A strange phenomenon seems to be occurring in the NCAA this winter. Middle-distance men are breaking four minutes in the mile at an astronomically higher rate than they used to. In some sense, this shouldn’t come as a surprise: the quality of talent in the NCAA is at an all-time high, older runners are able to stay in college longer due to pandemic-related eligibility changes, and in general, marks across all track and field disciplines trend faster, farther, and higher over time. And of course, there’s the shoes – a discussion that, frankly, I find repetitive and annoying. But if I don’t mention that the greater proliferation of carbon-plated spikes is helping speed up times across the board, it’ll be the first thing someone complains about when this piece is shared.
But all these factors, even taken together, seemingly can’t explain the sudden and sharp increase in sub-4 milers on the collegiate level. Over the five years before COVID-19, an average of 32.6 NCAA men broke 4 minutes each season. During the 2019-2020 season, in which carbon spikes were largely available but the competition was largely undisrupted by COVID-19, 35 men broke 4. This year, so far, it’s 75. Eleven men broke 4 minutes in the one meet I watched last weekend at Boston University – a track literally constructed to enable sub-4 miles.
I won’t attempt to offer a comprehensive explanation for this sharp and sudden increase, in part because I don’t know, and in part because I suspect it is a combination of many factors. What I find fascinating, however, is that the increase has led to a robust online debate about whether we should continue caring about the 4-minute barrier at all. Many argue, in short, that the increasing frequency of sub-4 minute milers means that the 4-minute mile is no longer special.
And yet, we still care about it. We track the number of sub-4 American milers. We celebrate when a high schooler breaks 4 – a small club that has nevertheless more than doubled recently, increasing from 5 to 13 in the last decade. And even casual fans marveled when five-time Olympian Nick Willis extended his sub-4 mile streak to 20 years at the Millrose Games earlier this year.
So when we ask if the sub-4 minute mile is still special, we should ask: Why is it special in the first place? In my opinion, it’s a combination of three factors.
First: Roger Bannister first broke 4 minutes in the mile at the cusp of the first wave of distance running popularity. Prior to the 1950s, particularly in the United States, track and field’s popularity focused primarily on short sprints in the era of Jesse Owens. But the 1950s and 1960s brought about a new international interest in distance running, with legendary Olympic performances from the likes of Emil Zátopek and Peter Snell and Bannister’s fellow Englishman Jim Peters breaking the world record in the marathon four times in a decade, the first by nearly 5 minutes. When Bannister broke four minutes in the mile, more eyes were on distance running than ever before, which increased the hype and mystique of the achievement.
Second: the Presidential Fitness Test. Beginning in the 1950s (and ending in 2013), all schoolchildren in the U.S. had to run a mile in gym class. Not everyone has raced a 100-meter dash, and despite its popularity, many people will never run a marathon. But we all ran the mile. And a large part of the awareness of the 4-minute mile in the U.S. is its universality – we all know how fast 4 minutes is because most of us have run a mile much slower.
Third, and somewhat regrettably: The 4-minute mile is a white man’s achievement. Our sub-four heroes, from Roger Bannister to Jim Ryun to Hobbs Kessler, tend to be white and are always male. As in all aspects of American culture, our historical marginalization of women and people of color, combined with our implicit biases about which athletes we choose to lionize, means that the achievements of white men receive a disproportionate amount of praise and attention. The best middle-distance runners in the world are African, but they don’t run the mile: they primarily run the 1500m. And as a result, Hicham El Guerrouj is not nearly the household name that he might otherwise be.
(There’s also something to be said for a fourth, but less substantive, reason: Despite starting from its own line on modern tracks, we think of it as a round number. It’s roughly four laps of roughly one minute each, and that’s oddly comforting to our brains.)
That’s why we see the sub-4 barrier as special. So why are some arguing that it’s not anymore? The arguments for knocking 3:59 milers off their perceived pedestal tend to fall in one of two categories: 1) Sub-4 minutes is not that fast anymore, and 2) there is no good equivalent barrier for women or in other disciplines. Let’s take a look at each in turn:
Sub-4 minutes is not that fast anymore. In short, this is true. Running 3:59 will certainly not guarantee you a professional contract or place in an elite training group the way it did 10 or 15 years ago. If you want to qualify for indoor NCAAs, the cutoff is currently 3:56.16 (although 3:56-high and perhaps 3:57-low will probably make it in once entries are declared). The qualifying standard for the U.S. indoor track and field championships is 3:56.00. And to get into any of the more prestigious professional miles in the U.S., such as the Wanamaker Mile or the Bowerman Mile at the Prefontaine Classic, you will have to run something in the realm of 3:54 or faster.
There is no good equivalent. This is also true. Expert miler Nick Willis caused a bit of a kerfuffle on Twitter by claiming that 4:32 has “always been considered” the sub-4 equivalent for women – something I have never heard from anyone else before or since. IAAF scoring tables, for what it’s worth, place the equivalent time around 4:36, and if you’re looking for a round number, 4:40 may be a better bet. But Track and Field News doesn’t maintain a list of sub-4:36 American women.
If you look at other events, there are round numbers to celebrate, but none quite fit the bill. Sub-10 seconds for the men’s 100m and sub-2 minutes for the women’s 800 are commonly-known barriers, but both are far more impressive than a sub-4 mile. Sub-5 minutes is an impressive mark for a high school girl, but one achieved by dozens of young women each season, not 13 total. The Olympic Trials marks in the marathon hold a similar allure in running culture, but they change each cycle.
Because these arguments are factual, does that make them valid? I’m not so sure. But here’s where my well-researched thinkpiece gets sappy and philosophical.
If you’ve ever watched a men’s mile race at the BU indoor track, you know the 4-minute mile is special. The crowd roars when it’s accomplished and sighs with disappointment when it’s just missed. Spent runners litter the track and the infield, having thrown their entire bodies into 8 laps of effort. You’ll almost certainly see tears: from the senior who started as a walk-on and clawed his way up through the ranks, from the post-collegiate runner who’s been chasing this dream for a decade, from the fan who grew up watching Galen Rupp run at BU who’s now competing in front of his family. And they could be tears of joy or wails of despair, depending entirely on which side of 4 minutes their chest crossed the line.
That’s why the 4-minute barrier is still special. It’s special because the people who chase it care. They care so much that they’ll run in sub-zero weather, vomit into trash cans and literally break their own bones in pursuit of 3:59. And just because more people are doing it doesn’t make it any less special for the person who does it for the first time.
So we have to ask ourselves as fans, as observers, as commenters: what makes something special in the world of track and field? Do we care more about winning or do we care more about running fast? Do we care about the results on the scoreboard or the story of the last guy in the pack?
These answers vary for all of us, and that’s fine. But for me, the most special moments of track and field, both in my career and as an observer, are the ones where the athletic achievement you just witnessed is given weight by the story behind it. And that’s true whether it’s a new world record or a first-time BQ.
The takeaway for me from the growth in the number of sub-4 milers is that it’s beautiful and life-affirming that more runners get to experience a truly special moment in their personal journey and we get to appreciate it more fully. The path forward isn’t to make 4 minutes less special, it’s to make other achievements just as universal. I want to live in a world where the crowd goes wild when a high jumper clears 2 meters for the first time. I want to scream at my television when a 100-meter hurdler breaks 13 seconds. Treating more barriers like we treat sub-4 not only increases the stakes and excitement of track and field from a viewing experience, but it pushes the sport forward to motivate more athletes to chase big, daring dreams and to try again when they fall a little short.
And at the end of the day, that’s what track and field is all about.