Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 10 Dec 1999 09:09:17 -0500

Memorable Mile

Walking away last summer from another glorious running of the Prefontaine Classic track meet in Eugene, the fans spoke the names of the three-M sprinters: Maurice (Greene), Marion (Jones) and Michael (Johnson). The viewers might not have remembered their times, or even their events. But the names and the faces that went with them led off the mental highlights show.

Not one fan in 10 could tell who won the mile. The best guess would have been, "Uh, wasn't it some guy from Kenya?" Which would have been a safe guess at almost any distance race in the world.

But nearly everyone coming away from the Pre counted this race as a highlight. The reason was a time they could all appreciate -- four minutes, which 10 runners broke at this meet.

Almost a half-century past Roger Bannister's breakthrough, this race in an outdated system of measurement and at a distance run in no championship meet (that high school oddity, the 1600, doesn't count) for more than 20 years remains the star of the sport. Everyone understands its times.

There's a simplicity and symmetry to this race. Four laps in a minute each equal four minutes. When the announcer calls "59" after a lap, the meaning is clear to all.

Even non-fans know that the mile is the gold standard of the sport. Say that you're a runner, and one of the first two questions you'll hear is, "How fast do you run a mile?"

(The second is, "Have you run a marathon?" A follow-up might be, "Have you run Boston?")

On a recent visit to my doctor the subject of running came up. She asked, "Are you one of those four-minute milers?"

"I wasn't too far off once," I told her. "But that was long ago" -- before this young woman was born, in fact.

She doesn't run, so 18 seconds above four minutes sounded close to her. A runner would know better. This time would have put me back on the final curve when a sub-four miler finished.

I run several minutes slower now. I'm not halfway through the third lap when the four-minute mark passes.

Yet my love for the mile lasts. It's the only run I time, because this is the one that tells me -- and anyone else who cares to know -- exactly where I stand as a runner.

The mile was my first love. My earliest heroes were milers. The first autograph I chased down was Wes Santee's, and Roger Bannister made me want to break the eight-minute mile right after he first broke four.

My first timed run was a mile, as was my first race. The mile was the shortest distance that let me succeed as a runner.

This is the only distance I now time in training. Today's mile isn't a race for me. I never try to run it all-out but hold an honest, faster-than-normal pace that usually falls in the mid-sevens.

That time happens to be what I ran at age 10, in response to Bannister's first sub-four. Each new mile in my mid-50s keeps an old love affair alive.

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