By Jonathan Gault
January 27, 2018
BOSTON — On June 1, 1957, Don Bowden, a 20-year-old student at the University of California, Berkeley, woke up, took his final exam in economics and drove over 70 miles inland to the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California. A few hours later, on a cinder track at the Pacific Association AAU meet, Bowden ran the mile in 3:58.7, becoming the first American to break four minutes.
A year later, Americans Dyrol Burleson and Jim Beatty joined Bowden in the sub-4:00 club and over the years the list of sub-4 Americans would slowly expand. It took 22 plus years for the U.S. sub-4:00 club to reach 100 members, and just more than 14 more to reach 200 and just less than 14 to reach 300 but in recent years the once-exclusive club has expanded rapidly. It only took five plus years to go from #300, John Richardson in 2008, to #400, Robby Andrews in 2013 and the pace has only picked up since then. Twenty-seven Americans joined the sub-4:00 club in 2016 alone.
And today, 60 years, seven months, and 26 days after Bowden’s feat, Emmanuel Bor of the U.S. Army WCAP became the 500th American to break 4:00 in the mile, running a time (3:58.77) eerily similar to Bowden’s original mark on a bouncy, banked indoor oval at Boston University that in no way resembled Pacific’s now-demolished cinder track.
In the world of elite running, breaking 4:00 does not mean as much as it used to. That is how progress works. The first color television was a miracle. The 500th? Not so much. Nine American high schoolers have broken 4:00. Last year, there were nine collegians who broke 4:00 and didn’t even qualify for the NCAA championships. Or, as American steeplechaser (and 3:57 miler) Dan Huling pointed out on Twitter a few years ago: “Everyone and their cousin breaks 4. Indoors. In January. WITH NO SPEEDWORK.”
Bor, Mr. 500 himself, is a 5k guy. He broke 4:00 for the first time in his life doubling back from a 7:44 3,000 that he’d run 20 hours earlier.
“We were doing it as a workout,” the 29-year-old Bor said. “I think I can run under 3:55, 3:54. Today I was a little bit tired and yesterday, all night, I didn’t sleep. For some reason, I didn’t sleep all night. And my hamstring was a little bit tight.”
Heck, even Don Bowden himself didn’t consider himself a miler.
“I was primarily a half-miler, that was my best event,” Bowden told the Stockton Record in 2005, reflecting on his sub-4:00. “But this was my last chance to run the mile, because from there on out, I would be concentrating on the half-mile. My coach the legendary Brutus Hamilton said, ‘Let’s give it a try and see if you can do it.’”
No, a sub-4:00 mile is no longer a stop-the-presses moment. Shadrack Kipchirchir broke 4:00 for the first time today as well (he was #499, holding off Syracuse’s Justyn Knight for the win, 3:55.52 to 3:55.82) and it took me nine paragraphs to mention him because, when you’ve run 7:42 for 3,000 and 27:07 for 10,000, it’s a surprise if you don’t break 4:00. For Kipchirchir and Bor, running under 4:00 did not represent a breakthrough, but rather an expectation, another box to be checked.
“It’s one of the [to]-do list,” Bor said. “I was like, When will I just run this mile? And I’ve been like, I need to run this mile.”
Even if it was expected, however, Bor couldn’t help but smile upon finally getting that number 3 next to his mile PR, grinning his way through his post-race interview today.
“It’s really awesome to break that barrier,” Bor said. “It’s amazing…Today I am so happy. 3:58 is awesome.”
Another reason to smile? Bor earned $500 for becoming the 500th American under 4:00 thanks to a promotion from Bring Back the Mile, Saucony and Running Warehouse.
Despite the sub-4:00 club’s expanding membership, it remains a rare feat. Five hundred people (actually 501; Western Oregon’s David Ribich joined the club three hours later) in a country of over 320 million represents an exceedingly small number. For comparison, there are more billionaires in the country (540 as of 2016) than sub-4:00 milers.
And to men like Scott Smith, who is still chasing his first sub-4:00 mile at age 31, the barrier retains its allure. Smith, a 2:12 marathoner in town to preview the Boston Marathon course (he’s running it in April), entered the third heat of the mile at BU today to take another crack at sub-4:00 (his PR is 4:01.93). On the other side of the country, his 30-year-old Hoka One One NAZ Elite teammate Aaron Braun, tried to do the same thing at the UW Invitational in Seattle. Both men fell short — Smith ran 4:03.91, Braun 4:01.91 — but Smith still hasn’t given up on a goal he shares with thousands of aspiring runners.
“[Aaron and I] obviously know that a sub-4:00 is not going to improve our careers professionally at all,” Smith said. “It’s just, we’re getting, not necessarily to the end of our careers, but to where we’re not stepping on the track very often. Neither of us have done it. That’s what you dream about when you run the mile in high school, is breaking 4:00 eventually. Aaron and I have been dreaming about it for almost two decades now, and we still haven’t done it.”
A few more odds and ends from Boston, where seven men broke 4:00 overall. Full results here.
Justyn Knight is back, getting ready for hot 3k at Millrose next week
Knight, the NCAA xc champ for Sryacuse, was the only one to go with Kipchirchir late in the race, and though he did his best to close him down over the final 100, he didn’t quite have the speed to pull it off today. Knight was happy with the performance, however, which was a PR over a second (3:55.82) as he was treating this race as a tuneup of sorts before stepping up to face the pros in the 3,000 at Millrose next week. Knight didn’t mention a time goal, but said he’s ready to take on all comers.
“At the end of the day, I’m a competitive athlete so I’ll always try my best to win,” Knight said. “Whether it’s likely or it’s not, every time that I go out to race, that’s the goal.”
Knight took four weeks off from running after winning NCAAs in cross country — it was supposed to be three, but illness bumped him back another week — but he’s ready to go for more hardware this season and said that he’s “definitely strong enough” to attempt the 3k/5k double at NCAAs, though he wouldn’t commit to doing it just yet (he still needs to qualify in both events, for starters). But don’t accuse Knight of getting cocky — he knows that as the NCAA XC champ, there’s now a target on his back.
“With that [win at NCAAs], I know I pissed a lot of people off,” Knight said. “There was a lot of great people in that race, and there’s a lot of people that, losing to me, it encourages them to work harder. So going back, I wasn’t just sitting down being proud of what I did. I know that it’s going to be even harder than it was before to get another title.”
Tracking all of today’s new additions to the sub-4:00 club
When Saturday, January 27, 2018, dawned in the United States, the U.S. sub-4:00 list sat at 494 members (shoutout to Track & Field News, who maintains the list here). With several big meets across the country, it looked likely that Mr. 500 could be added today, and that’s what happened at 3:13 p.m. ET in Boston. Here’s a chronological look at all seven Americans to join the club today:
Dr. Sander Invitational, New York, New York, 11:37 a.m. ET
#495 Mick Stanovsek, Oregon 3:57.90
#496 Cooper Teare, Oregon 3:59.29
Indiana University Relays, Bloomington, Indiana, 11:38 a.m. ET
#497 Kyle Mau, Indiana 3:59.15
Illini Classic, Champaign, Illinois, 1:58 p.m. ET
#498 Jon Davis, Illinois 3:58.36
John Thomas Terrier Classic, Boston, Massachusetts, 3:13 p.m. ET
#499 Shadrack Kipchirchir, U.S. Army WCAP 3:55.52
#500 Emmanuel Bor, U.S. Army WCAP 3:58.77
UW Invitational, Seattle, Washington, 6:43 p.m.
#501 David Ribich, Western Oregon 3:58.88
Interview with the U.S.’s 500th sub-4:00 miler, Emmanuel Bor
Interview with Scott Smith, who is still hoping to join the sub-4:00 club