By Oliver Hinson
Nothing lasts forever in track and field, but ever since Jim Ryun made history for high school runners in 1964, the sub-4:00 mile’s status as a barrier has consistently been the closest thing the sport has to stable. Why on earth would things be different now?
It takes a bit of history to understand.
As far as individual seasons go for high school athletes, few have received more publicity than that of Cooper Teare in his senior year. Coming into 2017 with a mile PR of 4:06, Teare led a small contingent of elite athletes looking to become the next high school runner to crack the 4:00 barrier, and that “chase” arguably defined his season.
Throughout the spring, the future Oregon star achieved some of the best marks the sport has ever seen at a high school level, including four times under 4:03, but he never saw the elusive 3:59 — in fact, the only athlete that season who did was Teare’s future teammate, Reed Brown.
Teare’s campaign arguably came to a head at one of the premier meets of the year, the Brooks PR Invitational in Seattle, Washington. Racing against some of the fastest high school athletes in the country including Casey Clinger, Sam Worley and Waleed Suliman, Teare seemed poised to get his mark, and that was arguably the most important thing on his mind. In an interview with Milesplit before the race, Teare said that his race wasn’t “a race to win,” but one to see who among them could break 4:00 (ultimately, no one did; Teare ran 4:02.56 and came in 2nd place).
Although such a sentiment seems contrary to the idea of racing in general, this approach was common in a time when the sub-4:00 mile was still the holy grail of racing.
Six years after Teare, high school track is in an entirely different headspace, thanks in no small part to one of the craziest seasons the sport has ever seen. In 2022, five athletes ran 3:59 or faster. The previous record for the most sub-fours in a single season was just two, which itself was a more recent phenomenon, only being achieved in 2015 and 2016. Thanks to a variety of factors, the sub-four mile exploded last year, perhaps making it less revered.
From the first few months of 2023, it looks as if things will continue this way.
Of course, the first evidence of this comes in the form of Connor Burns (Southern Boone County HS, MO) and Simeon Birnbaum (Rapid City Stevens HS, SD). Both of them broke 4:00 as juniors last year, a feat not accomplished since Jim Ryun did it in 1964, and Burns already clocked a 3:59 this year at the Boston University Last Chance Invitational on Feb. 26.
The circumstances surrounding these two make this season unique. Sub-4:00 has almost never been an expectation for a high school runner. But now it is for multiple, seemingly every year. It’s only natural to question just how special the feat is today.
“People expect it and they probably expect a lot more, as I would myself,” Birnbaum said.
Beyond the two future Oregon Ducks mentioned above, this year’s group of sub-4:00 runners will almost certainly run deep. Just behind Burns is Rocky Hansen, the North Carolina cross country state champion and Wake Forest commit who boasts a 4:00.84 PR. Devan Kipyego (St. Raphael Academy, Rhode Island), who finished a few places behind Burns at Boston, sits at third in the US at 4:01.04.
Of course, Aaron Sahlman, the Gatorade National Player of the Year, has a great chance to break 4:00, as do his Newbury Park teammates, Lex and Leo Young. Also joining this group could be Kole Mathison (Carmel HS, IN), who won the Champs Sports National XC Championships in December, as well as runners like Clay Shively (Wichita Trinity Academy, KS), Marcus Reilly (Northbridge HS, MA), Hunter Jones (Benzie Central HS, MI), and Drew Griffith (Butler HS, PA). No matter the specifics, we are likely going to see a staggering amount of sub-4:00 performances in 2023.
“I’d say at least double the guys that did it last year [will do it this year],” Jones said.
A talented crew like this would presumably create an amount of hype that the sport has never seen before. Just imagine a season where every major meet is likely to produce a sub-4:00 performance, if not multiple. But this is where the tension lies; if the four-minute barrier can be breached so many times, how much of a barrier can it really be?
Even in the attention economy, value is determined for the most part by scarcity. The less scarce the sub-4:00 mile becomes in high school, the less valuable it becomes.
“It used to be, if you broke 4:00 in high school, you were the guy,” Burns said. “Now, it’s becoming more of a requirement to be considered to be in the elite category.”
It’s not as if we haven’t seen this before; the world rejoiced when Roger Bannister ran 3:59 for the first time, but now hundreds of athletes do this every year, and each performance receives a little less publicity.
“Once one person does it, the other people realize, ‘I can do that too,’” Lex Young said. “It’s really not as fast as you think it is. It’s not as much of an achievement anymore; it’s really just expected.”
As the same shift happens at the high school level, the same effects will likely be realized. Take, for instance, the fact that CITIUS Mag is only producing celebratory graphics for three more high school runners who break 4:00. For decades, the sport has relied on the 4:00 barrier to determine who belongs in the pantheon of the all-time greats. What happens when that pantheon becomes too inclusive?
One thing is for sure: the 4:00 mile is starting to look a lot more accessible to these athletes.
“I like to think of it this way: sub-4:00 is not a barrier at all,” Hansen said. “If anything, it’s a wall of wrapping paper.”
Indeed, one of the main effects of last season’s sub-4:00 craze was a widespread reshaping of the perception of the time itself. Instead of it representing the promised land, it now simply represents another step on the ladder for many high school elites. Take it from Burns, who, before his 3:58 performance from the HOKA Festival of Miles, had told himself that on a perfect day, he could have possibly run 3:56.
“I hate the way people call it a barrier,” Burns said. “If you think sub-4:00 is a barrier, then it probably will be a barrier for you. If you think to yourself, ‘Oh, four minutes is pretty fast,’ then you probably won’t run under four minutes. It comes from within.”
Of course, this new perception is not exclusive to the athletes themselves. As they run faster times and begin to expect more of themselves, a new view of sub-4:00 could find its way to the public eye.
“I think people are going to start looking at it a little differently once they see so many people breaking 4:00,” Griffith said. “Sub-4:00 used to be one of the most prestigious marks you could hit; now there’s a bunch of guys doing it.”
This lack of notability was evident in the aftermath of Burns’ sub-4:00 performance from Boston this year; although he received some attention online for becoming just the third high schooler to achieve the feat indoors, his time did not turn nearly as many heads as it would have last year — in fact, it even seemed a bit lackluster, as he was aiming not for sub-4:00, but for a national record.
His case isn’t isolated, either; as the public’s expectations begin to shift, we could see a lot less attention on breaking 4:00 and a lot more on record chases. After all, it follows simple logic: a lot of people can hit a stationary time, but only one person can be the best.
Burns said that a lot of national records look “vulnerable” this year, as did Sahlman, who, notably, is going after another record: Michael Granville’s 1:46.45 mark in the 800.
Ultimately, though, the record chase is just one side effect of times trending faster; the much bigger, more important consequence could be a paradigm shift altogether. If sub-4:00 is to become less “shiny,” as Hansen puts it, the sport loses its treasured, round-numbered barrier, and perhaps its focus on time altogether. You won’t find many of this year’s elite high school runners focused on chasing times to the extent which runners like Teare were during their careers — rather, they tend to want things that will never lose their shine: gold, silver and bronze.
“It makes sense that people want to chase that top spot — they wanna be that top dog,” Lex Young said. “In order to do that, you can’t just chase sub-4:00.”
Perhaps the first indication of this shifting mindset was on display last season at the Brooks PR Invitational — even if the running world didn’t quite know it yet. As if trying to perfectly oppose Teare’s senior campaign, Simeon Birnbaum broke 4:00 at the meet, but he wasn’t even thinking about it.
“I went into that race just wanting to win, and if you watched that race, you could probably guess that as well,” Birnbaum said. “If I had the mindset of breaking 4:00, I probably would have gone out with the pacer or tucked in right behind him. Coming into that race, no one knew who I was and no one expected me to win — so that was my goal: to get my name out there and get the win.”
In fact, Birnbaum didn’t even know he had broken 4:00 until his time was announced, long after he had finished. His first thought? “‘Oh, that’s cool.’”
For Birnbaum, this may have been the result of the fact that four other runners had run 3:59 or faster by the time he did it, but many of this year’s best said that in the same situation, they too would prioritize a win over a fast time.
“I would rather win a slow, tactical race,” Mathison said. “That would be more special.”
Still, there are some wrinkles to this story. Sahlman, unlike many of his fellow athletes, said that he would still rather chase a fast time in a big meet than a gold medal. This, however, is another function of the impressive times high schoolers have been pumping out recently; Sahlman said that his motivation would not be necessarily to break 4:00, but to gain a qualifying standard for an even bigger meet, like the Olympic Trials.
“It’s not that I just want to run a specific time,” Sahlman said. “Times, for me, are what I’m looking for to get in the Trials, U20’s, things like that.”
A few others said that in a race with professionals, like Saturday’s TEN Meet in which Newbury Park star Leo Young ran 3:40.86 in the men’s 1500, they would likely chase a fast time.
Also, it’s not as if the celebration surrounding sub-4:00 is completely gone. The number of high schoolers who have breached the barrier remains 17, a minute fraction of the thousands who have competed in the sport over several decades, and many of this year’s elites say that even if it is to become less special, it is nevertheless an accomplishment.
“I think the 4:00 barrier is still something special to accomplish,” Mathison said. “It’s been such a benchmark in the world of distance running for such a long time, and even if more people are breaking it now, I still think it’s special — maybe not to outsiders looking in, but to the individual, it’s such an amazing accomplishment.”
Overall, though, we could be seeing the beginnings of a major shift. Years from now, if trends continue, the sub-4:00 mile could become in high school what it represents in the pros right now: an expectation (and a time that dozens of runners can hit in a single weekend — take the David Hemery Valentine Invitational as proof of that).
Meanwhile, there will always be someone leading the pack. Take it from Birnbaum, who puts it simply:
“Running is a sport where you’re supposed to win races.”