“Today’s the day,” he says. “The four minute mile.”
Roger just died, so he’s hanging out with me. He’s tired of heaven (gold roads and no cinder) and wants to be back on the track. I guess mine’s as good as any.
It’s a cool day, slight breeze, feels fast. He says I should do it. I MUST do it. Four-minute mile. He can live it again one more time, vicariously through me.
I am skeptical. A four-minute mile seems a bit ambitious. I have no spikes. My track is metric. And I’m lazy and slow. Roger is undeterred.
“Four minutes,” he insists. “Unlikely,” I reply.
“You can do it,” he tells me. “Did you know more people have climbed Mt. Everest than have run four minutes?” I’m not sure if he’s thought this line of reasoning as an incentive through entirely. But it was maybe the greatest run of all time, and he’s never asked anything of me before. It’s worth a try.
We line up at the SCC track. There are only a few people here to witness the event. Three football players are running drills on the grass we’re not allowed to go on. A fast guy is running 400s in lane 1. I have chosen lane 9 for my feat. Or my feet. Since four laps in lane 1 isn’t a mile anyhow, I figure 9 is as good a place as any.
We count down, the imaginary gun sounds, and we’re off. There are no spectators, but Roger says it doesn’t matter. “The spectators fail to understand — and how can they know — the mental agony through which an athlete must pass before he can give his maximum effort,” he tells me. I try to remember this as I come through the first lap. I’m in trouble. I’m already breathing too hard. My lungs are burning, my head is screaming what the hell. We head into the second lap.
I mention that I’m only a quarter of the way in and death is already imminent. “The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win,” he replies. I had no idea driving was allowed in the mile. This explains how he was able to do it so quickly.
I finish the second lap with my lungs on fire. Note to self: Avoid the jalapeño GU before extreme exertion. The third lap looms. I desperately want to quit. “It is the brain, not the heart or lungs, that is the critical organ,” he says. I’m thinking it’s way easier for him, given that he’s dead now and and appears to be trying to take me with him. But I look for the next gear.
Lap three lasts an eternity. The world is a blur. I’m no longer able to think rationally. I’ve never hurt this intensely. My mind flashes to Cassidy in “Once A Runner,” but all I come up with is David singing “I Think I Love You.” 400 to go. Roger says I can do it. “However ordinary each of us may seem, we are all in some way special, and can do things that are extraordinary, perhaps until then…even thought impossible,” he assures me. I grit my teeth and push for the last turn. Onward to the impossible.
Between gasps, I ask him what the finish was like for that first sub-4. “Those last few seconds seemed never-ending,” he says. “The faint line of the finishing tape stood ahead as a haven of peace, after the struggle. The arms of the world were waiting to receive me if only I reached the tape without slackening my speed. If I faltered, there would be no arms to hold me and the world would be a cold, forbidding place, because I had been so close. I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him.” If I wanted a cold, forbidding place, I’d live in Michigan. I kick it up a gear, one last battle against the pain.
After forever, the blessed finish line approaches. The chasm engulfs me. I hit the stop button as I throw myself across the line, gasping for the oxygen that has suddenly been drained from the track.
I look down at my watch. I haven’t dared peek at it till now, not wanting to know my splits. All or nothing, I figure. Did we do it? Did I finally shatter the four-minute barrier?
Almost. 12:48.7. Sooooo close.
I trot around the track, cooling down, trying to process. So painful to push that hard and then fall short by only eight minutes and 50 seconds.
But Roger seems OK with it. “Failure is as exciting to watch as success, provided the effort is absolutely genuine and complete,” he says.
And that makes it all worthwhile. My effort was absolutely genuine and complete. You line up, you give it your best, you go get a Frosty afterward. That’s all you can do.
We all have our four minute mile. Or maybe our Everest. Maybe the numbers aren’t that important. You just gotta keep climbing.
RIP, Sir Roger. You’ll always be my favorite James Bond …