Culture

The Clock Knows You

One runner reflects on why he keeps answering the call of the clock to chase a 5-minute mile each year, 26 years on—and why it is valuable, even if he falls short.

As the calendar turned to 2020, news broke that Steve Spence’s streak of sub-5-minute miles ended at an amazing 43 years. I have been watching his streak for some time, and using it as motivation for my own sub-5 streak that, at the start of 2019, was at 25 years.

The streak was something that I took for granted for many years, up to and including my mid-30s. In the early 2010s I would decide to run it at various points throughout the year, never needing a race or training partners. However, later in the decade with increased personal and professional time commitments, I had been pushing it later in the year, with a smaller margin for error.

Reaching the 25-year milestone provided an added motivation that got me to another sub-5 in 2018. That motivation was gone. 2019 was also the year I turned 40 and joined the ranks of master’s runners.

In short, I wasn’t even sure I was going to make an attempt at the mile in 2019, shrugging off questions from friends and family who knew about the streak. I just didn’t want to deal with aging and the questions it raises.

With my background as a fairly accomplished high school and college runner, and having had a bit of success racing after college, I have since charted my progressive decline in speed in my 30s. This led me to run fewer road races because the cruel, unbending clock told no lies. A nagging voice in my head was always comparing my current times to what I had run in my younger, faster years. For a while I headed to the trails and to ultras to escape the cruel tyranny of comparison, but even then, every year I came back to crank out a mile—old habits die hard.

photo: Lauren Aerni-Flessner

What is it that makes us continue to chase time goals as runners when we know that the clock ticks at the same rate while our bodies slow with time?

While the late singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt is one of my favorites, he was clearly not a runner, having penned the line, “The clock don’t know you like I do…” For runners, the clock really does know you.

The clock knows if you’ve been consistent with your miles, and your speedwork. When I am coming down with illness, one of the first indicators is slower-than-usual times on easy runs. It knows the effects of years on your legs, and won’t let you lie to yourself that you haven’t changed. And when you manage to train and peak to perfection, the clock gloriously lets you know that as well. On any given day, if you have cultivated a serious relationship with it, the clock knows you.

Eventually in 2019, the siren song of the clock awakened the motivation within me as the old nagging question came back: What was my body willing and able to do?

On an October day made for running—cool temps, leaves changing, only a ripple of breeze—I decided to test the waters of the sub-5 effort. I went to the track and came through 1200 meters, fading fast and already five seconds adrift in terms of the pace I needed to be running, so I shut it down.

Firing up that concentrated speed stirred something in me, however, and after some jogging, I did a couple more quarters at pace to give myself the possibility of returning for another attempt.

Two weeks later: similar story, slightly better results. This time, I came through 1200 on pace (3:45), but still shut it down as I wasn’t convinced I had the speed or, more importantly, the motivation, to endure the pain it would take to hit the time. Again, I did a couple more quarters and called it a day, pleased to be making progress.

Time was not on my side, however. I live in Michigan. The snow and ice came, and the holidays loomed. So, on the Monday of Thanksgiving week, I stole away from work to the high school track, spikes in hand, for a date with the clock.

photo: Lauren Aerni-Flessner

Conditions were less than ideal so I stepped off the mile start in lane 3 because it was more ice-free. As with my last effort, I came through 1200 right on pace (3:45), only this time I made the turn for home. With the imaginary bell ringing in my ears, and the frost crunching underfoot to complement my ragged breathing, I lit into the longest lap, with every mile-related metaphor that has ever been written echoing in my head.

The clock knows me.

The old feelings came back—chest tight, focus on form, heavy legs, the burning sensation creeping upward from the base of my lungs, steely focus on the turn, then the straight, and finally the line. On the barren track I leaned for the non-existent tape, hitting my watch as I did…

And I came up short. I crossed the line in 5:01.48.

It hurt. Physically, my lungs were burning from the cold air. My calves let me know they planned to take the rest of this holiday week off, and I was wiping spittle from my cheeks. But what hurt even more was my pride: I could no longer pull off what had previously been so easy.

I had answered the call of the clock to step up to the line, and I had not measured up.

I briefly considered lying or not telling anyone about my attempt. There really was no one else there, and I had not told anyone in advance I was going to try. But as quickly as that thought came, it went. I didn’t get my streak through sleight of hand or denial—I got it from the Trials of Miles. Besides, the clock knew the truth and so did I.

John Aerni-Flessner / photo: Lauren Aerni-Flessner

As my breathing came back under control and I put on warmer clothes, I wondered: Was this it? Was this the end of the streak? I didn’t know.

After the immediate disappointment of looking down and seeing my 5:01 staring back at me, I realized I was still incredibly lucky. Streak or not, here I was at age 40, at 9:15 on a Monday morning, willing and able to test myself on a lonesome, icy track. Not only was my body still capable of coming really close, but my mind was willing to go back to the places of pain where we all reside during races and hard efforts. I could still test myself against the ever-ticking clock and what’s more, I still had the motivation to do so. I had answered the call of the clock.

The clock knows you. And that is not only okay, but downright liberating. Goals change and shift over time. The clock offers the challenge to see how we are doing on any given day, and we can answer whenever we want. That morning I answered it, and it was 5:01.

Postscript:

On a cold, blustery day in late December, I drove to the community center, warmed up on a treadmill, laced up some racing flats, and set the machine to 12.1 miles-per-hour (with a 1% incline) and did a mile—in 4:57. The streak is at 26 years, and we will see what 2020 holds. My streak may continue as long as Steve Spence’s, or I might never run a sub-5 again. At this point the streak isn’t really about a time. It is about chasing goals and personal excellence.

photo: Lauren Aerni-Flessner

John Aerni-Flessner teaches African History at Michigan State University. He runs with the Playmakers Elite Masters team in the Lansing, MI area.