By Jonathan Gault
August 15, 2018
Boston was definitely the low point.
It was February 10, 2018, the David Hemery Valentine Invitational at Boston University, the meet that Charlie Marquardt had arrived at by spending the early hours of the previous day riding a midnight-to-6 a.m. bus from Philadelphia, the last four hours of which he spent sitting next to a man who got on in Secaucus, N.J. and smelled like shit — “he actually smelled like human shit,” Marquardt says — which meant that Marquardt got precisely zero hours of sleep that night. And here Marquardt was in the fast section of the mile, in the sixth year of his quest to break 4:00, and another opportunity was slipping away. He hit 1000 meters in 2:33, dead last and off the back, and did something that, until that point, he had never done: he dropped out of the race.
Talk to anyone who knows Charlie Marquardt and they’ll tell you about his ability to bounce back, that he never gets too high or too low after one of his races. But this one stuck with him. When you’re a 4:01 miler two years out of college who never even won an NCAA DIII title, fast mile races are hard to come by. This one, which featured six sub-4:00s, led by Craig Engels‘ 3:53, had been a rare opportunity, and Marquardt, who works a full-time job for a property management company in Philadelphia, didn’t know when his next chance would come.
“I was really embarrassed to have dropped out,” Marquardt says. “I was like, Man the fitness isn’t there, what’s going on? Maybe it’s just not in the cards this season. And so I was pretty bummed out for a couple days.”
Six months later, Marquardt asked his boss for a couple of days off work, used his father’s Southwest points to book a flight to Raleigh, N.C., and on August 3 he broke 4:00 for the first time in style, skipping the 3:59s, 58s, 57s and 56s entirely, by running 3:55.97 at the Sir Walter Miler to become the 520th American member of the sub-4:00 club. This is the story of how he did it.
A DIII Runner By Choice
Because NCAA Division I schools produce the vast majority of professional runners in the United States, anyone who bucks the system is labeled a product of their upbringing, at least until they generate enough accolades to shed that label. Before Nick Symmonds was Nick Symmonds, he was “the DIII guy.” Before Drew Windle was a World Indoor medalist, he was “the DII guy.” Before Boris Berian was an Olympic finalist, he was “the guy who used to work at McDonald’s.” If you had heard of Charlie Marquardt before reading this story, chances are that you either a) knew Charlie personally; b) knew him as “the DIII guy”; or c) knew him as the guy that “dove” across the finish line but came up just short of running sub-4 earlier this summer at Adrian Martinez” (we’ll get to c) soon enough).
“DIII guy” is a label that Marquardt, who graduated from Haverford College, a few miles west of Philadelphia, in 2016, wears proudly. But it doesn’t tell the entire story. Marquardt, 24, was not your typical DIII runner; he had run 4:16 for 1600 meters and 9:09 for 3200 meters at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, times fast enough for most DI programs.
“We have one kid ever, way back, like my first year here full-time back in the ’70s, a guy called Mike Sheely, who ran a 9:03 two-mile indoors on an 11-laps-to-the-mile track way back in 1978,” says Tom Donnelly, who is entering his 44th year as Haverford’s cross country/track coach and remains Marquardt’s personal coach. “So he was the fastest guy. And then Charlie as a senior ran 9:09, and he’s the only other guy we’ve ever gotten who’s broken 9:10.”
Marquardt chose Haverford because he wanted to attend a strong academic school on the East Coast, and because he felt a connection with Donnelly, who has coached 29 NCAA champions and over 150 All-Americans in over four decades at Haverford. Plus, some of the advantages of running at a DI school did not appeal to Marquardt. He did not receive any scholarship offers, which made DIII’s no-scholarship policy a nonfactor in his decision. And while Marquardt would have had more opportunities to run in fast meets against better competition had he gone DI, he worried that those opportunities might disappear if he did not achieve immediate success. Under Donnelly, whose policy is to give every runner, regardless of ability, an equal amount of attention, Marquardt knew that he would not be forgotten.
“I knew that I would be able to continue to strive to achieve my goals there,” Marquardt says. “I knew that for a fact. I was just was a little bit nervous about being able to do it at a bigger school, which would have more of a cutthroat environment.”
Marquardt did indeed strive toward his goals at Haverford, but he would fall just short of achieving the two biggest ones: winning an NCAA title and becoming just the second DIII runner to break 4:00 in the mile. Instead, he graduated in 2016 with a PR of 4:02.24 and two runner-up finishes at NCAAs, three if you count his 1200 leg on the distance medley relay his sophomore year. But again, this is a guy who two years later would run 3:55. How could he not have won a single DIII title?
Everyone has their own theory. Jossi Fritz-Mauer, a Haverford alum who served as an assistant coach under Donnelly from 2006-2016, points out that Marquardt wasn’t the only fast guy at that level: St. Olaf (Minn.) had two guys, Jake Campbell (3:44 1500 pb) and Paul Escher (4:02 mile pb) who happened to overlap with Marquardt and combined for five NCAA titles during that span. Donnelly also gave credit to Campbell and Escher while also noting that in two of his finals, Marquardt found himself in the lead earlier than he would have liked. Jeff Duncan, one of Marquardt’s teammates and his roommate for three years, thought that Marquardt suffered from being a big fish in a small pond.
“One of the hardest things early on in his career was that being the best guy in his conference and being the best guy around meant that he didn’t get a lot of tactical practice,” Duncan says. “Junior year, it really came down to a matter of knowing how to position himself and knowing how to be in the right spot to win it, and I think in the Midwest, those guys just competed in a lot of races. The guys from St. Olaf all had each other.”
Duncan added that later in his career, Marquardt was asked to do a lot at the conference meet — as a senior, he tripled in the 800, mile, and 3k indoors and the 800, 1500, and 5k outdoors — which may have left him worn down for NCAAs.
As for the man himself? Marquardt admits that in a couple of those finals, he psyched himself out. He feels he made a tactical mistake his junior year outdoors — “you run that race 100 times, I probably win it, like 80 times.” But all of that is part of championship racing.
“I should have won a couple of them, but ultimately I’m not too upset,” Marquardt says. “I ran good races in most of them.”
Two Years to Go Sub-4:00
The summer after he graduated high school, Charlie Marquardt read a book by Peter Coe, the father and coach of two-time Olympic 1500 champion Seb Coe.
“The [book] had a thing like, [if] you have a goal, plug in your current PR and your goal and the amount of years into this equation and it’ll give you all the times you need to hit to achieve that goal,” Marquardt says.
Marquardt put in a goal of 3:59 for 2016, and every year at Haverford, he’d tape the new target time to the wall of his bedroom: 4:10 as a freshman, 4:05 as a sophomore, 4:02 as a junior, and 3:59 as a senior. Having stalled out just shy of his goal as a collegian, he could not stomach the idea of living out the rest of his days as a 4:02 miler — especially when he ran 3:42.01 for 1500, a sub-4:00 equivalent, a month after graduation. So he made a plan: Marquardt would give himself two years to chase sub-4:00. In 2017, he’d work full-time and save as much money as he could. In 2018, he’d quit his job in May and go all-in with training and racing that summer.
Marquardt convinced Donnelly to stay on as his coach, moved into a place in Haverford a quarter-mile from campus, and settled into a routine. Most days, he wakes up at 7 for his morning double, catches the 9:20 train into the city, works his property management job from 10 until 5:30 or 6, rides the train back to Haverford, and gets out the door for another run by 6:30. When school is in session, Marquardt will try to duck out a little early on workout days so that he can run with the Haverford team, but other than the occasional run with his former roommate Eric Arnold, a DIII All-American at Haverford, Marquardt mostly trains alone. He says the hardest part is holding himself accountable.
“I only meet with my coach once a week when I’m at a workout; he just emails me or tells me what to do for the rest of the week,” Marquardt says. “If he tells me to do a 15-mile long run with eight miles at 5:30 pace in the middle, it’s [down to] my motivation to do that…Yeah, I’m tired when I get out of work, and it’s annoying, but I think after the first season, I kind of got used to it. I realized, yeah, I’m going to be tired but ultimately whether or not you feel good in the workout, it’s another workout under your belt and you’ve gotta trust that that’s going to be there and that’s going to work for you.”
Though Marquardt receives some shoes and gear from Bryn Mawr Running Company, a local store, he covers almost all of his racing expenses out of his own pocket (his parents paid for his flight when he qualified for USAs in Sacramento last year). As a result, Marquardt has spent the last two years running mostly local races; anything outside of driving distance requires him to perform a cost-benefit analysis. The problem is, there aren’t many high-quality races within driving distance of Philadelphia, and if your goal is a sub-4:00 mile, timing is crucial. In 2017, he ran 4:01 in the open mile at the Penn Relays, only to clock 3:39 for 1500 at Swarthmore two weeks later after taking the train straight from work and changing into his racing attire in the bathroom at the meet. The same thing happened this year: 4:01 (again) at Penn, 3:40 at Swarthmore.
The good news: based on those two 1500s, Marquardt knew that he was capable of breaking 4:00. The bad news: he would have to travel out of state to do it. And that presents another problem: to get into fast races, meet directors like to see fast PRs. But it’s like the chicken and the egg; fast PRs usually come from fast races. With no agent to fight for him, Marquardt was relegated to the B heat at this year’s Adrian Martinez Classic in Concord, Mass., on June 7, where he ran a solo 4:00.38 — a performance that likely would have resulted in a sub-4:00 had he been in the top heat (which saw eight men dip under).
As if coming .39 of a second short of his goal was not agonizing enough, Marquardt had to recover from some very real wounds, courtesy of an epic wipeout. At the end of the race, Marquardt was rigging up big-time, and as he approached the finish line, his body lurched forward as if an invisible assassin had taken a crowbar to his ankles. Marquardt hit the track hard, landing on his shoulder and sliding a few feet on the red track before coming to a halt thanks to an impromptu somersault. It was quite a sight and one that earned him internet fame.
The moment quickly went viral; a video of the fall tweeted by ESPN reporter Darren Rovell generated over 70,000 views.
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) June 7, 2018
The effort also resulted in instant fame on the LetsRun.com messageboard as it spawned this thread:
For the record, Marquardt says it’s incorrect to call what he did in the race a dive.
“I was tired, my body was shutting down,” Marquardt says. “I was trying to dig to find every last bit of energy I had and those last two steps, my legs just didn’t lift right, didn’t function right, whatever. It wasn’t a dive; it was a fall. There’s a distinction. A dive is purposeful, a fall is by accident. If I could have run through the line, I would have run through the line.”
That being said, there was a silver lining to being known as the guy who dove but came up short in a sub-4 attempt.
“In a fcked up way, it’s probably better for your brand to have run 4:00 diving than if you were 7th or whatever in the fast heat in 3:59!” wrote Jossi Fritz-Mauer, the former Haverford assistant, in a text to Marquardt the day after the race (he was right — a photo of the fall, and the subsequent LetsRun messageboard thread it generated, was the impetus for my editor assigning this article).
That brand — hungry post-collegian still chasing his first sub-4:00 — also didn’t hurt when it came to getting into the Sir Walter Miler field two months later. Though the field contained eight men with sub-3:55 pbs, Sir Walter Miler also leaves a few spots open for athletes who have never broken 4:00 and pays out a $400 bonus to anyone who does it for the first time.
At Sir Walter Miler, everything lined up perfectly. Marquardt was the first runner to be introduced, and by the time he finished his last stride, high-fiving the crowd down the home stretch in the process, he knew. This is the place. This is the time.
In an incredibly deep race in which all 13 finishers broke 4:00, Marquardt took ninth in 3:55.97, and it felt…easy?
“In previous PRs, I [felt] exhausted, I [felt] like the line can’t come soon enough,” Marquardt says. “But I was just feeling strong and powerful all the way through the line…I barely even felt tired.”
As Marquardt slugged beers at the post-race party at Raleigh Brewing Company, the small world of Haverford College track & field was losing its collective mind. Haverford alums have their own website, Runnerunner, which features a LetsRun-inspired messageboard (motto: “Where your dreams become preposterous”), and within minutes, there was a thread titled “3:55!!!!!!!!” with alums from around the country chiming in to offer their congrats. Some of the cooler stats to come out of that thread: Marquardt is now the third-fastest DIII alum ever (trailing only Pomona’s Will Leer and Haverford’s own Karl Paranya) but somehow is not the fastest alum to come from either his college (Paranya) or high school (that would be the late David Torrence, a 3:52 man).
Where To Go From Here?
Marquardt’s 2018 season is now over, but he’s already looking ahead to 2019; what began as a two-year plan has now stretched to three — at least. Marquardt did not end up quitting his job this year, but says that he will likely do so next spring. His goal is to make the U.S. 1500 final and see how good he can be.
“[Next year,] I’m definitely 110% committed to running, just doing my best to get as much as possible in my favor,” Marquardt says.
Step one: get a shoe contract. Marquardt says he reached out to a handful of agents last year and received no interest, and while no one has contacted him since Sir Walter Miler, he hopes that his 3:55 will lead to at least one bite. Under his current schedule, Marquardt doesn’t have time to lift or hit the gym, but with a sponsor’s support, he thinks he could reach a new level in 2019.
“I feel like there’s so many more avenues that I can go down to improve, and really the only thing that is holding me back probably is the amount of time that I have and the fact that I still need to work a job to pay the bills,” Marquardt says.
Even if Marquardt can convince a shoe company to take a chance on him, however, he will likely continue to train mostly alone. His girlfriend, Charlette, is planning on enrolling in medical school in the fall of 2019, and he doesn’t want a long-distance relationship.
“Realistically, I don’t see myself joining a group unless there are any groups in the areas of med schools she’s applying to,” Marquardt says.
Donnelly believes that Marquardt could one day run as fast as 3:50 in the mile, but, does not believe that Marquardt needs to quit his job in order to reach his full potential. In fact, he would prefer that he didn’t.
“I just think it would be a mistake for him, and I think it’s a mistake for a lot of people, just to sit back and work a non-running thing not at all or just a couple hours a week,” says Donnelly, whose past charges include former 1500 world record holder Sydney Maree and three-time world indoor champion Marcus O’Sullivan. “I think it really hurts them; it’s just too much time in their own head. The only thing I would cut back would literally be two days a week for two hours, so instead of 40 hours, 36 hours. Just because I think [that would make it easier] to incorporate a second harder workout.”
The truth is, Marquardt doesn’t really know how his life will be different next season. He may be a 3:55 miler, but he remains a longshot to make a U.S. Olympic or World Championship team. How much is that worth to potential sponsors? Marquardt will soon find out.
But there will be at least one change. If he has to race in Boston next year, there’s no way he’s hopping on another midnight-to-6 a.m. bus and sharing a row with a foul-smelling guy from Secaucus.
“After that whole experience,” Marquardt says, “I just said, screw it. Just pay the money for a flight. It’s way better.”
Talk about Marquardt on our world famous messageboard / fan forum: MB: Meet Charlie Marquardt – a guy with a full-time job and no shoe contract who just broke 4 for the 1st time in style @ 3:55.
*MB: Dude dives at line to go sub 4 for the first time and comes up …. short