Workouts from the Past, Part 1: 12 X 1mile repeats with 200m rest
During the next several days, I will reach back into my time machine and bring out some old workouts. See what you think. This first one is a twofer, as it will also be published in the glossary of my someday-to-be-released book on all things running, “Running & Seeing.”
12 Times a Mile
Disclaimer: Don’t try this at home! Seek the advice of a good friend and a physician before even reading on. The workout you are about to discover is not for the faint of heart – and likely you will be the only one within your sphere of running influence who would ever dare to try this excruciating challenge.
“Once, twice, twelve times a mile….” I can almost hear my version of Lionel Ritchie’s melody rush, static-y, from that ’80’s jukebox in the dilapidated “Zoo Bar” in Chevy Chase, MD, just blocks from Georgetown and the White House. The stale smells and suffocating smoke fill my senses, and I am glad I am no longer entranced by that odd high school draw.
A decade later, I am at the Georgetown track, less than a mile away from that long-forgotten bar. Cliff Volpe and I are here on this day for some very hard work: “Once, twice, twelve times a mile…” we hum together, nervously.
I had told Cliff about my idea for the workout a month before, and he just shook his head. “Wow!?” he exhaled. “That could actually lead to injury…” I told Cliff, a veteran runner, and US Air Force veteran to boot, about how reading of Emil Zatopek’s training exploits had inspired this workout. Zatopek, it was said, once completed 100 quarter mile intervals for a week straight, before resting for a week and then stealing the only world distance mark he lacked, the 5000 meters, by a mere 4 second gap. To elucidate his divinity even a bit more, Zatopek completed these workouts in the brutal snow-laden Czech winter. The man-machine inspired the world in his day and he continues to inspire: “If he could do 700 quarters in a week, surely I can do 12 mile intervals in an afternoon…” I reasoned. Cliff shook his head. And then he nodded his head.
It was a perfect fall day for a track workout – just about par for an early fall afternoon in Washington, DC. It was true marathoning season, classic weather. The cold leaves shuddered on the Oaks and Persimmons which were bracing for cooler temps that would inject kaleidoscopic vibrance into their summer-baked husks. The track was empty, for it was a Tuesday morning. All of the serious 20-somethings had money to make, dials to cram in, deals to close. But Cliff and I had other dreams: we imagined winning 10k’s and bettering our personal bests at every distance. Most significantly for me, I dreamed of a marathon personal best. The elusive 2:22 was beckoning for me, and I for it. And here we were on this pristine morning, to take quite a few more strides towards that culmination.
I had heard about 10 times a mile, though maybe only from Jim Hage, a training friend of mine. I first “met” Hage as he dashed supremely ahead of the Marine Corps Marathon field a couple of years before. Yes, he had talked about such a work-out; but nobody I knew had dared consider 12 times a mile. I still have not met anyone who has completed the workout. That was precisely the stuff of my recipe this day: I wanted to go where few had gone; to challenge myself, and even challenge reason on this day. I wanted a true marathon simulation which would teach me pace. Pace which would hold up in every circumstance. I wanted to learn the melody and tempo of a song that could not be stripped from me at mile 23, nor 25. I was hell-bent on ingraining into my psyche a toughness which cannot be learned except by doing.
Cliff had no such delusions. Still wondering about my ambitions this morning, he agreed to run the final six mile repeats with me. Importantly, he would time and encourage me through the first half of the workout.
The pace was set at 4:55 to 5:00 miles – that’d would be 74’s and 75’s all day long, running around the oval. And so it began.
“Get set!” And then Cliff clapped sharply and I was off. No problems the first quarter. “72…73…74…!” Cliff yelled my time as I came through the first of 48 quarter miles. I was cruising gently, relaxed, settling into the workout. The first mile was complete at 4:54 and now I had a 200 meter jog right into the second mile. And so it went.
After 3 miles, I knew it might not be my day. I was faltering and doubting. Cliff encouraged me. On the fourth interval, I wasn’t feeling it. Cliff jumped in on the second quarter of that fourth mile. “I’m going to get you through an 80 here so you can recover and finish strong. Come on! Follow me!!” I jumped into Cliff’s slipstream and followed his shoulder with my eyes, letting my left foot slip beneath his right foot as the latter repeatedly lifted, over and over.
“78…79…80…” Cliff encouraged. The half mile split was 2:35, so I had some time to make up. I tried to surge, but again, the engine was halting. My spirit was seizing. I got to the bell lap of the interval and realized I had to step it up a few notches and recommit to the workout. I surged the turn, strode the back stretch, and put in a solid effort to finish the mile. 5:11. Ugh.
I had devised this workout to push myself beyond my limits. The workout itself was like a marathon. Too much to consider all at once. In the marathon, I needed to get to the 10 mile mark in order to get to 20, so that I could face the final 10k with gusto. The same principle held here: I need to finish that fourth mile so that I could make it to the halfway mark. To consider the 8th and 9th intervals at this early stage was to take the spirit away.
And this is why I run and push myself. This is why I run marathons and ultra-marathons. And what I have learned is that though you and I choose to run these races, willfully immersing ourselves in the efforts to reach for more than we are able, for the impossible…. the truth of the matter is that we are all inescapably in a race for our very lives at this very hour. Even as you read these words. So the impossible workout, the penultimate mile of the marathon… these are metaphors for the life we have lived this day. And for the very real challenges of tomorrow. Be it a boardroom presentation, a pitch to your partner in entrepreneurship, a discussion with your spouse or lesson you must present to your 9 year old, we are each in the thick of the race right now. My implausible workout only very closely mimicked those true life challenges.
Halfway there. A respite. A full quarter mile jog rest. Now, I could count on Cliff for every step of the rest of the workout. This gave me hope.
And we were off. I was lagging. Beat. 6 miles already run, averaging 5:03 pace, knowing I was only halfway home. We got into a rhythm. A revery for me. The quarters and the pace began to flow together so that one quarter and one interval was indistinguishable from the others. The pace was being ingrained into my legs. The cold and the wind, the challenges, the light rain — all of it started to blend together into a mix of revery. I was being taught the pace down to the very sinews and capillaries of my soul. The pace was being etched into me.
Mile 7. Mile 8. Mile 9. We had made it three-fourths through the workout. We had arrived at double digits! This, like the halfway mark, gave me hope and encouragement. How many had been here? 10 miles into a workout on the track? 40 quarters behind me.
I began to believe. And Cliff was no small part of my new-found religion. Indeed, he was the chief priest and purveyor of every sermon. Whereas I typically was a key encourager to my friends and the athletes I coached, today I had nothing to give; only everything to take. And so I gorged on Cliff’s words. “Pat, you can do this. You are doing this! One quarter at a time. Get to the 800; get to the bell lap; then, you can give one more 400 meters. You are almost there. Keep rolling!”
I was now a true believer – too exhausted to doubt, I stared blankly, drinking in Cliff’s truisms, nodding. ‘Okay,’ I repeated, ‘I can do this. I am doing this…’
And so we came to the 12th mile. Just as the marathoner passes the 25 mile marker, I had arrived at this last interval. I did not have it in me to run another 5 minute mile. My legs were too spent. I was dehydrated. I was cold and miserable and beaten down. I didn’t have the strength to look up at Cliff any more. Now, I looked down to the tartan track and just gently, sadly agreed with him. There was no longer any purpose in wasting effort even on doubting. There was a task that needed to be completed. On this day. In this moment. Right now.
And we were off — into the final 4 laps. The track swum before me and I floated and staggered upon its blurring lanes which mixed before me like scribbles. The world seemed black and white now, the color sapped from it, the very life drained away. My legs churned up and down, but I couldn’t feel my feet. It was more a jolting and pumping. I tried to focus on my arms, good arm swing, gently held fists, cupping eggs gently, just like I had been coached for so many years. And then I felt myself slipping into a dreamlike revery. Memories pushing in. The heaving, jolting track being replaced in my mind’s eye with perseverance. The concept of trying. Of doing my best. Excellence became my tutor. And I thought of teachers looking over my shoulder, and I looking back and up at them, and seeing Mr. Morris nodding, “Yes, Pat, yes — that’s correct. Very good.”
And I thought of the pain all of the sudden. Of the great agony of this moment. I was supremely uncomfortable. I needed a bathroom. My insides were upside down. I imagine that my face was the very picture of agony and misery. Striated hair matted and wisping, sweat flinging, spit-caked chalk-white on and below my left lip. I’m certain I looked absolutely wasted and horrid. And then perseverance welled up again… and pride. PRIDE! I was nearly there. Cliff and I were nearly there.
“Pat!” I heard through a noisy, crowded heaving of breath. “Pat!” I could barely make out Cliff’s voice as if peering, squinting, through a fog. “800 meters to go!”
And things suddenly became crystal clear.
2 laps to go. Now, the roar of the Olympic crowd overwhelmed my imagination. I followed obediently in Cliff’s slipstream. Now, we were adversaries. Until now, there was no competition this day. We were blood brothers, helping each other out. Pulling each other out of the mire and blood of a mission botched. But with 2 laps to go — and now just 600 meters, we suddenly raced.
“Cliff Volpe is picking up the pace a bit, Joe!” I heard the commentator’s surprised voice over the old jukebox. “It does indeed look like Cliff will try to break Reed now. And honestly, Reed looks finished. I don’t think he’ll be able to mark this move.”
Cliff surges around the turn. I track him. He’s surprised. He wants to crush me outright. To break my spirit early so that he’s assured of a glorified victory. 500 meters to go. The crowd is surging in their raucous glorious chorus. Coming off of the turn, I see that NOW is my only hope: to mark his surge and then when he backs off, to bolt. Cliff lays slightly off the gas as expected when we hit the straight. I go. Like a bat out of hell I put the pedal down, everything I’ve got with just over a lap to go. I gap Volpe. Still stunned as the bell sounds marking the final lap, Cliff recovers and tracks my effort. He knows if he can just keep the pace, even 15 meters behind, he has an outstanding chance of taking me on the home stretch. But I am fearing a back-stretch counter move by Volpe, and so I hammer it up a notch on the back stretch. I am again at 95 percent as the 200 meter mark comes into focus. Cliff has held the gap, though, and at the start of the turn, the final turn, he throttles 100%. I can feel his effort. He is careening around the turn, nearly spinning out with all jets full-on.
He catches me with 50 meters and moves out into lane three. We are pushing for all that we are each worth. Stride for stride for stride. I lean into the tape. The crowd roars. We fall in slow motion across the line. Silence. It is finished.