The four minute whatever
For those of us old enough to remember when track and field was something of a signature sport, you know the meaning of the four-minute mile. That barometer, covering four laps of a quarter mile outdoor track, now just a bit more on the metric equivalent, was once a human impossibility, like walking on the moon. That’s why Roger Bannister’s inaugural voyage under four in 1954 was so remarkable. It felt like the boundaries of the human condition had changed forever.
Today, the calculus has changed quite a bit. Where running sub-four used to be magical, today it’s fairly commonplace. Especially in the past few years. In 1992, the year I graduated college and my last as a competitive track and field athlete, four runners in the US ran their first ever four-minute mile. In 2022, that number was 64, most of them running for college teams. In this month’s Valentine’s Meet at Boston University, a fixture on the northeast college track and field circuit, 52 runners broke four minutes. That’s indoors, on a 200-meter track, where allegedly it’s harder to post a fast time because of the turns and short straightaways. Times that might have once been all-American now might not place at a conference meet.
So what happened? It wasn’t a greater interest in track and field, a sport that always falls far behind in the choice of school sports. And it’s not more people running during Covid. Some of it is simple Darwinism, which happens in every sport but is more obvious in those that are quantified by seconds. The argument about which basketball player from all time would win can operate in suspended disbelief of science. That’s not possible in track, where the clock never lies. But, the normal machinery of human evolution doesn’t explain this explosion, progress that’s usually far more glacial.
There are a couple of likely explanations, all related to technology. First and foremost, as Mars Blackmon would say, it has to be the shoes. Once Nike introduced carbon fiber plates in racing shoes and spikes, track would never be the same. These shoes offer an advantage of somewhere between 1 and 4 percent, depending on what study you’re reading and which brand and what speed. But they clearly make it easier to run faster. Add that to tracks with maximum springboard effect, and sub four is a lot more human. Even back in my day, we used to get really excited to run at Boston, because their surface felt like a trampoline, at least compared to the flat oval inside Barton Hall at Cornell, which was basically a good place to develop whooping cough.
The other reason, and perhaps slightly less important, is the Internet, which allows runners from all over to see training secrets, nutrition ideas, and get inspiration from other track stars. So where we used to read an occasional track and field magazine to see what someone across the country might be doing, now everything is a click away. Which means we’re more likely to see college and high school runners modeling what it means to be an elite athlete.
All of this has added up to a whole lot more speed, and a whole lot more of people like me realizing our old times aren’t even in the same stratosphere as what kids run today. Which is why you’ll often hear old guys taking about how they hate all these changes, or talking about cheater shoes. Perhaps that’s the crux of all this. It’s not that you can stop progress, as the future is undefeated. It’s that these changes have made us question what any of these once monumental distinctions still mean. And making it nearly impossible to compare yourself to those young kids out there. See, old basketball players can still say that they’d have whipped the kids today. Us track guys – not so much.
This isn’t just a track problem – just talk to cyclists about technology, although that’s a sport that’s far more comfortable with change. And look at how swimming banned those miracle speed suits a few years ago, making the sport nearly indistinguishable from the Mark Spitz era. It’s hard to know where to draw the line between man and machine and how important the past is to the future. Baseball is about to make that decision. For track, it seems like that decision is already made. Which is why the sport, if not the humans that compete in it, has changed forever.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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