As milestones go, 3:42.22 on a stopwatch hardly resonates with romance.
But you work with what you have.
So John Russell, Erik Schmidt and Cameron Schwehr chase that clumsy landmark with their hearts and minds – and feet – knowing full well that it may be meaningful only to them because not everyone knows the math.
And the math is this: only one Spokane runner has ever run a mile faster than four minutes, and all of the three are dying to give that man, Rick Riley, some company.
But to do it, they’ll probably have to run 3:42.22.
Years of data, comparisons and geeky figuring established that as the equivalent of a sub-4 in the mile’s metric cousin, the 1,500 – and the fact is, it matters not to Russell, Schmidt or Schwehr whether the measuring is done in feet, furlongs or fathoms if it pencils out properly.
“I’ll take what I can get,” laughed Schwehr.
But in this the 50th anniversary year of Roger Bannister’s initial exploration of the sub-4 frontier, the notion that runners so seldom get a crack at the magic number is yet another blight on a sport that is so expert at administering itself black eyes in promotion and public relations.
Has a better statistical barrier ever evolved in sports – one mile, four laps of the track, 60 seconds per lap?
“It’s the one event everyone can relate to,” said Schwehr, a Mt. Spokane High School graduate now finishing his sophomore year at the University of Kansas. “Everyone’s done a mile in P.E. class or done it on the track. Even when I talk to people who have no connection to the sport, they can appreciate the mile.”
Well, they can appreciate it between January and March, anyway, when it’s run indoors. But when the United States decided to synchronize itself with the rest of the track world 30 years ago, its signature event became illegible. High schools resisted the fraction-lapped 1,500 equivalent and decided to run 1,600 meters instead – still about nine short of a mile – to further confuse the issue. Fortunately, the mile was such an established standard and the changeover took so long that track’s eager statisticians were able to formulate a reasonably accurate, if less enchanting, way to chart equivalencies.
Which brings us back to Russell, Schmidt and Schwehr.
Lumping together miles and metric equivalents, they have in the last 12 months posted three of the 10 fastest times in the event ever run by Spokane athletes.
At last March’s NCAA Indoor Championships, Schmidt – a senior at the U.S. Naval Academy out of University High School – finished fifth in the mile in 4 minutes, 1.56 seconds, behind only the 3:59.2 Riley ran in 1970 as a Washington State senior and a 4:01.5 clocking by the legendary Gerry Lindgren when he was still running for Rogers High School in 1964.
Russell, a senior at the University of Washington from Freeman, ran a 3:44.65 in the Oregon Invitational 1,500 last year, which converts to a 4:02.62 mile – No. 5 on the list behind another 40-year-old mark, Paul Schlicke’s 4:02.3. So far this year, Russell has run 3:45.06.
And Schwehr moved into the top 10 with a 3:46.26 at the Georgia Tech Invitational last week, which equates to a 4:04.36 mile.
All three have qualified for NCAA regional meets this weekend – Schmidt in Gainesville, Fla., Schwehr at Texas A&M and Russell at Northridge, Calif. – from which the top five finishers advance to the national championships, which at the moment is a greater grail than any number on a watch.
“But I think you can say that 4-minute mark is still considered by everyone the barrier at which a runner becomes a serious competitor,” said Schmidt. “Four-oh-two, 4:03 guys are a dime a dozen. Not everyone can run that, granted, but once you break four you’re in a different club.”
Not an exclusive club, mind you. There are 258 Americans who have run sub-4 miles since Don Bowden first did it in 1957, and that doesn’t include anyone else who may have had his best day when the race was 1,500 meters instead of a mile. Sixteen former Washington high school athletes have been under either 4 minutes or 3:42.22 for the 1,500.
And, of course, the world record in the mile has been chopped down to what seems like an absurd time – 3:43.13, faster than any of the Spokane trio has run the 1,500 meters.
But sub-4 is still a benchmark, according to the one Spokane man who’s done it.
“It’s a big deal,” Riley insisted, “even if it’s not run as much as it used to be. The magic of running four laps under 60 seconds is still there and it’s still an achievement to do it. It’s an all-out effort.”
Nothing the current group has discovered contradicts that.
Russell, for instance, lost two full years at UW to ilio tibial band syndrome in his left knee, in part because his left leg is a quarter-inch shorter than his right – and yet has still managed to turn himself from a 4:17 high school miler into a national-level competitor in college.
“Actually, I thought I’d be running even a little faster right now,” he said.
Schmidt, too, has had to battle injuries (see accompanying story) and the challenge of handling the academic and military load of Navy life.
Schwehr, meanwhile, has fought through a self-held notion that he may have plateaued in his passion and that track “wasn’t panning out to be anything at all.
“I’ve had some good cross country seasons, but all last year and even my senior year of high school, I really didn’t improve,” he said. “Senior year, the only race I had a PR in was the 800 and that was a race I didn’t run in the postseason. Track just wasn’t turning out to be a good thing.”
Things began to turn around indoors this winter when he ran the second-fastest time in KU history for 1,000 meters. Outdoors, he got a boost from winning the 1,500 at the Drake Relays – but still hadn’t run a regional qualifier until busting through last week at the Georgia Tech Invitational.
Being at Kansas, which produced mile legends Glenn Cunningham and Jim Ryun (and a miler who probably should have been, Wes Santee), but Schwehr can’t help but be caught up in the history and stature of miling – though for him it started long before.
“Even in junior high when I was a minute away from making 4 minutes – and that’s a long way – I thought about it,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do the mile. In track and field in America, it’s not where I’d like it to be, where it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s with Ryun and Lindgren and (Marty) Liquori, and it would be great to help get it back to something like that.”
But in the context of the mile, that’s probably not going to happen.
Schmidt pointed out, for instance, that in trying to reach Olympic qualifying standards, mile times aren’t acceptable.
“As much as a 4-minute mile would be incredible,” he said, “making the B qualification for the Olympic Trails (3:43 for 1,500 meters) would mean more in taking a step toward Athens.”
And Russell would just as soon do away with the math.
“We actually talk about that sometimes on the team,” he said. “For me, I’d rather run the 1,500 fast than run a fast mile – only because the 1,500 doesn’t lie. That’s not to say the mile does, but you’re not messing around with conversions and the fact that people run the 1,500 internationally allows you to compare where you stand.
“The mile’s intriguing, but it’s just not run enough outdoors.”
But whether it’s 4 minutes in the mile or 3:42 and change for the metric wannabe, it remains a barrier – and not just a test of fitness but, as Riley said, “of running the right pace with the right guys in the right frame of mind.”
“There isn’t a magic workout or diet,” echoed Schmidt. “It’s what you have in your tank that day. Sometimes, you’re going to have one of those days where nothing stops you, when you’re just in the right race and you find that something extra all your training has given you.”
That’s the romantic part anyway. The stopwatch only validates it.
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