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John Blanchette: Trio of Washington State milers have left their ‘sub-4’ mark on decorated program

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

Metric measurements, altitude-adjusted times, infield events that are made impossible to follow, mishmash qualifying procedures – track and field loves itself some inscrutability.

“We don’t do a great job of making our sport understandable,” conceded Wayne Phipps, the head coach at Washington State.

“But if you say ‘sub-4’ – just about everybody gets that.”

Even without mentioning the event.

And now, after a too-long hiatus, the Cougars are getting it again, too.

In the men’s mile at last weekend’s University of Washington Invitational under the roof at Dempsey Indoor, a group of six Cougs drifted to the back of a 12-man pack through the early laps, content to let a rabbit and the field’s postcollegiate pros do the pacing. One of those, Villanova alum and former NCAA cross country champ Pat Tiernan, made it to the finish first.

But behind him – in second, third and sixth – Cougars Paul Ryan, Colton Johnsen and Zach Stallings all dipped under the 4-minute standard, the first time in school history three had done so in the same race. A fourth, Reid Muller, missed by just .61 of a second.

No matter how identifiable sub-4 is, some context is in order – albeit unnecessary for anyone achieving it.

“It’s big on the checklist for anyone capable of doing it,” said Johnsen, a senior from Bellingham. “Breaking that was really special to me, and I know for all of us.

“If I retired from running and hadn’t done it, I’d be disappointed.”

And, yes, many have done it – but none has ever been disappointed, no matter how their number has multiplied.

It’s been 67 years since Englishman Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier at the Iffley Road track at Oxford, and since then more than 1,400 men have followed. Some 156 alone have done so at Dempsey. At the moment, Johnsen’s 3:57.39 clocking is 10th on the 2021 NCAA list – which is topped by three Oregon runners, led by Cooper Teare at 3:50.39.

Which means when the season moves outdoors, the Cougs are going to be running uphill to even score at the Pac-12 meet.

“I’ve never had to race people like that,” Johnsen admitted. “Those guys are on another level.”

But there’s also this: At a school with so many distance running legends they can’t be whittled down to a mere Mount Rushmore, these latest sub-4s are the first at Wazzu this century.

Here’s the company they’re keeping: Starting with Bernard Lagat’s school-record 3:55.65, the WSU top 10 before this year included runners who won 15 NCAA titles, were All-American on 47 occasions, set eight collegiate and five world records and won four Olympic medals.

“It can be intimidating when every school record is a collegiate or world record,” Phipps said, “but it’s nice to be part of that identity, too, and to do things that keep the tradition going.”

Ryan, a senior from Moscow, Idaho, and little Logos School, was actually the first of the current group to go under 4:00, running 3:58.79 two years ago. His 3:57.21 from Saturday won’t go on the school list as he ran unattached, having only outdoor eligibility remaining. That leaves Johnsen’s mark as No. 2 behind Lagat, and Stallings’ 3:58.13 fifth – just ahead of a couple of guys named Rick Riley and Henry Rono.

“Paul’s time two years ago was a big breakthrough,” Phipps said. “It gives everybody a tangible grasp of what’s possible. You think, ‘Paul ran 3:58 and I train with him every day.’ It just seems to make more sense.”

Johnsen especially seems to have taken that thought and, uh, run with it. The night before the mile he ran a 13:43.72 for 5,000 meters, and he has a 7:56.14 for 3K to make him the only runner in the country in the top 15 in three events.

He showed up at Wazzu in 2018, transferring from Eastern Washington in the midst of some turmoil in its distance program and “sleeping in my brother’s and his roommate’s living room for the first semester so I could afford it.” A case of plantar fasciitis wiped out his 2019 seasons, and COVID-19 took care of 2020.

Ramping back up has been a juggling act for distance runners especially. Indoor track and cross country are being staged as concurrent seasons by the NCAA, all but forcing runners to pick an emphasis. Phipps’ milers have obviously made theirs.

But there’s always something odd going on with track. The sport has made its most storied event endangered at the collegiate level by limiting it to indoor meets, which is both bad stewardship and poor marketing. Sure, maybe the march of time and athletic progress has taken some of the magic out of the sub-4 – but why put off any smidgen of an audience that might care?

“I know it seems like a lot of people run sub-4 now,” Johnsen said, “but for how many people are running and competing there aren’t many capable of it. It’s still special.”

By a mile.

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