Five Things a Marathoner Learned From Training for the Mile

by Jeff Burtka

A track workout

Since the fall of 2016, I have run 4 marathons and 2 half marathons. After finally achieving a Boston Marathon qualifying time in May, I decided to break up the monotony of marathon training by training for the mile.

I have never been a miler, and I had only run one timed mile with all-out effort in my life. That was in high school, when, after a couple weeks of "training" in gym class, I ran a pedestrian 6:38. I have done mile repeats during marathon training and managed a 6:30 best earlier this year, according to my Garmin watch. If I could run a 6:30 without going all-out, I figured, "Why not see how fast you can go for one mile?"

I just finished my 15 weeks of mile training (using a self-made plan, with guidance from books by Jack Daniels and John Davis), and here's what I've learned.

I am old and slow.

Apparently, it's true that you lose speed before stamina as you get older. Now that I'm 44, I guess I don't have what I used to have. I was never a sprinter, but I goofed around on tracks and think 22-year-old me would beat current me in a 200-meter sprint by 50 meters.

The first time I did 200-meter repeats at my goal mile pace, I thought I was sprinting like Usain Bolt. I was shocked when I looked at my watch and found that my 200 time might be good enough to qualify for the NCAA finals . . . in the 400 meters. I told myself it was just rust, and that the next one would be faster. It wasn't. I was humbled.

I now realize that I look a lot more like Mike Myers as Middle Aged Man (go to 0:35 at this link if you don't get the reference) than Usain Bolt when I do 150-meter to 400-meter repeats.

Four laps plus 9.344 meters equals a mile

World-class distance runners are fast. Really fast. Not-sure-if-they're-human fast.

I assumed that with my 3:18:48 marathon PR, I could easily transition into running fast shorter distances. When I heard about someone running a 17-second final 100 meters during a 10K, I used to think that was fast, but not that fast. Considering sprinters can run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds, I thought I could easily do a 17-second 100 meters the first time I tried. Not. Even. Close.

During one of my first speed workouts, I ran 8 x 300 meter repeats. If I could maintain my average speed for those repeats for a marathon, I would run a 2:34 marathon, or 15 minutes off the B standard for the U.S. Olympic marathon trials.

Elite marathoners are from another planet.

150- to 500-meter repeats require serious recovery.

I never expected shorter distances to be as hard as they are. I thought they would be challenging, but that I would bounce back quickly, since I was used to running 60 miles or more per week. Wrong again! My legs are sorer after interval work than they are after any long run during marathon training. I kept telling myself that it was muscle adaptation and not my Middle Aged Man deteriorating body. Even though my repeats did get faster, the recovery time never got shorter.

I don't have racing spikes, but these lightweight flats felt good on the track.

Speed work is fun.

Once I came to grips with my lack of speed, running as fast as I could for short distances was fun and empowering. Shorter workouts require less long-term focus on hitting splits. Instead of 10 to 20 miles thinking about maintaining the proper pace and form, I could just go without worrying about splits until I checked my watch at the end of a couple hundred meters. I didn’t hit my goal every interval, but seeing my splits get significantly faster over weeks of training made me feel a physical strength I hadn’t felt since I was a rower in college.

There is little room for error when running a mile.

I don’t think I ran my fastest mile for my fitness level, because my first quarter mile was too fast each of the three times I attempted an all-out mile. Unlike a marathon, where I can settle into my pace after a slightly too fast first mile, a too fast first quarter just made each successive quarter harder and slower. I ran a smarter first quarter each time I attempted the mile and improved my mile time each time as a result.

It took me a few weeks of training to set a goal, because I really had no idea what kind of speed I had, or lacked, until I did my first few interval workouts. I eventually settled on a 6-minute mile goal. On my last attempt, I went out a couple seconds too fast on the first lap. I settled down too much on the second lap, but I managed to pick it back up the final two laps and crossed the line in 5:56.5. I still think I could have gone a little faster, but it feels good to be faster at 44 than I was when I was 14.

I’m now transitioning back into training for a half-marathon and marathon training, and I hope this newfound speed will help me reach new heights in the marathon.

Conquered 6 minutes!