In the 1970’s, a program was initiated to teach all American elementary school students the metric system.  I was a part of that generation that learned metric in school and to us it was as simple as A,B,C and 1,2,3.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t so easy for Ronald Reagan.  After he was elected in 1980, he decided to scrap the whole program and now we remain one of only three countries in the world (along with Burma and Liberia) to have a system other than metric.

I love the metric system.  It’s clean, rational and well-balanced.  The freezing point of water is zero, the boiling point is one hundred…easy.  There are a hundred centimeters in a meter, a thousand meters in a kilometer…makes sense.  Our system is neither logical, nor intuitive.  I can never remember how many cups in a gallon, how many yards in a mile, or how many square yards in an acre?  Even lifelong users are often stumped by these basic conversions.

American runners have a bit more knowledge of the metric system due to our participation in the frequent 5K & 10K races held in most cities.  Longer races of 50k and 100k are now becoming increasingly common in the ultra running scene.  In track and field, the most popular distances tend to be the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m.  As much as I’d like to see even more integration of the metric system into our society, there is one imperial measurement that I feel a reluctance to let go…the mile.

For many of us, our first exposure to measured running was on a high school track.  Each lap, we were told, is a quarter mile.  Four times around and buddy, you just ran yourself a mile.  Can you remember the first time you ran that far?  There was a real sense of accomplishment.  “Wow, I just ran a whole mile!”  It felt good.

Training runs are measured in both time and distance, but we almost always default to distance when discussing our training.  “Yeah, I did a 20 miler on Sunday.” or “I’ve been averaging more than 50 miles week.”  The advent of the GPS watch has made our obsession with distance even greater.

I know that the mile is just a unit of measurement (originally meant to denote a thousand paces by a Roman soldier) and no different in purpose than a kilometer.  But for runners, the mile has a historical significance and mystique that I believe will forever be linked to the difficulty we had in initially breaking the four minute mile barrier.

For almost ten years in the middle of the twentieth century, the world record in the mile remained unbroken at 4:01.4.  Scientists speculated that it may not be physiologically possible for a human to run any faster.  The four minute mile became sport’s elusive holy grail and runners the world over were determined to be the first to break it.

Roger Bannister, a British medical student, felt the barrier was more psychological than physical, and used newly developed training techniques to prepare for his many attempts. By 1954, Bannister, as well as Australian John Landy and American Wes Santee, were right on the verge of breaking through.  Finally, at Oxford’s Iffley Track on a cool windy day in May, Bannister was able to accomplish what so many before him had tried and failed.

Sports Illustrated called Bannister’s feat one of the greatest sporting achievements of the twentieth century.  More than fifty years later, the four minute mile remains a benchmark for all competitive runners and to this day more people have stood on the summit of Mt. Everest than have run a four minute mile.

When I heard that an 83-year-old Bannister carried the Olympic torch a few weeks ago around that same track in Oxford, I was inspired to see how fast I could run a mile.  Even though I’ve run races in distances anywhere from 5 kilometers to 50 miles, I have never raced just a single mile all out.  The mile requires a mix of both speed and endurance, which is why some refer to it as the perfect distance.  Others call it the cruelest distance because of the concentrated suffering that must be endured.  Sounds like fun.

Every summer, Portland’s Foot Traffic running store organizes all-comer track meets at Grant High School. These events are super family friendly and are mostly just an excuse for a bunch of adults and kids to run around and have a good time.  There are 60m, 100m, 400m, 800m and one mile races on the track and the long jump, high jump and softball throw in the infield.  Check out this awesome video to get a feel for how cool this event is :

summer all-comer track meet.

Those three-year-olds racing around the track were so ridiculously cute.  It was interesting to see that the fastest kids were often the ones running barefoot.  The mile event wasn’t a race per se, but rather a prediction race.  You guess your time beforehand, leave your watch behind, and whoever finishes closest to their predicted time wins.  I had no idea how fast I’d run, but guessed 5:30 because that’s what the guy in front of me wrote down.

The race was filled with runners of all different ages and abilities.  There wasn’t a whole lot of strategy involved.  We all just went out as fast as we could and tried to hang on till the end.  There was lots of zigging and zagging, passing and lapping, but somehow we all managed to finish.  I was able to break the elusive six minute mile barrier, finishing in 5:38.  The winner was a six-year-old girl in pigtails who ran with her Dad.  She finished in 10:46, just 2 seconds off of her predicted time.

Today is the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics.  As a way to honor the Olympic spirit (and all those cute little kids at the Foot Traffic meet), I suggest that you go to your local high school track and run, jog, or walk a mile.  It doesn’t matter how fast or slow.  Leave your iPod and smart phone at home and focus on each lap.  Pump your arms through the turns and float down the straightaways.  Visualize being in London and competing against the best in the world.  Feel the burn of that final lap and then sprint the last 100 meters.  Cross the finish line with your arms in the air and imagine how it feels to be an Olympic champion.