Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Elusive Six Minute Mile

This is the time of year I usually write at length and in painful detail about how a 12 year old beat me—again—in the Tour of Anchorage, our local ski marathon. Historically, regardless of the distance I sign up for, I find myself toiling up the final climbs to Kincaid stadium quick on the heels of some kid who, with a quick glance over her shoulder, smirks and accelerates away. I was determined this year to put the trend to rest. But rather than train harder I decided to not participate, which turned out to be a lot easier. Ha, little twelve year olds! Just try to beat me as a I amble back and forth between the couch and the fridge! Your little pre-teen hands will be too tired from all of the skiing to steal the last cookie from me like you have stolen the sweet taste of victory oh these many years!

Really, though, if there was a year to skip skiing the Tour, this was it. While the lower 48 states have been struggling through the coldest winter in recent memory, we transitioned into spring sometime last January. What snow that fell melted to ice, or disappeared all together. The Tour race directors ended up shortening the Tour course, unable to work with the available base over much of the usual trail. And rather than getting in the necessary base miles on skis, I made the early mental transition to running. In this case, that meant signing up for a weekly coached speed session on the track.

I've never run track and never done speed work, so I didn't really know what to expect. What I was not expecting was the 12 year old who weekly leaves me choking on his dust yet still manages the energy on every lap to spring and try to touch the banners dangling from the pedestrian bridge. I just can't escape it. Where do these kids come from?

After a few weeks of intervals at various distances, last week we did a timed mile to check current fitness and better determine what pace we should each be running the workouts at. This was probably my first timed mile since . . . middle school? I was not sure how to pace over such a short distance, but assumed I would figure it out, and I headed off at the gun at what I hoped was a speed I could just maintain over four laps. I finished in 6:11, a few seconds behind the 12 year old. I paced well, doing a one-second negative split over the first- and second-halves of the run. And I feel confident that I could have done it faster. I wasn't at my limit, and next time I know I can push a little harder, shed some seconds, hopefully break 6:00. But I felt good about my effort just the same.

Or I felt good about my effort prior to doing some research that put the whole thing in perspective. The following table may help.

Let me summarize. That 6:11 mile I ran? The one that I think I could improve upon by, say, 11 seconds or so? The pace that left my breathing ragged and in the red zone after one quarter mile? That same pace—if I could have maintained it—would have found me stumbling across the finish line some 23 minutes after the world record holder in the 100 km. But here is the thing. I couldn't have maintained it for another mile, much less another 61. It frankly astounds me what people can do. Some folks run 26.2 miles at an average pace that I can't even reach for fractions of a mile. Mind boggling.

Maybe it isn't fair to compare myself to world record setting runners. Let's face it, if your name appears on the same line as the world record in, say, the 10k, you're orbiting in an elite sphere peopled by a distinct minority. What makes the record special in the first place is the very fact that the vast majority of people—people like me—can't get close to that level of performance. But that is the neat thing about running. A 400 meter track is a 400 meter track the world over (disregarding, if you please, any differences due to elevation), giving each of us an opportunity to measure ourselves against the best in the world each time we set off for a lap.

It also might not be fair to measure myself against younger runners in the prime of their fitness. After all, I would be willing to wager that half or more of those records were set by 12 year olds. And if the last few years have taught me anything, it is that you can't compete against a 12 year old. Best just keep my head up, run my own race, and hope for the best.