Verzbicas Breaks Four
By R. R. McCune, Photos by Beno Fitzgerald Frisbee
June 11, 2011
Race video and photos below
Despite the waning popularity of track and field, the four-minute
mile remains one of the most recognizable achievements in sports. While
hundreds of runners have done so since Roger Bannister first
accomplished the feat in 1954, the list includes only a handful of
American high schoolers, drawing a fine line between great and
greatness. At Saturday’s Adidas Grand Prix meet in New York City,
Illinois senior Lukas Verzbicas became the fifth member to join the
Running under a four minute mile in high school is difficult not just because of the incredible physical demands. Most high school tracks are now in metric distances, so competitions typically feature either a four-lap 1600 meter race or the international standard 1500 meters, dubbed the metric mile. A full mile is only contested in a few states or at select elite races.
Still, the elite races require the right mix of conditions and competition. National championships take place post-season when it’s hotter and more humid, leading to slower times in the longer races. Moreover, the best athletes must decide between conflicting meets and which distance to run, like the mile or two mile. Saturday’s “Dream Mile” was a rare occasion where the best in high schoolers in the country all came together for one race.
This year brought an especially strong group of athletes. Jantzen Oshier from California had recently run near four flat for the 1600m, Indiana’s Austin Mudd had utilized a strong finishing kick to flirt with the barrier, and African-born, New Jersey sophomore Edward Cheserek had shattered records all year long. But the class of the field was Lukas Verzbicas, the two-time national cross country champion who just last week broke the long-standing national two-mile record. Verzbicas had run the Adidas Grand Prix event last year, where, after falling short of his goal, he guaranteed he'd break four this year.
The race was held in weather worthy of Randall’s Island. Colder temperatures and cloudy skies benefited the distance, but by race time puddles had formed on the inside lanes and a stiff headwind greeted runners on the home stretch. The effect on performance was apparent in the men’s 100m dash, where the top two athletes, among the greatest in history, finished in 10.26 after having run 9.8 just the previous week. In an understatement typical for the unassuming Verzbicas, he noted, “conditions today probably weren’t the best.”
The runners lined up to the waterfall start with the race’s pacesetter, half-mile specialist Connor Manley of Pennsylvania, lined up farthest outside, with Verzbicas on his inside shoulder, then Oshier, Cheserek, and Mudd. At the gun, Manley dutifully took the lead, but a gap quickly opened up between him and the rest of field, as athletes may have been hesitant to follow aggressively under the less-than-ideal conditions. Still, the pace allowed for the field to spread out single file, with the front-running Oshier giving chase in second, followed by Verzbicas and Cheserek. The first lap was covered by Manley in 57.68, with Oshier and company on pace, roughly 15 meters back.
The second lap saw little development amongst the leaders, who held ordering while running down Manley. On the second curve the gap narrowed but pace dawdled. Oshier began to overtake Manley at the halfway mark, and led through 800m in 2:01.97. Though the pack was together and the race very much alive, many had already written off a sub-4. To break four would require a negative split, running the second half of the race faster than the first, a Herculean effort considering the conditions and race composition
That’s when Verzbicas took control. With the rabbit stepping off the track on the backstretch of the third lap, Lukas picked up the pace and made a definitive move for the lead. “At 600 meters to go, I thought sub-4 was off the table,” Lukas would later admit, “but I still had a race to win. I wasn’t about to give up.” The equally determined Cheserek followed Verzbicas around Oshier on the turn. Oshier then countered on the homestretch, passing Cheserek and pulling even with Verzbicas in a last-ditch effort for the lead. The two battled through 1200m in 3:01.38, bringing a sub-4 back to contention. At the bell, the PA announcer proclaimed “they got a shot at this!”
While Verzbicas’s endurance is unmatched, how his speed measures up in the middle distances was still in doubt, especially considering the strength of the field. No one, including Verzbicas, was sure at the time if he possessed the kick to win, let alone break four. With a lap to go he lowered his chin and picked up his stride. By 300 meters to go he had put 10 meters on Oshier. By 200 meters he built a sizable 2-second lead. At the 1500m mark, he split 3:43.29 (3:43.43 converts to a four minute mile).
The crowd realized it would be close and rose to their feet as he approached the final straightaway. “Going into the homestretch, the wind was in my face and my body started to give out, but I just kept pushing,” Lukas later told. The roaring fans undoubtedly helped. Verzbicas threw his arms in the air as he sprinted through the line, the clock flashing 3:59.71. Fast closing Mudd finished second in 4:01.83, a personal best and good enough for #11 all-time.
The first high schooler to break four minutes for the mile was Jim Ryun in 1964. His best mile in all high-school competition was a 3:58.3, on a cinder track, before technological improvements in footwear and training. This all-HS mile record time has never been broken.
Ryun was present at the meet and congratulated Verzbicas at the finish line, quickly shaking hands before bowing out of the limelight. Times and distances can be endlessly compared, but Verzbicas has achieved every single mark he’s aimed for across a range of distances, while routinely seeking out and defeating the best competition in the country. Lukas has a bright future ahead of him, the greatest of potential, and big shoes to fill as the future of American distance running.
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