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May14, 2008

Vol. 108, No. 13

Breaking 4:00

A historic barrier still resonates, but today’s stars have fewer chances to run the mile

By Merrell Noden '78
Published in the May14, 2008, issue

Bill Burke ’91, shown with arms raised at the  1993 USA Track and Field Championships, ran Prnceton’s only sub-4:00 mile by an undergraduate.
Courtesy Bill Burke ’91
Bill Burke ’91, shown with arms raised at the 1993 USA Track and Field Championships, ran Prnceton’s only sub-4:00 mile by an undergraduate.

The mile run holds a special place in the imagination of track fans. “There’s the 100 for speed, the marathon for endurance, and the mile is the perfect mix of both,” says Bill Burke ’91, who is, for now, the only Princeton student ever to break four minutes for the mile, having run 3:58.70 at the 1991 Millrose Games in Madison Square Garden. “It’s got a certain mystique about it.”

Some of that mystique comes from the neat symmetry of the mile’s four quarter-mile laps and the exquisite tension they often create. But it’s also due to the allure of the four-minute barrier, once reckoned to be beyond human achievement. That’s been proved wrong literally thousands of times by now — the world record is 3:43.13 — but four minutes is still one of the few marks in any sport that means something to the average American. “People always ask your mile time — right after they ask you if you’ve ever run a marathon,” notes Michael Maag ’09. “Four minutes will get you street cred.”

Maag is one of three Princeton milers who seem to have a real shot at breaking four minutes this spring — if only they can find a mile to run. Somehow — perhaps as an unintended consequence of our halfhearted attempts to go metric — the mile has begun to disappear. It is still a standard distance at indoor meets, but outdoors, the 1,500 meters, about a football field short of a mile, gets contested almost exclusively. That’s why Princeton’s outdoor mile record, the 4:04.2 Craig Masback ’77 ran in 1977, is so much slower than Burke’s Millrose time: Neither had many chances to run the mile outdoors. (Both would run faster after graduation, Burke clocking 3:56.83 and Masback 3:52.02.)

The difficulty in finding mile races is particularly galling to Princeton track fans this spring, because the Tigers never have had a stronger group of milers. Last year, David Nightingale ’08 and Maag came within a whisker of breaking the magic mark, clocking 4:01.61 and 4:02.40, respectively, at the Husky Classic, an indoor meet in Seattle, while a third, James O’Toole ’08, ran 3:45.69 for the 1,500 meters, roughly equivalent to a 4:04 mile. This year, with Nightingale nursing injuries, Maag returned to the Husky Classic and lowered his best to 4:00.43. An injured foot may prevent him from trying again this year, but he should get another shot next year.

David Nightingale ’08, left, and Michael Maag ’09 first threatened the four-minute mark in 2007.
Courtesy Steve Dolan
David Nightingale ’08, left, and Michael Maag ’09 first threatened the four-minute mark in 2007.

“That was one of the nice things about chasing it as a junior,” says Maag, an economics major from Lake Oswego, Ore. “You know you’ll have another chance so the pressure’s not bad pressure, just good jitters.”

For Steve Dolan, who coaches Princeton’s middle-distance runners, this is a special group. His first year at Princeton was Nightingale and O’Toole’s freshman year, while Maag was in his first recruiting class. All were very good runners in high school but have improved dramatically at Princeton. Nightingale, a politics major from West Hartford, Conn., who first ran track as a high school junior after playing tennis as a boy, is running the same time for the mile that he once ran for the 1,500. But his best event may well be the 5,000 meters. The same also might be true for Maag.

O’Toole may be the one pure miler of the three. He’s also a historian of the sport. He dedicated his history thesis to his teammates, using a quote from track team manager Peter Schwed ’32 about Bill Bonthron ’34 and his famous mile against Glenn Cunningham at Palmer Stadium in 1934: “[S]ince the mile event wouldn’t be run until six o’clock that Saturday afternoon, [Bonthron] decided that he need not forego his customary weekend program. Accordingly, he played 18 holes of golf in the morning, and followed it with his regular hot-weather luncheon — a quart of vanilla ice cream.”

Princeton and Palmer Stadium were important in what one might call the “mythification” of the mile. The invitational miles that athletics director Asa Bushnell ’21 built around Bonthron in the mid-30s drew tens of thousands of spectators and produced two world records, though, sadly, neither by the hometown hero. “Bonny” had the hard luck to finish second on his home track to a world record twice — first to Jack Lovelock, a Rhodes scholar from New Zealand who would go on to win the 1,500 gold medal at the 1936 Olympics, and then to Cunningham. Bonthron would get his revenge against Cunningham soon after graduating, beating him in the national championship 1,500 in a world-record 3:48.8.

Those three weren’t the first milers, but they were the first who mattered, as milers, to the public. According to author James McNeish in his novelized biography, Lovelock, Bushnell’s Prince-ton meets gave us “the first serious mention of a concept called a Four-Minute Mile — which until Bushnell’s day had hardly even been dreamed of.”

More than 70 years later, for this generation of Princeton milers, the dream endures.

PAW contributor Merrell Noden ’78 ran his best mile in 4:11.2.

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