My answer when my wife, Lori, asked how I was feeling and what I thought I could do as we walked from the car to the track. A couple people had planted separate seeds in me, unbeknownst to them. That being the goal of running a sub-5:00 mile at 52 years old. Not a 1,500 converted. Not 1,600. The full 1,609. It was never on my radar, not something I had even contemplated. But, given the wonkiness of 2020 and the cancellation of the long trail races I had wanted to do, a novel, invigorating challenge seemed like a great substitute.
'The Jericho Mile' is a 1979 made for TV movie starring Peter Strauss. Strauss kills his stepsister-raping dad and is sent to prison. He runs in the prison yard and shows natural ability. A local training guru is called in to coach him at the warden's request, with the goal of Strauss running in the US Olympic Trials. The prison yard is transformed into a regulation track. The parole board denies Strauss the opportunity to run at the Trials. He listens to the race on the radio, heads out to the yard and, running solo and without fanfare, runs faster than the Trials winner.
Today would be my Jericho Mile. Just me and the track. No pacers, no cheat shoes, not stadium energy -- just me and the watch.
I did some research and, while I could not find much, I did ascertain that about a dozen 50+ folks accomplish this any given year. How many are the same vs brand new to the club, I don't know. I also don't know how many do it at altitude. I did find that ex-CU runner and Boulderite Dan King ran 4:57.29 on the road here in Boulder earlier this year. Dan is 61, which makes his time a phenomenal feat. He later ran 4:49.08 at sea level in South Carolina, on the CIU mondotrack, hailed as one of the fastest tracks in the country. Just, wow.
I don't know much about time conversions in running. But, given my extensive swimming background, I remember geeking out on yards-to-meters and meters-to-yards, and short course-to-long course and long course-to-short course conversion rates. So, I understand the concept. Accordingly, running a mile at a little over a mile in altitude creates about a 5.5-second handicap over running at sea level. From my perspective, it would be all about the raw finish time. It would be sub-5 at altitude and at the full 1,609m distance or it wouldn't be, any sort of handicap or conversion be damned. Black-and-white, no grey.
My running had been feeling pretty good when I decided to commit to this. I hadn't run in any serious way in 20+ years, having instead focused on cycling. Given the time it would take to prepare, I fast tracked another goal of mine, to do the Peak Traverse, a 17-mile run with about 6,000ft elevation gain over the Boulder Front Range's 5 highest peaks. The next weekend, I checked it off, but not without impact. My legs imploded and created some lower leg issues I had to let heal. I upped the gravel riding to keep the fitness going, slid out on some single track, landed on a rock and broke a handful of ribs. Not the best way to start attacking a goal.
For a handful of weeks, I did what I could and nothing that caused undue pain. Interestingly, the stair machine was mostly fine, as was easy cycling on a stationary bike. Even certain strength exercises were tolerable (most were not). My first run back was only about 4 miles at close to 9:00 pace; that's all the ribs would tolerate and, afterwards, I felt like I had been hit by a truck. I nearly pulled the plug right there. But, slowly and steadily, things improved. Finally able to do most anything I wanted, I decided it was time to commit to the sub-5 goal. I planted a stake in the ground 5 weeks out. I was then, or wait until Spring 2021.
My training consisted of 6 runs a week and multiple strength sessions. 2 fast runs, 2 short easy runs, and 2 aerobic runs roughly an hour in length. If the legs felt beat up, I would substitute a stationary bike ride on that day. My fast sessions were limited to The Golden Rule set of 8-10x400 at goal mile pace with 1-2 minutes rest between. This set has been around for decades and is apparently a solid indicator of mile potential. Given I had 5 weeks, I decided to dive right in and start with 10 reps, shooting for 1:15 splits and taking equal recovery jogs between. It took 2 sessions to lock into pace vs effort and stabilize my 400 times. I then got faster the next 2 sessions and hit 1:12-1:13. For the final 2 sessions, I slowed it down to 1:14-1:15 and focused on learning what "float" felt like. I also gradually dropped the number of repeats over the weeks down to 6. The final week-and-a-half, I ditched the 400s for 1,009m time trials. One per session for 3 sessions, crossing the line as if I still had 600m to go and asking myself, "Could you run this pace another 600m?" I'll be honest, only during the last time trial did I answer it as "Probably." The first two, it was "Probably 200, maybe 300 more. Not 600." I was hoping "race day jitters" would carry me through to the end. The encouraging aspect, though, was that I was completely locked into 5:00 pace. Even with the extra 9 meters, I was hitting 3:07.5 each time trial. This helped with the confidence that I could do it.
Breaking 5:00 is simple, but it's not easy. It's a straightforward math equation: hit 1:14.5 for each 400m + under 2 seconds for the additional 9 meters. Simple. But, getting to the line with the fitness and the body suppleness to carry it out ain't easy. As I healed up from breaking my ribs, my body was clearly overcompensating and protecting itself from my continued abuse. My hamstrings were not at all pleased, nor were my calves or feet. I couldn't get adjustments, which I clearly needed, so I relied on an overabundance of massage work once I was able to lie on the table pain free. Still, while the legs relaxed and opened up, the hamstring attachment way up under the glute on my left side would not relent. It was a tendonitis pain, not a pull. So, then the math equation became related to time on a calendar rather than time on a track -- could I withstand another few weeks of training in order to make it to the track? I didn't know, but I wasn't going to pull the plug just yet.
The week of the attempt, I didn't sleep well. Par for the course, my body's way of processing nerves and preparing for what it knew was coming -- deep access to the fight-or-flight response. The final 2 nights I slept better and awoke feeling fresh and ready to give it a go today. My hamstring attachment was still angry, but also telling me I had permission to give it an honest whirl.
Given this was my first attempt at this, all I needed to do was hit 4:59.99. This wasn't about setting a PR. It was about setting down a marker for future years' attempts. My wife wanted to provide moral support, as did my best friend, Andy. Ultimately, I relented and invited them to come watch the fun unfold. As I warmed up, I was encouraged and energized by their presence on the infield. It would still be a Jericho Mile.
I knew the risk would be going out too fast. My fitness was good but not great, so if I put myself in a hole too quickly, I'd vapor lock and experience a glorious implosion. Still, my first 409m was 1:14 followed by a 1:13 split. I was 2:28 at the 809 mark, arguably too fast. The third lap exposed the chinks in the armor. With 500m to go, flashes of the old 1min maximal ramp tests on the cycling erg were pulled from the dark recesses of my brain. Inevitably, with about 90 seconds left in the ramp test, you start making a deal with the devil -- get through the next 30 seconds, hit the next ramp and then sell your soul to get through that last full minute. With 500m to go, this is the bargaining I started to make. I had to fight back the urge to really engage my upper body. I went through 1,209m in 3:43, a split of 1:15.3. Andy, a former runner and fantastic athlete in his own right, shook his head at Lori. It was going to be close.
With 300m to go, my upper legs started burning and my economy started flagging. The implosion was beginning.
With 200m to go, I had no idea how I was going to make it to the finish at speed. A panic took over -- "You're NOT here to go 5:01!". I engaged my arms and pumped them furiously.
With 100m to go, Lori came running toward me on the infield, shouting words of encouragement to get me to the finish line. I recall with about 50m to go realizing my left hamstring hadn't liked me very much the past 4-plus minutes. I leaned for the line and stopped my wrist watch, fumbling to find the stop button and hitting it a stride past the mark. Andy had 2 stop watches and stopped them both.
4:59.71 (my belated stop)
By any measure, mission accomplished.