01/25/2013 10:07 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

Four and Change

As a kid growing up in the 1960s, running fast was a part of life: Short bursts of straight-line speed, charging the base, playing "Kick the Can" in a neighbor's backyard, cutting between houses, clearing walls and fences, bursting through hedges, pushing the limits of my lungs to stay ahead of pursuers during a Friday night game of Fox and Hounds. This wasn't exercise -- it was entertainment. We had no idea of the lactate threshold or VO2 max; we were just trying to maximize our fun, and running fast was a natural part of that.

Over the years I continued to run, but for me, as I suspect for most people, running changed from play to exercise, and the focus shifted from speed to logging miles. My first taste of running as exercise came in elementary school, upon the completion of a quarter-mile track shared with Coleman Junior High across the street. That year our P.E. teacher introduced us to the lap -- that precisely quantifiable, impersonal stretch of black asphalt that takes you no further than where you begin. The lap seemed to suck the fun out of running. A couple of half-hearted years running track in high school finished off for good any interest in circling the black oval. Or so I thought.

For years, from college though my late forties, I ran and racked up miles on the road. I ran some five-and ten-kilometer road races, and occasionally I tried to push the pace. But for decades, I abandoned the goal of aiming for speed and gravitated instead toward longer and longer distances: the half-marathon and eventually the marathon itself. For the serious competitor, the marathon is run at incredible speeds. The world record is 2 hours, 3 minutes, 38 seconds -- an unfathomable pace of 4 minutes and 42 seconds per mile for 26.2 miles. But for me -- as the for overwhelming majority of people who run them -- the marathon was an exercise in long, slow distance, a dogged chipping away of the mile markers, a never-ending attempt at finishing in less than 4 hours.

It is a cliché that middle age men buy sports cars to ease them through their mid-life crises. Approaching 50 -- what I optimistically thought of as my middle age -- I was not interested in getting a fast car. I was just interested in getting fast. The kind of fast that I felt as a kid: running full-bore toward a brick wall, vaulting over and continuing home, legs flying, to avoid being late, again, for dinner.

My first step toward getting kid-fast was to set the unrealistically difficult goal of running a mile under 5 minutes, what I dubbed "4 and change." I imagined being able to casually volunteer in conversation that I could run a mile in the high 4's. I would have felt justified saying this even if the best that I achieved was a 4:59 mile. I set the goal knowing that I had never broken 5 minutes as a kid but come very close. My rationale was that I was not trying to turn back the clock to do something I had already done, but that I was going to do something I had never done.

It turns out that at age fifty, running fast is painful and apparently not pretty. For months, every other day, I headed to the Coleman track, armed with a set of small orange cones, a stop-watch, and a desire to get fast. My training regimen, distilled from perusing tips in running magazines for almost thirty years, boiled down to running intervals, the shorter distances from which miles are built: 220s, 440s and 880s. The principal of interval training is as simple is at it is cruel: you graduate to longer distances at faster paces, with shorter rests between each effort.

Mindful of the risk of "tearing something," I incorporated a brief warm-up run and a thorough stretching regimen, jogging a mile and then loosening up my calves, ham-strings, quads and glutes before putting them to work. One morning, after the warm-up, I lay on the track and twisted my body into a position that applies a good stretch to the quadriceps. Lying there on the track, I gazed up at a pair of jet contrails before closing my eyes. I felt the sun begin to warm the late fall chill. I was on the verge of a brief nap perhaps when I was jolted by the shouts from a class of second-graders, "Mister, are you okay?" the voices asked, "Are you alright?" They queried me with earnest concern from a spot where they had gathered, unknown to me, along the fence, not more than two feet from where I lay sprawled on the track. To them, my utter relaxation appeared alarming; some old man having a heart attack, maybe a stroke.

At first, running fast felt awkward -- less so on the straightaways but especially while trying to maintain a quick turn-over of my feet at full speed, rounding the curves on the track. Week-in, week-out, I worked on my speed and concentrated on my form. Occasionally, when the Coleman track was otherwise occupied, I ran the mile-loop around the perimeter of my neighborhood -- the neighborhood I grew up in. I worked on keeping my hands relaxed while pumping my arms forward and back, concentrating on eliminating any side-to-side motion that would detract from my speed. I worked on my posture and stride, running with a straight back, leaning slightly forward into the run, with shortened strides, concentrating on striking the track with the forefoot and quickly turning over each stride. After a time, I began to feel that my new-found form and speed were impressive.

On a cold Monday morning in December, I approached the track feeling particularly good -- strong and rested after taking a break over the weekend. As I progressed through my work-outs, my split-times were right on target. I was running very well. On the home-stretch of my last 880, I decided to go for broke. Coming into the final turn, my hands felt like blades cutting through the freezing cold air. Exiting the turn and straightening up for the dash to the finish, my feet were striking the track in a rapid and accelerating cadence of efficient forward motion. Eating up the straightaway, my heart was thumping hard in my chest, but I still had a little to spare as I pushed my anaerobic limit toward the finish line. Flying down the track I felt a brief sense of mastery as everything seemed to come together, when I heard heard shouting from a pack of elementary schoolers, who, standing warmly bundled in the adjoining field, had taken an interest in my endeavor. It took a moment to register: "Run Forrest, run!" These grade school wags were not encouraging me. I finished the workout with an incredible sense of accomplishment even in the face of derision by my pint sized detractors.

At the end of my training, I was running faster than I had run since college. It felt incredible running at top speed. That I had not reached my goal of a sub-5 minute mile was, it turned out, only a minor disappointment. For a guy turning 50, I was running a respectably fast mile of 5 and change. I mention it casually to my friends. As for 4 and change, the elusive goal still floats in and out of my thoughts, waiting for the next time I get the desire to run like a kid again.