RUNNERS LEAN FORWARD at the arced start of the 1500 meters. The gun blasts, and they are off. Their first moments are focused on negotiating space and place. While it is metaphysically true that “you only race yourself,” the loud footfalls on the track and the uniformed bodies sharing air and heat argue otherwise.
Racers have much to consider: pace, posture, breathing, negotiating turns, striding down straightaways, riding or fighting wind, elbowing out of boxed bunches, running through the end. The mind tries to control the legs, but knees and ankles have their own thoughts. The body wobbles. Old injuries return like memories. Self-doubt lives on the track.
The mile has an accepted length and route, so the impulse might be to compare it with the sonnet or villanelle, forms of boxes themselves. Even the sestina, with its end refrains, feels appropriate. Yet any poem, free or formal, exists within a calibrated structure. Each poem teaches us how it should be read; each poem carves its own aesthetic moment. Runners might strive for records or personal bests, but all that matters is the world of the race. The same goes for the creative arts. Regardless of any anxiety of influence, it is the poet versus the poem, and time only matters within the confines of the reading experience, not the composition. It might take a year to craft a poem that takes a minute to read, though we can feel the hours, the training, as we hurdle the lines.
Yet “mile” is often an incorrect, colloquial term in track, as poems often push against their borders. The Olympics 1500 meters is 3 ¾ laps around the track. American high-schoolers run the 1600 meters. Neither is an exact mile, but the term is convenient. We think in miles, we drive across miles, we recall black-and-white stills of Roger Bannister, that medical student of mind and body, breaking four minutes in the mile. Bannister, reflecting on the race, said he felt a “unity with nature” during those moments, a freedom from his physical form. His words reflect the later theories of George Leonard, whose 1975 book The Ultimate Athlete both benefited from, and contributed toward, the resurgence of running as a fitness activity. Leonard finds most sports to be “complicated excuses for running.” Timing and racing are not as essential as “the stern demands of distance, which cannot be charmed, cajoled, cheated, or mocked.” He reminds us that all running is falling: “we rise from the earth and return.”