Sunday dawned this morning on Iffley Road in Oxford, England, with clouds, wind and a touch of rain. It was similar to the May day in 1954 when Roger Bannister and his pacers, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, took to the track just down the street from where I was staying at Stephens House with a goal of guiding Roger to the first sub-minute mile in history.
My hamstring was hamstrung, and just getting my shoes on to run the last race my trip, the 800 meters on the Roger Bannister Track, was difficult. I was pretty sure that I would be able to get through the race, but was seriously concerned that I would not be able to make the pace of 3:20 that I needed to be half-as-fast as David Rudisha’s mark of 1:40.9, set four years ago in the 2012 London Olympic Games. The leg injury was not serious, but at that time in the morning, felt significant enough to deter my final goal.
Getting things together, I opened up the Sunday Times of London and serendipitously turned to a feature and photo of Rudisha, who is attempting to become the first man in 50 years, since Peter Snell, to complete an Olympic Double Gold in the 800m. It was inspiring. But not as inspiring as the “Spinal Column” article in the same paper, written by Melanie Reid, who had become a tetraplegic in a riding accident in 2010. The well-penned piece detailed how she "keep(s) going for the people who love me.” It seemed to be a sign.
Still, I was glad there was little fanfare for this one. The injury, and the fact that I had foreseen this run to be the most difficult challenge yet, had me thinking about how and where I could re-run the race after I failed to achieve my goal in this attempt.
Then my angel appeared.
I had sent out a request to the Oxford Athletic Club to see if someone would like to pace me, and I received a response from a Helene Greenwood, who said she would like to help and would be at the Bannister Track that morning. As I walked through the grounds on the way to the track, I saw a young lady trotting around the far stretch. It was Helene, a 19 year-old chemistry student at Oxford, and a member of both the Track team and the Cross Country team at the University.
As we warmed up, I explained my goal and my concerns about completing the desired time. Her response? “Let’s do this!”
Timed by her father, a runner who had a history on the track, we headed out on our two-lap trip. I felt a distinct pull on my first step in the back of my leg, but by the time we had rounded the curve I was in a groove, a step behind Helene, who prompted, “100m down. Let’s Go!”
On the first lap, I thought of Bannister and the iconic photo of his Four Minute Mile that shows the tower of the church in the background. The same Church Tower that was in my foreground. As we finished lap one in the face of a stiff wind, Helene shouted, “1:37, we totally have got this. Let’s go.”
On the final lap, I thought of the laps I had run before on this trip. The mile and 1500m in Rome, the 12-and-a-half laps in Hengelo, and, of course, the sprints, the 100m and the 200m in Berlin. Six races and less than 6 miles total.
I’d crushed ‘em all.
3:12 was my finish time and I had a bit left at the end. Helene had done a monumental job pacing me and once again, for the 6th time, I fooled the clock and achieved my goal.