactly 5-minute pace - but immediately knew there was no way I could sustain it for even another 200 meters, let alone 3 more laps. I slowed considerably in the second and third laps, but kept a steady stride and maintained 82-second splits. In the final lap, I ratcheted my speed up as much as possible, and marveled at the amount of pain that enveloped my whole body - from my feet up through my legs, to my lungs, chest, and head.

In the homestretch, my form completely fell apart, and I gasped across the finish line after completing another 75-second lap, for a 5:15 mile (actually, 1600 meters- that will be another story). All things considered, it was a solid effort and a promising starting point for the upcoming summer.

Throughout the rest of the day, I monitored some observations of the anniversary, and marveled at just how many people were influenced by one simple footrace so many years ago. At lunchtime, I read a few chapters from The Perfect Mile, Neal Bascomb’s excellent account of how Bannister, Australian John Landy, and American Wes Santee - despite living on three separate continents – pushed and challenged and threatened each other in their pursuit of the elusive four-minute mile. I learned that Galen Rupp ran a 4:01 mile in Oregon- a fantastic result and a personal best for him, but a bit heartbreaking as well, considering the occasion.

Fittingly, another sub-four minute mile was run at Iffley Road, albeit by an Australian instead of an Englishman - although in 1954, they would both fit one of Bannister’s favorite descriptions: “Empire men”. (Good day for the Empire, the Brits would tell you). Speaking to the BBC about the Oxford meet, Banister explained, “I hope this acts as an inspiration to sportsmen and women everywhere to keep striving to achieve their best through personal effort alone.”

Five thousand miles away, on a dark track in Salinas California, the four of us racing each other on this particular morning definitely accomplished Sir Roger's objective. I can’t think of a better launching point for the challenge ahead of me this summer.

Let the quest begin.


See previous installments of this series on sidebar at right.

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February 1, 2009

My Internet Dollars at Work

OK, time for a break. I'm interrupting this much-longer-than-any-of us-anticipated Bannister series to show you my small contribution to Sunday's Super Bowl broadcast: (click to play)



Kind of makes you proud to be a part of it all, doesn't it?

I'll just say this quickly: I love GoDaddy.com. I've purchased two domain names from them at very reasonable prices, and their customer service has been outstanding on the (thankfully few) times I've had the occasion to use them. (So I guess now you can say that I'm an "enhancer", as well.)

And then there are the Super Bowl ads.

GoDaddy is making this an annual tradition of sorts - right up there with the Cindy Crawford/Michael J Fox Diet Pepsi ads of the 1980s, or the Bud Bowl series of the early 1990s. Except in this case, the tone of the ads are quite a bit more, um ... distinctive. From a purely creative standpoint, they're hard to not enjoy - especially this year's version, which makes a mockery (check that - an even further mockery) of the Senate baseball hearings. On the humor scale, it's right up there with the "Everybody wants to work in marketing" classic from two years ago (video below).

Are the ads funny? Definitely. Are they offensive? Possibly. Do they have anything to do with a web hosting company? Um ... probably not.

I guess I don't really have a point to make here, except to say I needed a break from the current series of posts - and a potent cocktail of sports, sex, and humor was the perfect tonic to jolt me briefly off-subject. I guess I'm also saying that regardless of what you think of their commercials, GoDaddy is a pretty cool company.

And I hear that their marketing department is pretty crazy. (click to play):


Back to the Bannister stuff tomorrow.

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