The mystique remains. The four-minute mile is special. Even in an era when most people in track focus on meters, eyebrows go up, smiles emerge, at the mention of a middle-distance-runner who breaks the four-minute mile.
Brody Smith, the former Cody High School standout, is on the cusp. Now competing for Purdue University in Indiana, Smith in January clocked a 4:01.92 mile for his indoor track team.
“It’s just everyone’s dream to break four minutes in the mile,” Smith said in a recent conversation.
The sport has gone metric-centric, though some promoters still throw in a mile because that distance still means something to Americans.
The 100-yard dash gave way to 100 meters, perhaps because the Olympic champion is still designated the world’s fastest human.
Europeans and Africans call the 1,500 meters on the track the metric mile, but you have to go back in time to when the mile meant something overseas.
In the early 1950s, just as the first mountaineers were seeking to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, runners were seeking to run 3:59-something.
Roger Bannister of England and John Landy of Australia duked it out via clock across continents. On May 4, 1954, racing in Oxford, Bannister was timed in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.
That is one of the most famous moments in sports history and Bannister, who spent most of the rest of his long life as a doctor before dying at 88 in 2018, gained international renown forever.
About six weeks later, Landy broke the record with a time of 3:58. And about six weeks after that, Bannister and Landy went head-to-head, with Bannister winning in 3:58. Landy is hardly remembered outside the sport.
The current world record of 3:43.13, held by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj since 1999, does not roll off the tongue, and is only rarely challenged.
Yet in the United States people still care. When Smith gets the chance to chase sub-four, he will, although that might not happen until after he graduates from college.
“The mile is something everyone can relate to,” Smith said.
Smith, who spent two years at Utah State before transferring to the Big Ten school, where he is much happier, said he feels he is fit enough, and is close enough on the clock, to put up that 3:59-point – if he can find a mile to run.
Maggie Kirkham, Smith’s mother and CHS cross country and distance coach, said “Oh, absolutely,” Smith is capable of recording such a mark. “I would have thought he would have done it by now.”
Except for the lack of college competitions at the distance. Even during this indoor season, the Purdue program treats the winter as more of a training period, racing its longer distance runners in competition only once every two weeks.
Smith is training about 100 miles a week, so his legs have not been fresh to make assaults on the clock. He did win an 800 meters though, in 1:53-something, about a month ago.
Dick Smith, Brody’s father, and like his mother a runner, who also coaches the Cody Middle School cross country team, said in general in the track world these days the mile is viewed only as “a novelty.”
But when he talks to co-workers in Cody, people who are not runners, and mentions Brody’s mile time being so close to four minutes, he said, they go, “Oh, wow.”
Dick Smith mused that when Brody (not if), or anyone else cracks the four-minute barrier now, there is a good chance they will run as fast as Bannister, so heralded for being the first.
There is only .6 between 4:00 and 3:59-4.
“It’s probably the one event that if you can hit that mark, it is yours forever,” Dick said.
Although he wishes Brody would hurry up and get it, the younger Smith believes he will be concentrating on 3,000-meter and 5,000-meter track events this spring for team points.
But he said he plans to keep running after college. From his research, Brody says, he can still be the first runner growing up in Wyoming to crack the four-minute-mile.
“That’s a big driver,” he said.
Not Roger Bannister big, but a big deal in the Cowboy State.