Some people will tell you that having your name on the top of a 0.9-mile segment leaderboard doesn’t matter. I suggest that you remove these people from your life. They are what the youth today call “haters” and what I call “athletic dilettantes” who don’t understand what it means to have a goal worth pursuing.
The idea to break the 5:01 record for the 0.9-mile “Echo Park Lake - Anticlockwise Lap” Strava segment first occurred to me when, after some haphazard mile repeats while training for a marathon earlier this year, Strava alerted me that I had a new segment personal record. My time of 5:29 put me at 12th on the overall leaderboard. I began to wonder how much higher I could climb.
Casual wonder quickly turned into obsession. I checked and rechecked to see if the record had been broken. The fact that the crown (literally: Strava puts a crown emblem next to the segment leader’s profile photo) was worn by someone else in my own backyard gradually began to feel like a declaration of war. I researched the record holder, Caitlin Phillips, an Olympic Trials–qualifying semiprofessional distance runner. She didn’t even live in Los Angeles! True, she may not have realized that she had the record since she ran it as the seventh mile in a 13-mile training run. And, yes, if she actually was competing for the record, she likely could have done it a full minute faster. But still. It felt like she was taunting me. And I had to respond.
In a slight fit of ambitious mania, I laid out a plan of attack on the evening of my 33rd birthday. Then I made my future self accountable to that plan with one of the oldest tricks in the book: I sent an email.
SUBJECT: The Nate Dern Inaugural Birthday Party / Solo Footrace
Today is my 33rd birthday. My birthday party, however, has been delayed until Thursday January 11th to allow for additional training time. Training for what? Great question. Answer: a footrace. You see, my party will take the form of me running a 0.9-mile footrace (the distance of one lap around Echo Park) while my friends and loved ones cheer me on. Who am I racing? The clock! Why? Look, it seems like you have a lot of questions, so please consult the FAQs below.
Q: Are we allowed to run with you?
Q: This sounds like a boring party. Can we at least get drinks after?
A: Yes. After we will go get drinks (either celebratory or conciliatory, depending on the outcome) at the nearby Holloway bar.
Q: Cutting 30 seconds off your current best mile time sounds hard. Are you sure you can do it?
A: No, I am not sure, but I think I can do it. I’d put the odds at 60%/40%.
Q: Have you ever run a mile that fast before?
A: Yes, a few times about 16 years ago when I was in high school.
Q: Will you be bummed if you fail?
Q: Genuinely bummed or ironically bummed?
Q: For real genuinely bummed or jokingly genuinely bummed?
A: Look, I don’t want to talk about how bummed I’ll be if I don’t get the record anymore. Just take a look at this map of the course.
If you have any additional questions, please let me know.
Once the email was sent, I had no choice but to commit fully to the effort. My professional and personal life would surely suffer, but it would be worth it in the end, once I had that crown.
Before I started training, I visited the r/AdvancedRunning Reddit community to ask for advice. Specifically: Was it unrealistic to take 30 seconds off my mile time in two months? I provided info about my previous marathon training (about 30 miles a week, with workouts inserted at my discretion), high school PRs (4:24 for the 1,600 meters), and my weight (180 pounds, approximately 40 pounds more than my high school racing weight). The comments ranged from criticizing my marathon training in a way that made me feel like I should quit running entirely to telling me to just throw in some striders after my regular runs and that’d be enough. But one comment stood out, from a user named Alan_Webb. Was this the Alan Webb, American mile record holder with the truly otherworldly time of 3:46:91? It seemed possible. His tough-love advice also seemed fitting with the impression of him that I’d gleaned from Chris Lear’s Sub 4:00. His comment: “Worth noting that Willis was your age when he won bronze in the 1500 in Rio last year.”
Somehow both shamed and inspired (#shamespired?), I set to work developing my training plan. I Googled “faster mile plan eight weeks” and clicked the first result. By chance, it was a Nike+ Run Club training plan that said it would help me Find My Fast. The first page promised to give me advice with some help from friends. I anticipated that in the pages that followed, these friends would take the form of distance runners like Galen Rupp and Shannon Rowbury. Instead, the advice came from the stable of Warner Brothers cartoon characters.
Week 1, Bugs Bunny: “Ehh, what’s up, doc? I hear you wanna run a faster mile. Well, you’re in luck: This rabbit’s here to help you get off on the right foot.” Thanks, Coach Bugs. So, a 5x400-meter interval workout?
Week 4, Tweety: “That bad ol’ puddy tat will never catch me. He’s just too slow. When I see him coming, I spread my wings and fly away. Bye-bye, puddy tat!” Meaning…hill repeats at goal mile pace? You got it, Tweety Pie.
Week 7, Daffy: “The thing you gotta know about me is I always give 110 percent, even when Bugs is getting all the attention. When we line up to run our fastest miles, I’m finally gonna beat that rabbit.” Understood, Mr. Duck, I’ll go do a fartlek with two-minute bursts at VO2max.
The eight weeks passed. I trained hard, but I also skipped some workouts and drank a lot of weight-maintaining beer. If my overall training could be translated into a single utterance, I think Taz would give me a speech bubble filled with various punctuation marks.
As race day loomed, I met up with a few friends who’d agreed to help. My pacer, Ben, joined me for my warm-up as we navigated Echo Park’s usual evening crowd of joggers, loud-but-friendly fixed-gear cycle gangs, skittish leashed dogs, pot-smoking teens, and the homeless. Both former competitive distance runners, we automatically forewent our usual joking demeanor in favor of the prerace solemness that our muscle memory dictated. As requested, Ben wore his former Kent State racing singlet, which had the anticipated effect of stirring up my competitive spirit. On our first warm-up lap around the lake, I watched as Pat, our emcee for the evening, began to corral the crowd of friends who’d shown up. He read off of a list of prepared remarks I’d written for him into a megaphone.
“The current mile world record holder is Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj, with a time of 3 minutes and 43 seconds,” Pat announced. “Nate thinks it’s a bit of a show-off move to break a four-minute mile. Gentlemen, stick to attempting to break a five-minute mile.”
As we finished our second and final warm-up lap, I stopped 50 meters short of the Echo Park boathouse, where my friends were waiting. I started my watch to make sure it would connect to GPS in time for the start of our race. I jogged ahead to talk with our timekeeper, Jason, who would use his phone to announce to the crowd if I was to be shamed or lauded when the lap was complete. I explained to Jason and the crowd that due to the occasionally fuzzy GPS, I would start racing 50 meters ahead of the start of the segment and keep going for 50 meters after it. Still, Jason was to base my time on when I passed the boathouse.
“The fastest a ten-year-old child has run a mile is five minutes and one second. That’s a real fact, folks. The record was set by Jonah Gorevic in 2003. Will Nate be able to run faster than a ten-year-old tonight?” Pat said, as I neared the starting line.
Finally, Ben and I checked in one final time with our video cyclist, Zack (yes, we really arranged for a video cyclist—it wouldn’t be a birthday-party solo race without one), who would record the proceedings and stream them live to my friends’ phones, hopefully alleviating the boredom as I ran on the other side of the park.
All was in order. There was nothing left to do now but run.
My time: 4:22. Or 4:24. Or maybe 6:01. Let me explain.
By my watch, I ran the 0.9-mile loop in 4:22. Jason’s phone timer had me at 4:24. Then, when I uploaded the effort from my Garmin, Strava put me at 6:01, a minute and half slower than I’d timed myself and a full minute behind the top spot on the leaderboard.
I did what I had intended to do. I ran a sub-five-minute mile. But according to Strava, I hadn’t.
I couldn’t figure out what went wrong. The Strava GPS was always a bit off, but there was usually no more than a ten-second discrepancy.
At the bar we went to afterward, I accepted back pats from my friends and thanked them for coming. I was genuinely touched that they showed up to support me. But I was also genuinely bummed that the race ended without my name at the top of the leaderboard.
The bartender delivered a bowl with three scoops of chocolate ice cream, adorned with a cocktail umbrella, a fortune cookie, and a shot of tequila on the side. I opened the fortune cookie. It was empty. Not a blank fortune, mind you, but empty. No paper at all.
“So, what was your fortune?” the bartender asked.
“It was empty,” I said.
“Oh, cool! I think that means you get to write your own fortune.”
But the metaphorical omen feels far more sinister to me: I am fortuneless.
Later that night, before I went to bed, I emailed Strava customer service, explained the situation, and even included a link to the shaky video of the event that my video cyclist Zack captured. A few days later, I received a reply:
“Around 15 minutes into the activity you turn back down the lake (clockwise) and then turn around again (counter-clockwise) in the direction of the segment. […] Our matching process has to be a little loose to account for GPS issues, which is why this extra bit was included. Unfortunately I’m unable to adjust your segment effort time.”
I’d given the app so much. Ounces of sweat. Molecules upon molecules of RMAT-blended rubber EVA outsole. A $59.99 annual Premium membership. And Strava repaid me by brushing off my jaw-dropping, record-smashing effort with a shrug of the shoulders, as if running around a lake path was something people did every day instead of something remarkable that should be documented for the ages.
As the days passed, I stopped running. What was the point?
Dejected and seeking solace, the words from our curly-haired bartender came back to me. I could write my own fortune. I could forge my own crown.
I logged into my Strava account, found my effort, and created a new segment. I named it “Echo Park - Boathouse to Boathouse Lap.”
As I write these words, I am currently the leader and sole participant of this 0.9-mile course. I invite all challengers to dethrone me. Although, on second thought, maybe I’ll make this segment private. I would be genuinely bummed if one of you came out and stole my glory.
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