By Mike Smith
After recently watching Jakob Ingerbritzen face down Ollie Hoare and Jacob Wightman in the Dream Mile, I got to thinking about the recent spate of high school boys going under the mythical four minute barrier. And while there have been five boys who’ve run below 240 seconds this year alone, I’m not ready to say that anything magical is going on.
That’s not to say I’m not impressed, I am. In my heyday, I remember as a junior running six laps in the school parking lot as part of a 6xmile repeats workout for cross country, working down from 5:25 until I finally got down to 5:13. Not running track and field by then, and electing to play soccer my senior fall season, my “unofficial” mile time would rest at 5:13 until I was in my late 30’s.
I would finally PR in the mile just over 20 years ago at one of the early versions of the Millenium Mile. While I don’t remember much about that run, just really pushing those last few meters trying to finish faster, I do remember what came next after the clock ticked 5:08.
I spent the next 3 or more hours coughing up my lungs. When your years beyond trying to run at the limits of your mile capacity and your focus has turned to events 3 to 26 times further than that, the body isn’t ready to try to process that much oxygen for 300 seconds. It was well into the afternoon before I could breathe easy again.
But this recent phenomena of boys dipping under the four minute barrier should not be all that surprising. On the Letsrun message boards one poster claims the recent abundance of sub 4 minute miles is due to the new super spikes on the market. I’m not the guy that’s going to point the finger at the super spikes as the answer either (but they certainly do help!) On a side note, it would be interesting to see what a young Jim Ryun could have done with modern training techniques and facilities aligned with the advancement in running apparel.
No, we shouldn’t be surprised by the gaggle of guys breaking the barrier because truth be told, we should be expecting it. While there has been more than fifty years between that first time a high schooler ran under 4 minutes and today, and we’ve seen an acceleration in boys breaking the barrier, it only makes sense we see this happening. Let me explain.
In 1964 when Jim Ryun set the high school only record of 3:58.3, breaking the four minute barrier for a high schooler, it would be fair to say that Ryun was a man before his time, or a man among boys. When that’s the case, it’s safe to assume it’s going to be a long time before another high schooler will be able to come along and do the same thing. And it was. That’s simply statistics.
But what else are statistics is that eventually it’s definitely going to happen. That’s statistics. Of course in the ensuing 50+ years we’ve seen all kinds of advancements, making it easier as the years go on for those that follow to do the same. I already mentioned training, facilities and equipment improvements but that’s only a little part. Not only that I don’t feel it’s what explains this latest rash of sub 4’s.
We also need to take into consideration the improvements in the competitions. Sure, someone could say that Gary Martin first went under the 4 minute barrier in a high school race where the closest competitor I believe was a distant 17 seconds in arrears. However, in competitions around the country, the quality of the high school boys mile has been getting better and better, now with five athletes having gone under 4 minutes collectively seven times this spring. The other athletes doing so this year? Colin Sahlman of Newbury Park HS twice, Connor Burns of Southern Boone HS, Reinhardt Harrison of Nease HS, Gary Martin of Archbishop Wood HS twice and most recently Simeon Birnbaum.
These athletes now have more opportunities than ever to get into great racing situations by flying across the country to more and bigger meets than were available in the past. This spring there are essentially four options for an athlete to race in a “national championship” style event. They could have run at the Brooks PR invitational last weekend, where Birnbaum used a big last lap to punch his sub 4. Or they could have traveled to fabled Hayward Field and ran in the Nike Outdoor Nationals this weekend. Or they could contest the distance at New Balance Nationals in Pennsylvania, or Adidas Nationals in North Carolina this same weekend. Never mind the Hoka Festival of Miles where Martin and Burns ran sub 4. This speaks to the plethora of opportunities for fast kids to race other fast kids in championship styled races all over the country.
So bringing back statistics into the mix, if there are more meets for more kids that are running fast, where the quality of competition is better, it can only be expected that more athletes will break those barriers. And that’s what’s happening. Sure, super shoes help but those races still need to be run. I propose it’s the racing more than the shoes.
Please don’t feel that I’m disparaging the accomplishment these fine young gentlemen have achieved, quite the contrary. To be able to circle the oval at sub 60 seconds per lap average while only being in high school is a tremendous achievement and they deserve all the recognition and congratulations there is. But for us not to expect it, or to be surprised by it means we’re not paying attention to what’s going on out there. And that’s on us.
Good on ya’ lads.
By Mike Smith