Report by Gavin Finlay
The Rocket Mile (USTAF NC State Mile Championship)
1 May 2016, Rocky Mount, NC
The post-marathon slope can be exceedingly slippy. After several weeks rest, the efforts to return to the daily run and routine become increasingly difficult – the scourge of apathy and lethargy setting in. I feared this would befall me once the mileage plummeted over the last month. I have been here before of course. The running pendulum swinging wildly from focused motivation to aimless indifference. Not to mention the body’s aches and groans questioning why I lace up.
But I am back. The mind is back. The body is too…well…almost. A recent 1st place finish in a local 5k charity race injected a much-needed dose of mojo and not a little bit of joy back into my running.
Joy is not a word I’d ascribe to the mile race. A vicious and furious 1600m (and change), as different to the marathon as JFK is to Donald Trump. Measured aerobic contemplation versus high-octane, “hold on to your pants” showtime tempo. I know which one I’m wired and built for.
And so to the Rocket Mile in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, around 80 minutes east from where I live here in Durham. A comp entry from Bull City Track Club (BCTC hereon in), a $225 “purse” eased any indecision I had (I’m not working here so entry fees and mileage costs are real financial concerns right now!). A state medal up for grabs and the chance to compete against post-collegiate greyhounds young enough to be my sons (well, in certain counties of the Deep South anyway). I ain’t no miler but let’s go marathon man.
Keeping with tradition, I hit the road, dragging the young kids with me – ah, the life of the husband of a Duke University Medical Centre doctor! We arrived with only 30 mins to spare for a rushed bib pick-up, handover of kids to a parent comrade, and an attempted “vigorous” warmup. Like Durham, Rocky Mount is a former tobacco town: registration was in the “Imperial Centre” (after Imperial Tobacco) and the local river is even named ‘Tar River’. Granted it was Sunday, but the town was “tumbleweed” eery and uncontroversially characterless. Forlorn, you could say. There were the requisite Baptist churches, devoid of any redeeming architectural virtue; boxy regional banks and disused warehouses. I even saw a cement hulk of a Freemason’s Hall on my warmup.
Sufficiently loose, I toed the line feeling more nervous than I usually do at distance races. A mixture of comfort zone separation and the intense fear of lactic acid attack. It may well be shorter than a 10k or a marathon of course, but conscious time takes on a different dimension when you race all-out at your threshold for 4-5 minutes. And for me, on this day, I didn’t really know how the body would handle it.
The lead group accelerated out and to my surprise I edged into the lead. A quick glance back and I saw Blake “10k is too long” Williams who I’ve trained with a bit here in Durham. He’s just returned from “running track” on scholarship at the University of Texas. Quality, serious 1500m runner. He’s the easy winner, no doubt, with a mile PR of 4:06 I think. Nowhere near that today though. Ok, plan is to keep him within 100m or so. He shifted gears after the first quarter mile and the rest of us were left in his Nike-shaped wake. Predictable.
I managed to sustain a decent clip, clocking a 2:22 half-mile, and feeling surprisingly good. I have run a 4:34 mile before but I knew for certain that I’d be far off that today. We swung left then left again and headed for home with a final left turn to go. Almost a perfect rectangle. I was overtaken in the third quarter by the eventual second place finisher but stood fast and tried to sustain. Recent training hadn’t gifted me with any sort of kick to challenge him. As we neared the finish line the severe pain I had anticipated never came. Had I been too conservative? Could I have been more aggressive? Should I have embraced inevitable pain like a seasoned miler? Screw it. Another day, perhaps.
In the end, I finished third in 4:46 and 2nd USTAF runner. That’ll be nice in the archives.
This was a well organised event, full of support and good cheer. I quite liked racing the blue ribbon distance too. And the lovely part: relatively no post-race fatigue like you experience after a 10k, for example.
Rocket Mile? Not quite. More like a Paper Airplane Mile if we’re honest. But I enjoyed the flight.