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Magic Mile Challenge 1

August 5, 2011
A sign for the Cafe Sub-4 at the Iffley Road track in Oxford

Cafe Sub-4, where I presume all food is priced at £3.59...

Every now and then you run somewhere special. And so, on Wednesday, it was with a slightly disproportionate amount of excitement that I went to a timed mile event at the Iffley Road race track in Oxford.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the Iffley Road track is where Roger Bannister ran the first ever sub-4 minute mile in 1954. The world record for running the mile had stood for a long time, tantalisingly close to the four-minute mark making the neatly rounded number an important threshold. The modern equivalent will be the moment someone runs a sub-2 hour marathon. Bannister ran 3:59.4, making an indelible mark in the record books. (Once the threshold had been broken, though, a number of other runners broke the barrier and quickly took Bannister’s world record.)

The Iffley Road track has changed a lot in the years since. Gone is the old cinder; replaced by well-maintained springy modern track surfaces. But still, the blue plaque at the track’s entrance, the name of the cafe and the large billboards around the track combine to give you an inescapable sense of history.

With my sights set substantially lower than the original magic mile, this was my first attempt to clock a time for Marathon Talk’s International Magic Mile Team Challenge. (If you’ve got a chance to clock a mile before 14 August 2011, sign up here for free.)

It was a humid day and earlier in the day the temperature had soared to 30°C. Having got up at 6am (I should note that I’m not naturally inclined towards the mornings) and spent much of my day sitting in muggy crowded meeting rooms I didn’t feel that I’d necessarily had the best preparation for my run. Still, I thought, attaching the race numbers to my vest, let’s see how this goes. (I wasn’t going to be put off, either, by someone asking me if I was over 40. I am 31, dammit. Clearly the early morning wasn’t wearing me well…)

I was in the second race, so having done a quick lap round the track, a few stretches and a few plyometrics, it was time to toe the line. Our pacemaker (we had a pacemaker – it was very exciting) said that he was planning to run 5:20 pace, which seemed reasonable. In the run-up to the timed mile, I’d been thinking that 5:15 would be the best time I was likely to achieve, so this would give me a feel for the pace and I could push the final lap if I felt up to it.

Runners starting their mile race at the Iffley Road track

I stayed around to watch the other runners and see how close they came to the magic mile

The gun went (loudly) and we were off. I stayed close to the pacemaker, initially feeling that things were a little slow (although we’d set off faster than the planned pace, so we started to cool it off around the 300 mark) but after the second lap I could feel the lactic starting to build. (Normally I get a bit bored running around the track, but the Iffley Road track is the first track I would actually describe as beautiful. It’s slightly sunken behind the road, with a broad horizon and lush grounds, probably made all the more striking by the late evening sunshine.) With the third lap down, the pacemaker dropped out and we were on our own. I dug deep and kept up the pace, pumping my arms to carry me down the final strait to the hearty support of the crowds. Crossing the line in third place, I saw 5:15 on the clock. A couple of sweaty handshakes later I bent over to catch my breath, feeling deeply satisfied.

I watched the remaining races, which were progressively faster, to see how close the athletes could get to Bannister’s famous time. Watching runners pushing themselves, you realise just how fast you would need to run in order to go sub-four. And to think that elite athletes nowadays are comfortably clear of the four-minute mark… Still, standing at the sideline, still feeling a slight burn in my legs, I felt incredibly impressed as the fastest runner of the evening passed the finish line.

The fastest runner at the mile meeting passes the finish line close to the 4-minute mark

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