In a Matter of Minutes…
I admit it. I took the easy way out. I reached down into my bag of excuses and surrendered before I stepped on the track. Saturday mid-August belongs to the mile race on the track in Tallahassee. For many, it is the scariest race of the year. Yes, it requires talent to run well, but it also requires mental toughness.
On Saturday, Charley Johnson and Katie Sherron (almost exactly one year after the birth of her son Barrett) implemented winning strategies for the 20th running of Breakfast on the Track. My strategies were don’t aggravate any injuries and don’t forget you have not prepared for this race. It was still great to be out there.
In 1998 with a lot of encouragement from runners who wanted a mile race on a track, Bonnie and Felton Wright, with the help of 4-year-old son Jamie, conducted the first Breakfast on The Track Mile Race. Saturday was the 20th time Felton and Bonnie have done so. Jamie (now 24 years old) did some crazy stuff, like going off to college, and missed a few years directing, but these days he is back in town and part of the production team. (And he beat me by 22 seconds.) Maclay School has been the most gracious host of this event every year it has been run.
I am sure most readers know a mile is a little more than four laps around most tracks. While tracks in the United States used to be 440 yards around, a perfect quarter of a mile, they are now almost all just 400 meters around. (One mile is 1609.44 meters; 9.44 meters more than 4 laps on a 400-meter track. Most high schools in the United States race the distance of 1600 meters – 4 laps exactly.) To confuse things a little bit more, on the international and championship level, the mile is replaced by a 1500-meter race. Your handy calculator can tell you quickly that is 109 meters short of a mile, comparing racing efforts at the two distances, it is clear there is very little difference and it is fair to treat them all pretty much the same after converting times for the difference in distance.
Our bodies have two systems for delivering energy to our muscles when we start asking them to perform at a high level – aerobic and anaerobic. As a general (and oversimplified) rule, runners rely on the first system to get from the start of a run to the finish. They rely heavily on the second system when their ex-friends come up on their shoulder as they round the last turn and head to the finish line. Most of the pain and agony caused by getting up on their toes, pumping their arms, forcing the fastest leg turnover possible, while trying to avoid suffocation from lactate acid, is due to the use of the second system.
Managing these two systems is what makes racing the mile (and the 1500 and 1600) so scary and hard. Trying to hit the right starting pace is hard. Too fast and the final distance will seem more like a 5K than a mile; too slow and you will look great coming down the home stretch, but you will not be in time to pick up any awards. The right warm up is critical too. If a runner does not get enough, then the fast early pace will not be manageble and the runner will get dropped.
The Olympic final for the 1500 meters was one of the best examples of hitting it right I have ever seen. U.S. runners have been notoriously bad competitors, not knowing how to race the 1500, have failed to win an Olympic gold since 1908. But in 2016 in Rio, Brazil, Matt Centrowitz buried all those bad memories with an amazing race. Championship races often go out at a tortuously slow pace with no one wanting to lead. It is all about the fastest kicker at that point. Centrowitz, decided not to let that happen, finding the perfect position on the rail he forced other runners to maintain an honest pace. And then when they attempted to break, he held his position and eventually ran away from them. He knew is body and his fitness level and put together a performance for the ages.
This past Thursday, he tried to run a similar strategy in the semi-final, ignoring his lack of fitness and starting strong again. This time, however, when the pressure came, the wheels popped and in just a moment, Centrowitz was gone off the back with no chance of even making the final, let alone winning gold again.
Meanwhile, back at Maclay School, Charlie Johnson ran strong from the beginning, but really pressed through the 3rd lap, the toughest mental lap of 4. No one went with him and so he just kept pressing, getting a second faster each lap and winning by 8 seconds, final time of 4:32. Last year, Katie Sherron and her husband Zach bailed out of the race at the last minute to assure a safe delivery for son, Barret. This year, while Barret watched, Sharron celebrated his birthday with a strong but safe start. Already secure as women’s winner, she started cranking the pace down and passing everyone else in heat 2 finishing in 5:16. Dad (Zach) swears the clock was still on 4 something, but the heartless timers gave him a 5:00 flat.
A record 15 teams competed in the pancake relay after the mile heats were finished.