The storied mile distance race is making a comeback.
Fifty years ago this month, on June 5, 1964, skinny Wichita High School East junior Jim Ryun ran one mile around a track in 3 minutes, 59 seconds flat, becoming the first high school runner in the world to break 4 minutes for the distance.
Only 12 American men had cracked that barrier before Ryun; 10 years prior, Roger Bannister of Oxford University in England, ran history’s first sub-4:00 mile in 3:59.4. But, thanks to Ryun, the 4-minute mile became the new measure of superiority for high school milers.
“On that night after running under 4 minutes, I really didn’t sleep that well because the phone started ringing,” Ryun recalls. “People had questions; this was monumental.”
And 50 years later, only four other American high school boys have dipped under 4—Marty Liquori (3:59.8 in 1967), Tim Danielson (3:59.04 in 1966), Alan Webb (3:53.43 in 2001) and Lukas Verzbicas (3:59.71 in 2011)—proving just how prestigious the feat continues to be. (As of April, only about 1,350 runners worldwide—including 420 Americans—have ever broken the 4-minute barrier at any level.)
“Coach Timmons said, ‘I think you can become the school record holder,’ and I knew the school record was 4:08,” Ryun says. ”How do you go from 4:21 to 4:08? He continued to say, ‘I think you can do something greater than that. I think you can do what Dr. Bannister did in 1954,’ I had no idea who he was when I first started running; the first running book I read was about Emil Zapotek, the great Czech runner who won the gold in the 5,000, 10,000 and the marathon [in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics]. I slowly learned a lot about Dr. Bannister and gained a greater appreciation.”
Admiration for Ryun’s pioneering deed never faltered among track lovers, even when the distance faded from the mainstream running stage.
In the early 1980s, the 1,600-meter run—a distance roughly 9 meters short of a full mile—became a convenient replacement for the traditional distance, creating a symmetrically perfect race around a traditional 400-meter track. (In the 1970s, the U.S. tried but failed to convert to the metric system, but many high school and college tracks were rebuilt or repainted with metric distances.) Running the mile and running 1,600 meters were suddenly interchangeable, creating a “misfit distance” lost on a mile-conscious America. It didn’t help that the Olympics and other international events had runners competing over 1,500 meters.
“Our brains in America are wired for the mile,” says Ryan Lamppa, founder of Bring Back the Mile (BBTM), a Santa Barbara, Calif.–based campaign to resurface the mile as “America’s distance.” “There is not an American boy that dreams of breaking 4 minutes in the 1,600—and why would they?”
Supporters of the mile and Lamppa’s ongoing efforts have started to create mile-long road races, encouraging the public to embrace the historic distance as a respectable—and meaningful—race exploit.
Ryun, who won a silver medal in the 1,500 at the 1968 Olympics, ran a personal best of 3:51.1 in the mile in 1967 to make him the last American to hold the world record at that distance. He retired as a competitive runner in the early 1970s and later represented Kansas in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1996–2007.
“If you relate the distances to miles per hour or miles they walk, run or drive, there’s a better ability for them to become more involved in the sport of mile-ing,” says Ryun, who is now 67 and lives near Washington, D.C.. “There’s always been that attention captured by the mile, starting with Roger Bannister.”
Lamppa also pegs the mile as the perfect “gateway distance,” a realistic starting point for non-runners over 5Ks or half marathons. “If we want to get more Americans on the roads and out the door, the mile is a great way to do that,” he says.
Lamppa says “the mile is as American as baseball, apple pie and the 4th of July,” and will never lose its cachet or importance, whether on the track, on the road or in the minds of Americans, nor will the significance of Ryun’s and Bannister’s ground-breaking performances 50 and 60 years ago.
“Without a doubt, the mile—with more coverage, more events and more world-class American milers—is in a better place than two or three years ago,” Lamppa says. “Only five boys have [gone sub- 4:00] in 50 years, and that makes them pretty special.”