Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Elusive Sub 6 Minute Mile


My senior year of track in high school I ran the one mile race three times. I ran a 6:24, a 6:30, and another 6:30. After that last race I decided breaking the 6 minute mile wasn’t in my cards that year and instead focused on the 2 mile. At the time I eased my conscience, telling myself sometime in my life I would break a 6 minute mile.


My naive high school self. First XC meet my senior year. I hit a PR of 18:20 for 2.5 miles and never got faster. I never was fast

I don’t recall this being a flippant assertion but in hindsight it was the most naive plan I ever put forth. While the 6:30 mile left me knowing I could dig deeper, I had no idea how fast a 6:30 mile was and a few years later could barely manage 8 minute mile pace for a quarter mile!

It took me 11 years before I got serious about breaking a 6 minute mile. That was 4 years ago when I was 29. I figured I ought to try before entering my fourth decade of life. And as I began doing intervals I couldn’t even maintain 6 minute per mile pace for 200 meters!

At that time I vowed to start doing more track intervals. But I also ran a marathon and did some other longer distances. I ran some 400s, running them in the upper 90s, slower than 6 minute per mile pace. I just wasn’t anywhere near where I needed to be. But I kept after it, not ready to fully commit to that 6 minutes of pain.

Last summer I broke a 90 second 400 for the first time since high school. Finally!

Sometime last winter I got really motivated to give this sub 6 minute mile thing a try for real.

In April I did a set of track intervals with my friend Emily. The plan was for an all out 800, 400, and 200, each with ample rest in between. I didn’t want to take 10 minutes of rest between the 800 and 400 so elected to do a 4 minute interval at a slower pace. My times were 3:03 despite covering my ears for some of that as there was a tornado siren drill (not sure why at 2 pm on a Thursday), 88 seconds, and 42 seconds. This exceeded my own expectations! Maybe because I was doing them with someone I had ran faster than I had in a long long time. This gave me confidence that a 6 minute mile might be possible.

Emily and I in 2014 on a portage on our Minnesota-Ontario Border Route Canoe Trip. Photo: Erik

After my 25 km trail race in May, I religiously ran track intervals weekly. I thought I wouldn’t have enough time to train prior to my Alaska trip and figured not running for 2 weeks in Alaska would set me back so I chose the last week in August for my 6 mile attempt.

My track intervals went mostly well. Most weeks I was able to meet or sometimes even exceed my pace goals. I mostly focused on shorter intervals with good rest to get my legs feeling a pace faster than 6 minutes per mile. And it worked! At least in terms of getting my 400 pace down. In my 4 x 400 workout I ran an 83 (yes, an 83 and it didn’t even feel that fast), an 84, an 86 (my shoe came untied less than half way through), and an 85. I was impressed with myself. A couple weeks later I did some 300s and actually felt the pace was slow enough that I could work on my running technique- trying to get more “air time” and more forefoot striking.

After a couple days of floating down a river in Alaska, I sought out a track in Fairbanks. I did an 800 in 3:10, above goal but I figured not bad for not wearing my track shoes and having not ran in 2 weeks. Then I did a 600 in 3:23- 8 seconds slower than goal pace. Oh well. BUT, here’s what I was able to do in the workout- check my watch for my 200 splits. In the past few years I’ve worked so hard at just being able to run at 6 minute per mile pace that I couldn’t even check my watch. Now I can! I finished up the workout with some 200s in the low 40s. Thanks to Tiffany for running these with me.

Getting after it in Fairbanks. Wow, I'm already looking super focused only 100 meters into my 800. Photo: hubby #1
Tough Tiff in Alaska carrying our super heavy bear barrel. Photo: Erik

When I told Craig about my plan, he told me a good workout to see if I was ready was to run 4 x 400 meters with only half time rest (so that would be 45 seconds of rest). When he told me this in the Spring, I thought “no way am I ever going to get there.” But as the summer wore on and I planned my last couple track workouts, I decided I had to give that one a try a week before my planned attempt.

It went almost exactly as I thought it would. I did my run first thing Saturday morning like I always do. But this time I took a gel with caffeine beforehand and then did a pull-out on the way to the track. I ran the first 400 in 88 seconds. Perfect, that was my plan. I felt I had more to given on that last straightaway, but this wasn’t an all-out 400, this was essentially the first 400 of a 1600. I wasn’t breathing too hard when I finished and 45 seconds felt like enough recovery. I hit my second 400 in 89 seconds, perfect, and again felt like I had more to give on the last straightaway. But this time I was breathing hard and still 2:1 breathing when I began the third. Somehow I managed 90 seconds on the third. Better than I thought I could do as I feel like it’s the third lap that I always slow on. Now I could barely walk from the finish line to the start of the 400 in lane 6. I gave myself a couple extra seconds (I find it’s best to just go on these workouts and not allow time to think) and then took off. This one was the roughest and I felt a bit like puking. The last straightaway was soooo long. I felt like I maybe had a little more to give as I didn’t have that feeling like I was losing blood to my arms but couldn’t muster anymore speed and ended up with 92 seconds. My heart rate was only 173 at the end of that 400, so clearly, I can do better. Maybe I’m just saving that super hurt for next week?

These times added up to a 5:59. Not bad. If Craig’s theory held true, I was ready. And even if I didn’t break 6, I still felt incredibly accomplished to hammer out this workout (and as a solo effort to boot!)

As I set a date to try to break 6 minutes, I wasn’t very sure I could do it. I’ve met a number of my running goals over the past few years, but I knew this one would be quite challenging. In some respects a 6 minute mile isn’t that fast, but that’s when I compare myself to these blogs I’m reading about women going after Olympic Trials Qualifying times. These are women who can string together 26 miles in the low 6s- so one mile under 6 shouldn’t be unreasonable...but I’ve never been that fast and so it has been reassuring to me that everyone I have told this goal to has said “wow, a 6 minute mile- that’s really fast!”

So I might fail, but if I don’t at least try, I’ll never know. I’ve put off trying for a few years because I’m afraid of failing, but I recently came up with a mantra “you have to fail to succeed.” I know how hard these 6 minutes will be but at the same time I’m proud of myself for being brave enough to hurt so good.

I’m also proud of myself for how far I’ve come.

In the week preceding my determined date, I thought about this mile effort way too much. I thought about how hard it would get with 600 meters to go and decided I needed to focus on a much smaller goal- like 100 meters at a time! I woke up early and was nervous.

I invited some friends to join me as I thought that might help give me a faster time. It turned out my bro happened to be in town from Bemidji which was a real treat! We met at our house at 7 am and ran the 1.5 miles to the track with a short pull-out and again I took a gel with caffeine to try and give me an extra boost as I had rehearsed the previous week.

At the track, getting ready to start. Craig is covering up my head here. Photo: Erik

Once we got to the track, my bro changed into his high school spikes and then we got on the start line. It was a bit of a hodgepodge of previous running experiences and our last conversation before the start was something to the effect that no one except Craig (who is hoping to hit 6:00 min/mile average for the New York Marathon in 2+ months) had any idea if we could run a sub six minute mile. Well, at least we were all in the same boat! I started my watch and we were off.

:41 my bro called out 200 meters in. Darn, felt easy but a bit fast.

1:28 at 400 meters. Perfect I thought in my head and “perfect” echoed behind me by my companion runners.

2:15 at 600 meters. Dead on. Good.

3:04 at 800 meters. Uh-oh, 4 seconds behind pace. Not good. Bjorn picked up the pace and surged leaving me. I couldn’t respond.

My bro again called the 1000 meter split but I hadn’t learned that one. And I was working way too hard to compute the simple math: 3:00 + :45 = 3:45; OK, I got it for next time:)

Craig left me with 500 meters to go.

4:40 my bro called on the bell lap. This really wasn’t good, 10 seconds behind pace. OK, I can still PR if I can run a 90. I tried to run fast. I thought I was running fast. I tried to break it down to each 100 meter but it was just going by so fast anyway.

Erik’s cousin sped by me on the back straightaway leaving just Erik and my bro near me. I tried to give it everything I had but had trouble picking up the pace.

6:18.

Bummer!

But in hindsight, I’m not quite sure what I was expecting since I was above pace in my 600 workout 2 weeks earlier. The short intervals were good but I needed some longer ones, too.

It’s a bit hard to be completely disappointed by this time given it’s the fastest mile I’ve ran in 17 years and just 7 seconds off my PR. Per my mantra, I have to fail to succeed. This is true in so many aspects of life (especially in applying for jobs and competitive schools) and also rings true with this mile attempt. If I didn’t try, I never would have known and now since I tried and failed, I have a better sense of how I may succeed in the future.

Because I still want to break this elusive 6 minute mile.

Just after the attempt. Photo: Erik

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