The running community is well acquainted with the historic pursuit of the sub 4 mile. It was a barrier that no runner had ever broken. Some doubted it was even possible. In the 1950s, talented distance runners with divergent training styles were all working, across the world but in tandem, to smash the 4 minute mile barrier.
This past year, I have been on my own time chasing journey – in pursuit of the sub 4:30 mile.
Although it stands to reason that 4:30 is a bit too quick to truly be the equivalent of a male breaking 4 in the mile, we humans like the crisp, evenness of 4:30 as a stand-in for the female equivalent. Even though I know logically that 4:33 - 4:35 ? is likely more on par with a man breaking 4, the fact remains that there is a list out there of men that have broken 4 minutes in the mile, and women that have broken 4:30 in the mile. I am not usually one to chase a hard and fast time. Yet, the allure of adding my name to the historic list has set my feet in motion, on a mission, to break that lofty and elusive barrier.
I opened up my track season this year at home, with a mile race on Hayward field, and to come full circle (or full oval), I sought to close my track season running 4 laps plus 9 meters around a track.
Grazing the Barrier
Mid-season, I had the opportunity to travel to St. Louis, Missouri for the Hoka Festival of Miles, where I raced a track mile amid a talented field of women. In this race, I made a commitment to myself to go out honest in this race, regardless of what the majority of the field did, in order to chase a quick time. As most track meets stick to metric distance races, the 1500m is a lot more apt to find its way into the race program than a pro mile. Opportunities to run a track mile can thus be few and far between. The 4:30 mile had been on my radar since the previous summer, and at this race, I was hoping to set myself up to smash through.
A handful of racers went out honestly in St. Louis, and I held on, for two laps. In the third lap, I got disconnected from the top three women, and found myself plodding around the semi-dark track through sticky humidity in a no man's land. I lost contact with the leaders, but was well ahead of the chase pack. Coming down the final straightaway of this race, my focus was on the dusk obscured backs of the top three women gliding across the finish line. However, once they had finished and I was making my final strides, I glanced over and caught sight of the large rectangular clock ticking away seconds, 4:25,4:26, 4:27, and realized I was close! I threw in a final surge despite my protesting legs and launched myself over the line, only to discover, minutes later, I had finished in 4:30.5. The barrier had slipped away from me.
So close. I was happy with the three second track PR, but my tango with the mile was not over. I knew I needed to find another opportunity to race the mile.
Search for the perfect race
From other middle distance runners I had befriended running post race cooldowns this year, I caught wind of “The Sir Walter Miler”. This race, set in Raleigh, North Carolina in early August, is known for its unparalleled fan atmosphere and unmatched race weekend experience. Most importantly, the timing was great, and from what I heard, this was a fantastic event. The seed had been planted: this would be the perfect place for me to run down my sub 4:30 dream.
Sir Walter Miler
The evening of the Sir Walter Miler, my host family in Raleigh drove me to the track. A buzzing, energetic crowd was already forming in clustered patches around the track venue. As a beautiful cotton candy sunset ebbed into summer night, the stadium lighting flickered on, lighting up the track. It was almost race time. With spectators lining both sides of the track, each athlete was announced in turn, and strode down the straight
away past the electrifying fan energy to the starting line. When it was my turn, I couldn’t help but crack a big smile, despite the pre race jitters, as I gave a countless number of high fives on my run up to the line.
The gun goes off. I navigate a swarm of bodies and elbows as we all scramble for a good spot, a mass of thirteen runners hastily rounding the first curve. I calmly find a spot on the rail midpack and remind myself of my race day mantra: “calm and connected”. As the erupting enthusiasm of the crowd becomes a jumbled blur of noise and color, I continue to focus on maintaining my place amongst the fast moving bodies in front and to the sides of me. This type of race is too short and too crowded to fall into a rhythm. Instead, I focus on holding position, steering clear of some small scuffles in front of me as athletes jockey for position. Hang in the pack, don’t give up valuable space on the rail, respond to moves. Finally, I look up as we cross the finish line with 800 meters to go, and get a little jolt of excitement. The third lap of the race tends to be where I lose focus. But: Not today, not today. Knowing this is where I tend to fall off the pack, I redoubled my effort here, and started to make some moves,
strategically surging around a few athletes. Then, we’re in the bell lap, and a second rush of adrenaline hits. I look up and see the neon yellow, orange, and blue of singlets in front of me. I’m in a good position. I can see the swishing of pony tails back, forth, back forth, so close, but not getting closer. As we round the final curve into the straight away, I know it’s time to rip. With 40,30,20 meters to go, my legs are starting to feel very, very lactic. Lifting my knees feels like pulling my feet out of cement, but I’m so close to the line. One more woman blazes by me in the final few strides as my stride shortens, arms pumping furiously, and I dip forward, pulling myself across the line. As I do I hear the announcer's voice: “and seven women are under 4:30”, that’s me! I was seventh.
I stumbled a few more meters up the track to sit. Few things are more gratifying than sitting, or laying, on the track when you are fully spent, experiencing the kind of exhaustion only a hard fought middle distance race can produce. The women’s race director excitedly says “you did it”!
I had a feeling in my stomach. I knew I laid it out there, and I hadn’t seen the clock as I was so tuned in during the race. But. I also knew, deep down, this was not my moment. I came so so SO close, but fell the smallest bit short. The clock betrayed me by 2 tenths of a second.
Soon my name and place flashed across the results screen: Jenn Randall 4:30.21. I was sitting up to see the screen, but then fell back to lay down fully on the track. Not quite. Not today. I was tired. Disappointed for sure. But. Proud of myself. I put myself in it, I stayed calm, connected, and raced well tactically. I just didn’t have that last little gear in the last few meters. So close I could taste it: a little bitter but mostly sweet. As the track absorbed my sweat, and post race exhaustion lingered, I soaked up a multitude of emotions as well. This race experience was unparalleled. The crowd and general community energy was unmatched. Racing is supposed to be fun and tonight, despite the results clock, it really was.
The history of the 4 minute mile would be a heck of a lot less exciting if the men had gotten it on their first try, or even on one of the first few tries. Coming close, so close you can smell it, taste it, feel it, in your pumping arms, beading sweat, and driving legs, see it flashing in neon on the timing clock, but not quite achieve it. This. This is what propels us onward. If our goals were so easy to achieve, what a boring world it would be.
It is hard to end your season when you can feel that you are incredibly fit, and you know what an immense effort, of month after month of run, run, run, drills, workout, lift, recover, foam roll, physical therapy exercises, run, run, workout, lift… go into that four minute display of fitness on the track. But, such is the cyclic nature of life, and more specifically, of the periodization of training. Bodies need to rest, reset, recharge, rehab and rebuild. We can’t be running at our peak all year long, and eventually one must step back, reset, and start the training process over, with big goals still glinting tantalizingly on the horizon.