By David Yon
Over 100 runners who didn’t know any better showed up at Maclay’s Track Saturday morning and all of them survived without leaving Breakfast on the Track. For the most part, they were road racers and they were facing a scary beast. This was The Mile – on the track – and it was really different from the usual Saturday morning menu. The tension in the air was incredible. Runner after runner pounded by the starting line, measuring their warm up strides against the ticking clock. Missing was the light prerace chatter that often misleads you about the seriousness of the effort in road races. In its place were measured comments about not knowing how to pace and worried questions about tactics escaping through terse lips. 150 meter warm up strides produced thoughts like – how do I run this fast for four full laps. And if I can’t – well, there is absolutely no where to hide on the Track.
Felton and Bonnie Wright pulled off an organizational masterpiece on a day with almost perfect weather – at least as good as it gets in August. The race was divided into 5 heats, each consisting of 20- 25 runners. It got crowded at times, but, as Felton says, that’s track. Every heat and the 5K went off within minutes of its scheduled time. Herb Wills provided great track side commentary and Bill Lott and Tom Perkins made sure everyone had an accurate time. Bonnie and Jeanne O’Kon tabulated the results. Everyone had a chance to run as well as watch someone else run. Once it was done, the tension turned first to relief and then to joy. Pancakes and music (by Bill McGuire and Howard Rubin) put everyone in a great mood. Runners recounted their strategies, how much it all hurt and where they were passed or they passed by someone.
The fastest times went to Jane Johnson (5:21) and Robert Pautienus (4:36). Jane and her daughter Kara, who finished second overall (5:49), won the Mother-Daughter competition, while Howard Andrews got up off his death bed to combine (6:07) with his son Justin (4:39) to win the Father-Son category. Justin also finished second overall. The Husband-Wife team title went to David and Mary Jean Yon. There were 14 men under 5:00 minutes. Here are complete results. Some of the proceeds from the race went to the Maclay High School Cross Country Program.
I have run 15 -20 marathons and hundreds of road races. But I am not sure there has ever been one that I was more afraid of than this mile on the track. The track is precise and it does not forgive. World records are measured in hundredths of seconds. To run the mile right you must cross your aerobic threshold and run in oxygen debt on the other side of the line. For several laps! It goes against all of your training as a distance runner. I confess, my training has been focused on it for at least a month. My goal was to slip under 5:00; six seconds faster than my mile race PR. Getting ready I worried, E-mailed friends about strategy, talked about it endlessly and then worried some more.
My heat went first and had 20-25 people. So the first thing I worried about was how to avoid getting tripped or tripping someone. Memories of watching Steve Holman sprawled on the track at the Goodwill Games were fresh in my mind. Felton gave me a spot on the front row four or five spots from the rail, probably because he was worried I would harass him endlessly if I got trampled in the crowd. That meant I would need to get out fast, not so bad since my plan was to try to run the first lap one or two seconds ahead of the pace I needed for a sub 5 minute mile. (A Gary Droze lecture tip.) The gun fired and everyone took off. Bodies and elbows were flying everywhere. I stayed on my feet and edged through the first turn while listening to (but not hearing) Tim Simpkins yell 100 meter splits – 16, 17, 18, 19. I looked ahead to see Bill McGuire pulling away. I had hoped to tie a rope around him and let him drag me around the first lap or maybe two. I felt my lungs cracking open from all of the air they were sucking in, so I let him go – hoping that he was having a good day, not that I was having a bad one already. A quick glance at my watch as I went by the 200-meter mark revealed it was the former – a 37 second split meant I was close to where I wanted to be. I rounded the second turn and headed down the backstretch for the clock. The split was a little confusing, mostly because of the lack of oxygen in my brain, but I think it was around 74 seconds.
The second lap slammed me with the reality that I was in a mile, not a 5K. 74 second quarters test my VO2 max and, unlike Tuesday interval workouts, there is no rest between the first and second lap. My fully expanded lungs took a different tact and began screaming that they had suffered all they wanted and that if I was going to keep up the current pace, I had better send a little more oxygen their way. I sent back a message that it was not likely that was going to happen and that they would be better off processing what they had instead of using it to complain.
Around the track again and this time the clock said 2:29 at around the 800 meter mark or just after it. I think that is the toughest point in the race. You know how hard it was to get there and you also know you still have two laps to go. My lungs decided to take a different tact and started threatening me: “Ignore us if you want, but remember those legs and arms of yours? Well they are about to run out of gas, then what are you going to do?” “Relax and pump them. Make a rectangle, just like Gary said in his lecture,” I responded. Nevertheless, I did give in a little on that third lap and found myself crossing the 1200 meter mark in 3:45, maybe a second slower than the required pace. But I had made it to the last lap. I was close enough to pace to get that sub 5:00, but only if I wanted to find out exactly what the mile is all about. On the corner I just tried to gather myself, not lose any more time and prepare for a final charge. As I hit the straight away I tucked in behind an accelerating trio of Jeff Nielsen, Karl Hempel and Steve Barraco as they went around me. Jack Daniels, a famous coach, once said if you feel real bad before you try slowing down, try speeding up. It sounds almost silly, but sometimes it works. Trying to hang onto these three gave me just the boost I needed. I swear I could literally feel my arms and legs filling up with lactic acid and my lungs had now left my chest and moved up into my throat. I could feel the bear’s hot breath as he chased me looking for a place to climb on my back. But now there were only 250 meters to go, one turn and a straightaway. Then it was just a straightaway and lots of bodies flying toward the clock. I could see the clock ticking up towards 5:00 minutes, but the first digit was still a four. The last 40 meters were a blur. As I crossed the finish line, I saw 4:58. What a great feeling! The pain became a memory almost instantly. The next thing I heard was my lungs saying – see we told you could do it!