The Four-Minute High-School Mile, 50 Years Later
A half-century after a Kansas high schooler ran the mile in under 4:00, precious few runners have caught up
By Kevin Helliker in the Wall Street Journal
On Monday I called Jim Ryun, thinking it would be cool to tell the greatest miler in American history something he might not know about the mile: Last weekend, a high-school student named Matthew Maton ran it in 3:59.38.
But Ryun was way ahead of me, having heard that news within minutes of it happening. “That makes six of us,” Ryun said, referring to the number of American high-school students who have run the mile under four minutes.
It was 50 years ago Friday that Ryun broke the tape in 3:58.3 at a Kansas high-school track meet in Wichita, his hometown. Yet it does Ryun little justice to note that only five other high-school runners have reached that goal in a half-century. Of those five, four did so at non-high-school events, meaning they benefited from older and often-faster competition. In breaking four minutes last Friday night, for instance, Maton finished third behind two University of Oregon runners. The fifth student to break four, Lukas Verzbicas, ran 3:59.71 at the 2011 Adidas Dream Mile, an annual competition between the nation’s fastest high-school milers.
The six U.S. high schoolers who have run sub-4-minute miles:
- Alan Webb (Reston, Va.): 3:53.43 (2001)
- Jim Ryun (Wichita, Kan.): 3:55.3 (1965)
- Matthew Maton (Bend, Ore.): 3:59.38 (2015)
- Tim Danielson (Chula Vista, Calif.): 3:59.4 (1966)
- Lukas Verzbicas (Orland Park, Ill.): 3:59.71 (2011)
- Marty Liquori (Cedar Grove, N.J.): 3:59.8 (1967)
By contrast, Ryun’s run came against narrower and slower competition: his fellow Kansas high-school runners. Even so, his time that day stood as the high-school mile record for 36 years until Virginia’s Alan Webb ran the mile in 3:53.43 at the Prefontaine Classic in 2001, finishing fifth behind some world-class stars.
“When someone is setting the pace, it just makes it easier,” said Robert Johnson, a founding editor of the website LetsRun.com, noting that pursuing faster runners provides not only a psychological push but potential wind protection.
Let me be clear that this argument doesn’t come from Ryun, a 68-year-old former U.S. Congressman now living in Lawrence, Kan. In our conversation this week, Ryun insisted he received a big push 50 years ago at that meet from a Wichita East teammate, Mike Petterson, who managed for half the race to keep pace with Ryun. “Thank you, Mike Petterson,” said Ryun.
Ryun’s 50-year-old finish still stands as the fastest time in a race between high-school milers. Yet there’s another measure by which he stands above the other high schoolers who have broken 4:00. A year before that state meet, Ryun became the first high-school student to break four minutes, finishing eighth behind some international stars with a time of 3:59 at the Compton (Calif.) Relays, a non-high-school event.
At that time, Ryun was 17 years old and 38 days, according to LetsRun—making him by far the youngest high-school runner ever to break four minutes. By contrast, when Maton achieved that feat last weekend, he was 19 years old and 41 days—two years older than Ryun was. Age matters, given that milers tend to peak in their mid-20s.
Here, too, Ryun sounded no competitive notes, choosing instead to praise young runners who participate in the true mile, as opposed to the metric equivalent—the 1,500 meters—that is run these days in international events and most high-school meets. A big supporter of a campaign called Bring Back the Mile, Ryun says that that distance resonates more deeply with the American public. “We drive our cars using miles. We measure our walks by miles,” he said. “We lose some of the public when we don’t keep a standard they can identify with.”
Ryun’s legacy is built around the traditional mile, at which he twice held world records, though he also won a silver medal in the 1,500 meters at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Four years later in Munich he was favored to win gold until a competitor tripped him in a qualifying heat, ending his Olympic career.
Nostalgic fans of the mile may want to focus their attention on the Adidas Grand Prix in New York on June 13. Along with pro stars such as Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, who will race the 200, the meet will feature the high-school Dream Mile, an annual fixture since 2010, this year pitting Oregon’s Maton against Michigan’s Grant Fisher, who last year beat Maton and took first in 4:02.
“Now the question is whether Fisher can join Maton—and whether we can have two sub-4:00 high schoolers in the same year for the first time in history,” says a LetsRun preview of the Dream Mile.