The Mile

Saturday, November 20, 2004

"So, I'm quick, but tell me honestly, does my breath smell?"

Today, I ran my fastest mile yet – 07:15.6.

I was delighted.

Well, no… I was gasping for breath, a bit light-headed and felt almost certain I was going to be sick. As it turned out, I regained my composure reasonably quickly, but I’ve just been playing with some numbers (no one can say I don’t know how to have fun at the weekend) and now I feel sick again.

I appreciate several cold, hard facts. I appreciate the fact that I’m not a world-class athlete – in fact, I’m not an athlete at all. I appreciate the fact that in my entire life I’ve probably done less physical training than most decent distance runners would do in an average week of moderate training. I appreciate the fact that many aspects of this Olympic challenge aren’t going to be easy.

However, although my mind sees those words, still it thinks: “I’m tall, I’m skinny, I’ve watched it on TV – I should be good at middle-distance running.”

So, although I know that comparing the time it takes me to run a mile around the park at the end of my road to the time it has taken legendary runners in the past to run a mile round a track wearing all the proper gear is a fairly pointless exercise, I did it anyway.

Bannister ran 3:59.4 in 1954, so the first big barrier for me was the eight minute mile - any longer than that, and I could imagine Sir Roger running past to lap me for a second time (in black and white no less) as I neared the start/finish line after a mere 800 metres of my mile. Any time sub-eight minutes (or 7:58.8 if you’re being picky) would ensure that he only passed me once during the course of the race.

The next barrier I set myself was to achieve the same heady status (“He only lapped me once!”) in an imagined race with Hicham El Guerrouj, the current world record holder, who ran 3:43.13 in 1998. The time I needed to achieve for that to happen, assuming (entirely erroneously of course) that we both ran at a perfectly uniform pace throughout the mile, was 7:26.24. Today I beat that for the first time.

Amazingly, there were no salt tears cried – even at the height of my euphoria, I was aware somewhere in the back of my mind that there remain one or two worlds yet to be conquered.

In order to avoid getting lapped at all by Bannister, I need to run the mile in 5:19.19. In order to avoid the same fate at the hands of the gifted Moroccan, I need to run it in 4:57.49. Thankfully, I am only foolish enough to be attempting this whole challenge at all, and not foolish enough to be attempting to do any of it to any high standard.

Perhaps more worrying than anything I’ve mentioned so far is the fact that when Paula Radcliffe broke the world record in the marathon, she ran most of her 26 miles around two minutes faster than it takes me to run just one at the moment. And she’s a girl.

I’ve been told by people who should probably know that I will notice a vast improvement in my times very quickly if I stick at it. I can just about conceive of breaking the seven minute barrier – it was a bit wet under foot today, and I had to swerve violently twice; once to avoid a dog, and once to avoid what it had just been doing – but sub-six minutes seems like something from a dream, and sub-five seems frankly impossible.

I’ve also been told that I will find a pace at which I’ll feel like I could run indefinitely. At the moment, I’m achieving that pace somewhere between my bed and the shower in the morning.

Still - it's not all doom and gloom - the mile (1,600 metres, give or take) isn't even an Olympic event. The nearest equivalent race is the 1,500 metres, and, let's face it, it's usually only the last 100 metres of the mile I struggle with anyway!