Forget Marathons: I’m Racing the Mile

collage of track mile markFor many runners, especially those adult-onset runners who catch the running bug later in life, it’s all about the marathon. It’s a lofty aspiration, a great topic of conversations at cocktail parties, and well worth its place on the bucket list.

The marathon, however, is not on my bucket list. While my big dream running goal might not impress anyone around the office water cooler, it’s more intense than a marathon and it requires just as much bravery: one fast mile.

The mile fascinates me. Long before the marathon became the barometer for running greatness, the mile, like space travel, redefined the boundaries of human achievement when Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier. For women, the 4-minute equivalent might be 4:20. Only a handful of women have ever gone below that barrier. Mary Decker-Slaney has the Amercian record with her 4:16.71, while Russia’s Svetlana Masterkova set the world record with her 4:12.56.

The mile has been the battle-ground for great rivalries in our sport, such as that of Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. It has been a showcase for promising young American talent: like Shannon Rowbury’s incredible 4:20.34 debut mile in 2008 and the awe-inspiring performance of a young Alan Webb, whose 3:46.91 is still the eighth fastest of all time, and the fastest ever run by an American. And it serves as the keynote at many of our most prestigious competitions, like the Wanamaker Mile at the Milrose Games or the Bowerman Mile at the Prefontaine Classic.

Black and white runner headshot

I’m not alone in my fascination with this distance. The web-community Bring Back the Mile is dedicated to reinstating the mile as “America’s distance.” This site aptly describes the mile as “iconic, classic and timeless.” Everyone who has ever truly raced a mile knows what a sub-4 for men or a sub-4:20 mile for women means: near superhuman speed coupled with an ironclad will and the ability to push oneself almost beyond the breaking point.

Yet, at whatever level you attempt to cover the 1,609.344 meter distance, the same traits are required. To run a fast mile, you must be willing to put it all on the line and possibly fail in your endeavor; facing up to this possibility is a true test of your courage as a runner and as a person. So… I will take the next six weeks and tackle the mile. The time is right to do it. I’m healthy. I’m strong from 5K training, with a good aerobic base. And I am striving to find my inner Eye of the Tiger in running.

How hard can I push? Can I fully embrace the uncomfortable as my Coach Cathy advises I must? I don’t have a race on the calendar or a time goal per se. My goals are simply to run fast and be brave. We’ll see what challenges this brings. Anyone want to join me?

Have you ever trained for the mile, or do you want to? What tips do you have for an aspiring miler?

Mom of three kiddos and a black lab, running enthusiast, sports-med-doctor-in-training. I love the science and sport of running and all things related.

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10 comments

  1. I ran the 1600m back in high school. Michigan is one of the many states that has the 1600 and 3200 instead of a mile or 1500m and 2-mile or 3000m. But the effort is the same, and it was incredibly tough. No matter how hard I trained, I couldn’t achieve the goal I wanted.
    While I love the half marathon and marathon (because I am better at them), I greatly admire the mile and the 5K. To me, these are not “only” the mile or 5K. They are tough distances and take an entirely different mindset and physical training.
    Have fun this year. I salute you!

  2. My running club does a 26×1 relay every summer – 26 runners, one mile each. I had never raced a mile before last year when I joined the team. I’m excited to bring down my time this year with some smart, fast training…. very soon after after finishing the long slog of training for/running Boston Marathon!

  3. Very exciting! Looking forward to reading your progress. Have you been tested (DNA) for fast-twitch v. slow twitch muscle dominance? If so, what were your results and do you think that makes a difference for you? I recently did 23andme genetic testing for functional medicine diagnosis, and results were that I have more fast-twitch muscle (or predominance). Not sure it indicates I’d be better sprinter (maybe when I was 20??) v. longer endurance runner, but find it interesting.

    1. No, I haven’t done that testing although my race and time trial performances over various distances, as well as how I respond to different types of training, all indicate I am most definitely a middle distance runner. Think you’ll ever try the sprint distances? I know of a number of people who have excelled in them, even later in life!