The Unsung Glory of the Mile Run

Alan Webb's final 1609.34 meters were a tribute to middle-distance runners everywhere.

Daniel Maurer/AP

In 2001, Alan Webb was a senior at South Lakes High School in Reston, Virginia. He was also a distance runner who'd been winning races and breaking records since his freshman year. On May 27th, at a track meet in Oregon, Webb ran a mile in three minutes and 53.43 seconds.

He had broken four minutes in the mile before, clocking a 3:59.86 indoors on January 20, 2001, at the New York City Armory. The sub-4-minute mile is a hallowed mark that, to this date, separates the pros from the amateurs in middle-distance running. Only five high-school runners have ever done it: Jim Ryun was the first, in 1964, and he eventually set the high-school mile record at 3:55.3. No scholastic athlete could best that, until Webb came along. 3:53 is now the fastest mile an American high-school athlete has ever run.

For the past 13 years, Webb has been through the ups and downs of sustaining a running career—different coaches, different distances, different surgeries, different training groups—and fans (and his sponsors at Nike) have gone with him. He holds the American record for the mile (3:46.91), and no one has broken his high-school record yet. Even when he disappoints, fans remember that this is the guy who broke Jim Ryun's recordthis is the guy who brought back the mile! We've always credited him, basically, with breathing some fire into American track and field.

A victorious moment for Alan Webb in
2007 (Brent Smith/Reuters)

On February 15, 2014, Alan Webb showed up for his last race as a professional runner. He showed up for the famous Wanamaker Mile at the prestigious Millrose Games, held this year at the New York City Armory. There was some chatter, and perhaps genuine hope, about the possibility of one last four-minute mile from Webb this Saturday, on the same track where he did it for the first time. He had announced in January that he was "burned out from running" and wanted to transition to the sport of triathlon, so everyone knew that the 2014 Wanamaker Mile would be his last, but they also knew that Webb, at 31, was still one of the all-time greats. So fans like me watched him run his last mile—hanging on at the back of the pack for most of it, finishing 11th out of 12—in 4:06.11, and we felt satisfied. We've all been there. (Those of us who ran competitively in high school or college, especially, have been "there," struggling to keep up with a field of faster, fitter athletes. You're not having "a bad day," you're not sick—you're simply outclassed, and you must run with your whole heart anyway.)

Webb ran with as much passion and effort as ever on Saturday, and it was a reminder of all that's good in track and field, a humble nod to the glory of the middle-distance runner.

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Emil Zatopek, who some consider to be the greatest runner of all time, once said: "If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon." But what about the mile? As Webb told David Letterman, a good miler has to have the legs of a sprinter and the heart of a distance runner.

A mile is 1609.34 meters. To race the distance on a standard outdoor track, athletes run four laps plus 10 meters, which pushes the starting line about 30 feet back from the finish line. It's more common to race an even 1600—four clean laps around the track—or, in competitions outside the United States, 1500, which has been dubbed "the metric mile" despite being short of the real thing. These discrepancies in distance may be part of the reason that the one-mile footrace has been losing clout over the past few decades.

But consider all that a race of 1500 to 1609 meters in length has to offer. This is the ideal distance for competitors and spectators alike: There's enough time for drama to unfold, but not enough time for any one runner to relax or operate on autopilot, and every turn of the track is an opportunity for someone to make a tactical move that will almost certainly affect the outcome of the race. Watch what happened in the 1500m final at the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles:

American Steve Scott made a bold move at the end of the first lap, taking the lead and forcing the field to quicken its pace. The field responded well; Scott, not so much. He ended up finishing in 10th. As Scott faltered on the third lap, Spain's Jose-Manuel Abascal took the lead. Meanwhile, race favorite Steve Ovett, in fourth place heading into the final lap, abruptly dropped out of the race with a breathing problem. Abascal ran away with Britain's Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram on his shoulders. Cram surged on the backstretch, Coe responded, and the rest is history. It could have been a different story, had Scott not taken the lead so early, or if Coe had had been the one to initiate a breakaway at the end instead of Cram. The 1500 is one of the more unpredictable events in track and field. That may be what makes it so perfect. Three and a half minutes is just enough time for athletes to write their own stories.

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Today, the Millrose Games provide one of the few annual showcases for the artistry and intensity inherent in the mile race. The Wanamaker Mile has been the marquee event at Millrose since 1926. For many years it was actually run at 10 p.m. on a Friday so that it could be broadcast live on the nightly news in New York. While the Wanamaker still captivates the dreams of a certain subset of track and field athletes, it matters less to everyone else. The Millrose Games happen on Saturday now, and this year the Wanamaker Mile gun fired at 4:48 p.m. The NBC Sports Network had a live broadcast from 3 to 5 p.m. (In 2013, ESPN had a delayed broadcast. In 2012, there was no television coverage at all.)

A brief history of the one-mile footrace would note that the tradition started in England in the late 19th century, when and where people loved to watch other people run. Track was England's most popular sport. In 1886, some 20,000 showed up to watch George Walter race the mile against Jack White on the track at London's Lillie Bridge: Walter won in 4 minutes, 12 seconds. 4:12 was the world record for thirty years. Through the first decades of the 1900s, mile times dropped closer and closer to the four-minute mark. American Glenn Cunningham ran 4:06 in 1934. Gunder Hägg, a Swede, ran 4:01 in 1945. And then came Roger Bannister.

You've heard of Bannister, right? He's the one who broke the four-minute barrier. On May 6, 1954, at Oxford, the English doctor-in-training ran a 3:59 mile in what was arguably one of the greatest moments in the history of athletics. Many great milers came after him, including Herb Elliott, Jim Ryun, and the fictional Quenton Cassidy in John L. Parker, Jr.'s novel Once a Runner. That book is practically sacred to America's in-the-know distance runners (the same subset of athletes that cares about the Wanamaker mile). Everything about Cassidy, the fiercely ambitious collegiate runner who seems to think about nothing except practice sessions on the track and pre-race nerves, encapsulates the particular madness that goes into the sport.

But running has gradually become less revered for young, raging, laser-focused competitors like Bannister and Cassidy and more appreciated as a hobby for the masses. Sometime between 1954 and 2014, the marathon stole all the glory. Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Joan Benoit Samuelson became the faces of U.S. running. That 26.2 miles has become so accessible while the single mile is reserved for school kids and professional athletes is funny, no? The rise of the marathon is not a bad thing at all, but it's sort of a shame that this comes at the expense of attention and admiration for middle-distance track runners.

* * *

At my middle school we had something called the Fun Run. It was infamous, I guess—among the many nervous conversations my peers and I had the summer before sixth grade, the Fun Run repeatedly came up as the chief example of all the scary, cruel rituals that awaited us in gym class. Over the next three years, on sunny days and rainy days and even very cold days, the gym teachers would spring this timed mile run on us when we least expected it. For some kids, this was truly terrible—to show up expecting another day of flag football or badminton or whatever sport was being taught that week and instead be subject to the dreaded sufferfest of running a cross-country mile around the school grounds. I loved it.

Running a mile seemed to be more a test of mental toughness than physical prowess, and I decided that I was tougher than all the other girls in gym class. That served me well until I started running competitively in high school, where everyone on the starting line of a varsity race is there on purpose. A positive attitude doesn't do much to separate you from the pack at that point.

There's an element of grittiness and a desire to suffer that all competitive runners have in common, for sure, because competitive running is not fun. In Once a Runner, Cassidy explains:

When you're doing the actual thing itself, it's so competitive and serious, I don't think anybody really has much fun at it. Rarely in practice and never in meets. Oh, they like the idea of it all right, they like going to competitions, and they like being on a team and the general hullabaloo of being a jock. But when you get right down to it, while you're doing the thing itself, it's not a lot of grins. I can't remember a mile race in my life that was even mildly amusing.

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Very few of us have what it takes to run a mile the way Alan Webb can run a mile. What it takes, though, is so different from what is required to be a world-class 100-meter sprinter or an elite marathoner. Collect the most elusive, hard-to-cultivate qualities of top sprinters (fast-twitch muscle fibers, for one) and top marathoners (good genes help, but hard work, desire, and discipline are thought to be more important) and put them together: that's how you get a champion middle-distance runner.

I eventually learned that I don't have what it takes to run a five-minute mile (for a high-school girl to break five is almost akin to a high school boy breaking four).  So I'll have to settle for the less-thrilling-but-rewarding-in-its-own-way discipline of longer distances; for someone of my ability, these races will almost always be casual, low-stakes affairs. There's an immense satisfaction that comes from conquering 26.2 miles, or even 13.1 miles. But there is nothing like running four fast quarter-miles on a track: throwing elbows at other runners and jockeying for the inside lane, feeling lactic acid build up in your legs, and going all out on the last lap. I know I said that competitive running isn't fun, but if you do insist on running competitively, then the mile is the closest to fun you can get.

In the past 10 years, the United States has nurtured a handful of superb middle-distance runners: Nick Symmonds, Bernard Lagat, Matt Centrowitz, Shannon Rowbury, Jenny Barringer Simpson, and Leo Manzano are just a few of the names track fans have grown attached to, and they're the reason we're not too sad about losing Alan Webb. He brought hope to the scene, but he wasn't our only hope. Still, Webb is credited with sparking the revival of American middle-distance running. Symmonds has said, "I remember thinking," after Webb ran a 3:30 1500 in Paris in 2007, "that if he could take on the world's best then so could I."

Some might argue that Webb's 3:53 mile in 2001—before he'd graduated from high school, before he'd signed a Nike contract—was the highlight of his career. Others might point to his many victories in 2007, when he ran a 3:46 mile and posted that 3:30 1500, which was the fastest 1500 in the world that year. To me, he deserves credit for still being on the circuit 13 years after that sensational smash of Jim Ryun's record. I’ll quote Quenton Cassidy one last time. "You don't become a champion by winning a morning workout," the character says early on in the book. "The only true way is to marshal the ferocity of your ambition over the course of many days, weeks, months, and (if you could finally come to accept it) years. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials." That's what you're supposed to do, and it's what Alan Webb did.