The Trials of The Mile

Training for and competing in a 1-mile road race hurts … and that’s a good thing!

By most accounts, I’m a somewhat crotchety, just-about-middle-aged trail runner. I like most of my runs to be off-road rambles on beautiful trails, sometimes with my dog, or friends, or with just the chipmunks and sparrows.

So why, on earth, would I want to do a 1-mile road race? A race distance on pavement that is perhaps the most painful chunk of minutes one could possibly put themselves through on purpose?

Why? Because it’s fun to push yourself and see what you can do in a short, fast race. I get something unique out of taking it to the limit and seeing how fast I can go, even if I can’t always run times I’d like to. That invigorating thrill is just the same—or maybe better—than it was years ago. Plus, the training is focused around running shorter, faster efforts, which means it is time-efficient. Sometimes that can make you feel wrecked for the rest of the day, but that can also make you feel alive. It’s all good fun, and I’m not alone in thinking so.

I shouted some encouragement to Sam at the start of the Pearl Street Mile, knowing he’d be right on my heels the whole race. Photo: Glen Delman

There’s a website and movement dedicated to bringing back the mile distance—aptly called, BringBacktheMile.com—as the classic test of fitness in both community events and at the competitive high school level (instead of the ever-so-slightly shorter and much more antiseptically named 1600 meters, which is roughly the metric equivalent of the mile). The site’s mission is to: “Return the Mile to prominence on the American sports and cultural landscape by elevating, celebrating and creating a Mile Movement.” That fires me up, in a good way.

The online running and cycling network, Strava.com introduced a mile challenge earlier this summer, asking users to use the tagline #MyMile in social posts and awarding prizes through what they called their “Strava Mile Sweepstakes.” (Since my mile race was in August, I didn’t participate.)

And community events, like the Pearl Street Mile in Boulder, Colorado, the 5th Avenue Mile in New York City, and the State Street Mile in Santa Barbara, California, continue to gain participants. Clearly, I’m not the only one who gets a thrill out of such short, fast and briefly painful endeavors.

READ MORE: Community Mile Race Calendar Listing

These 1-mile races around the country are usually held in the evenings, have a kids’ race, an open wave (for any type of runner) and elite waves. They’re social events, with crowd-lined streets; neighbors and friends cheer each other on. The races are spectator-friendly because they don’t take very long and they’re usually in a downtown setting, which means people meander to and from restaurants and shops before and after the races. The events feel like a celebration of a town’s local running community.

And the training for a mile, although mostly brutally hard, doesn’t suck up your entire week like training for a longer race can.

The training, and the idea of entering the 20th anniversary of the Pearl Street Mile on Aug. 9, started when I dropped my kids off at a summer camp in June. I signed my kids over to their camp counselor, and eyed the new rubber track of the elementary school.

“It would be good to get some speed back in my legs,” I thought. I had done the Pearl Street Mile a couple times before, feeling that exhilarating burn and running a time I was really happy with two years ago. I wanted to taste that again.

To supplement my running, I’ve been doing CrossFit for a couple of years, so the thought of intervals and good pain didn’t scare me that much. But a spring injury, and now that I’m older than I was two years ago (funny how that happens), I worried I’d be disappointed with a slower-than-desired mile time.

So started my summer of pushing myself on the track, seeing what I could do, and learning to be OK with where I am. My track sessions were solo, aside from other Boulderites in various forms—there is no shortage of track-running elites in Boulder, or older guys and gals just getting in some speed work—and I did them once a week.

READ MORE: Run Faster with Regular Speed Work Sessions

During one session, two elite runners were being paced by a coach on a bike, and running the opposite direction as me. Every so often I’d have to swing wide right and dodge two runners and a bike while pushing myself through a 400. That was exciting. And one morning, my 9-year-old son, Sam, came with me, ran a few laps and some sprints and then kicked his soccer ball around the infield. That was fun.

The track—and pushing yourself to your max around it—is different. I found myself looking forward to the weekly sufferfest. I knew it would pay off because the 1-mile distance race is a pure test of fitness. A mile is a mile is a mile. A mile doesn’t lie.

The entire day leading up to the Pearl Street Mile, I felt like I drank a pot of coffee. I was jittery and nervous all day. Do I like that feeling? I don’t know. I like it and I hate it at the same time. I suppose, like running to where your head might explode, those nerves make me feel like a young runner headed to a track meet.

I had a race time A+ goal, an A goal, a realistic B goal and a C goal. Based on my track times, I figured I’d run the B goal.

We headed downtown as a family, and my 6-year-old, Ben, ran the kids’ half-mile race. He toed the line and looked over at me, “I’m nervous, Mom.” My heart melted a little. He came down the homestretch walking some, running some. After the race I asked him if he had a side ache. “No!” he said. “I had two side aches!”

READ MORE: Coach Mario—Do Everything All The Time in Training

Sam raced the open wave with me, and, despite being a 9-year-old running in a field of mostly adult runners, he took off like he wanted to win. (He did want to win!) I caught him in the first block and said, “Good job, Sam” as I ran by, knowing he’d be on my heels. I pushed hard, but like my track workouts, I lost a little focus during the middle of the race. I craved the last 400, where I knew I’d have a kick and would start yearning to round the final bend. Friends cheered, I surged. I saw the finish line clock and gave my mile effort a final sprint. I didn’t barf, so maybe I should have pushed harder. I finished in 6:26, essentially running my B-goal time. And I’m kind of OK with it. Sam, ever the competitor, finished pretty close behind me in 6:43. He was stoked!

That’s me, sprinting to the finish line amid a flurry of other runners. Photo: Mark Eller

We watched the high school race, the elite men, the elite women, marveling at how fast the top finishers ran. Then we went home and watched pro track athletes compete in the IAAF World Championships from London on the TV before going to bed. My sons slept in their new Pearl Street Mile T-shirts—and so did I!—proudly wearing them and discussing our races in the next morning.

A day later, I’m a bit sore and tired in a different way than I would have been after a long run in the mountains. But I like that feeling. I’m replaying my mile effort in my head, and I’m wondering if I’ll ever be able to run that A or A+ goal time. I know I’ll definitely try because I love the incomparable thrill of trying to run fast.

Lisa Jhung
Boulder, Colorado-based freelance writer Lisa Jhung is the author of "Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running" (Velo Press, 2015). She has written for Runner's World, Men's Journal and Women's Running and was the co-founding editor of Adventure Sports magazine.
Photo: Glen Delman