Breaking Four: A Family Affair - Lap 1
By Liam Boylan-Pett, Bring Back the Mile
Editor's Note: This is part one in a four part series written by Liam Boylan-Pett, #315 on the United States sub-4 minute Mile list, boasting a personal best of 3:58.19 (2011 Falmouth Mile). He obtained Bachelor's Degrees in Sociology and Creative Writing from Columbia University and finished his NCAA eligibility at Georgetown University where he completed a Master's Degree in Journalism. Liam currently trains with the New Jersey-New York Track Club and you can read his occasional musings on his Tumblr - Will Run for Food.
The crowd watched in awe, voices speaking softly to one another asking: “Is he finally going to do it?”
At the 2010 Penn State National Indoor Invitational, a line of five runners separated from the rest of the pack in the one-mile run. They went through the first quarter-mile in 59 seconds.
Two more circuits on the banked 200-meter track and they came through the half-mile in two minutes flat.
Spectators lined the entire oval. Most of them focused on the runner in red: Sam Bair III. He remained calm on the rail in third place, his choppy stride and arm carriage unwavering.
“Come on, Sam!” some fans yelled. “You got this!”
Others watched hopefully, their eyes traveling from him to the clock, the clock to him and back again.
From the crowd came cheers and chants for other names. But none were as urgent as those for Bair. There was something about this day. The crowd could feel it. It was going to happen.
It takes a little over eight laps to run the indoor mile.
It takes a little under four minutes to achieve immortality at the distance.
No one had to tell Bair that. He knew.
He came within a second of breaking four minutes on four separate occasions from 2006 to 2009.
But that was only part of it for Sam Bair III.
Because over thirty years ago his father, Sam Bair Jr., ran a mile in 3 minutes and 58 seconds. Only two other father/son duos in America had broken four, the Bairs wanted to be the third.
The 26-year-old Bair III glanced at the clock as they neared the three-quarter mark of the race.
It read “3:00.”
“Fifty-nine seconds to go,” thought Bair.
Such a familiar spot.
The footage is in black and white and specks of sand seem to cover the film, but there are 10 men in the crouched position awaiting the crack of the gun. It is June 23, 1967 in Bakersfield, California. Ten skinny, long legged men are attempting to run a mile as fast as they can. From the gun, Jim Ryun shoots to the lead. He pulls away from the field throughout the race and blisters through a 53 second last quarter mile to break the World Record in 3 minutes, 51.1 seconds.
Ryun destroyed his competitors, winning by over four seconds. The camera, focused on Ryun, fails to show the rest of the racers crossing the line, but a slew of them ran lifetime bests.
Dave Wilborn ran 3:56.2. Tom Von Ruden was right behind him in 3:56.9. Then slightly behind them in 3 minutes and 58.7 seconds was a short runner in a Kent State singlet and a mop of hair atop his head. That man was Sam Bair, Jr. and he was the 24th American to run a mile in less than four minutes.
“In those days it was a big deal,” says Bair, Jr. “Breaking four was relatively new when I did it. That was something special.”
Bair, Jr. was a three sport athlete in his Pennsylvania high school. With only 130 students in his graduating class, if you were an athlete, he says, you did it all. Football in the fall led to basketball in the winter and the day after the basketball season ended, he was on the track preparing for the season.
Excelling on the oval, Bair, Jr. won two state championships in the 800-meter run. After running 1:56 his junior year, he lowered his time to 1:54 during his senior season. The time was good but not great, and only a few schools offered scholarships. Kent State in northeast Ohio seemed to be the right fit, and Bair, Jr. accepted a scholarship to run for the Golden Eagles. After running around 30 miles a week in high school, he was ready to up his training for college.
Walking into the coach’s office to report for the first day of practice, Bair, Jr. was a surprise to the man behind the desk. Even a disappointment.
“He thought he was getting this tall guy,” says Bair. “Some big, powerful guy who was going to power out some half miles for him.”
Instead, standing in the doorway was a 5 foot 7 inch, rail thin kid who couldn’t have weighed more than 120 pounds.
“You better run the mile,” the coach decided after taking one look at the kid.
“That’s what I wanna do anyways,” Bair, Jr. replied.
The young runner planned on running the mile since the day he graduated high school. Not having to worry about getting ready for football or basketball anymore, he could concentrate all his efforts on running. There wasn’t much in terms of running literature, but with issues of Track & Field News strewn across his bedroom floor, Bair, Jr. poured himself into whatever he could find.
Peter Snell of New Zealand was viewed as the greatest middle distance runner in the world at the time, and the famed Arthur Lydiard was his coach. Lydiard was considered the number one mind in terms of training athletes as the tiny country of New Zealand was producing throngs of world class milers. New Zealand was to miling what Jamaica is to sprinting today. In one of the magazines that Bair, Jr. came across, he found out that Snell was running 100 miles a week.
He figured he should do the same.
He bought Lydiard’s training book: Run To The Top. With the book on his bedside stand that summer before enrolling at Kent State, Bair, Jr. started running.
Devising his own plan, he spent the first week of his summer training running five miles a day. The next week he was up to seven per day. By the third week, he ran 70 miles in the seven day span. By adding morning runs, he got up to 85. Sure enough, only a month and a half into his summer training, Bair was running 100 miles in a week.
So when his coach told him he was going to be a miler, Bair, Jr. happily obliged.
A little over three years later, he was breaking four minutes.
He ran 4:08 as a freshman. Then 4:04 as a sophomore. And 3:58 in the magical Bakersfield race. As if reciting from an encyclopedia off the bookshelves of his brain, Bair, Jr. can reel off his race results—to two decimal places—four decades after he ran them.
“I ran my own splits,” He says of the Bakersfield race. “I didn’t even care about being competitive. It was a big deal, and all I wanted to do was break four.”
He didn’t have much time to celebrate.
The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) was the main governing body of track and field. They held races all over the country throughout the year. The runners were expected to be there.
Bair, Jr. hop-scotched across the U.S. running races. In one 52 week period, Bair ran at 28 different venues. A cross country meet through the muddy sludge of an Iowa cornfield in December. An indoor two-mile in February in New York. An outdoor mile Los Angeles in June. All the while he was running his 100 miles a week, sometimes even topping out at 120.
However, like most runners in that time period, Bair, Jr. was struggling to make ends meet. Amateur athletes couldn’t accept sponsorship or prize money to race, so they had to find other ways to support themselves. It was practically impossible to train and make a living.
Eventually, Bair had enough of the AAU. In 1974 he joined the International Track Association, a start up professional racing series. He accepted money from the group and was only allowed to race other runners that were a part of the ITA. The association disbanded before the 1976 Montreal Olympics and Bair was left to try to rejoin the AAU. They wouldn’t make it easy.
Claiming he would “contaminate” the other races, the AAU would not allow Bair, Jr. to compete against other AAU athletes.
According to a 1978 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bair, Jr. would have been allowed to rejoin the AAU if he had repaid the $750 he was given for racing: $250 to his local AAU chapter, $250 to the National AAU Chapter, and $250 to charity. He gave it all to charity. The AAU wouldn’t budge. So neither would Bair.
He continued to run his 100 mile weeks and found non-AAU sanctioned races (there weren’t many), but his days of elite running were over. His battle with the AAU faded.
Like the other runners of his time, he decided to stop running competitively and do the real world things like get a job and start a family. He took a job teaching Health and Physical Education classes at a Pittsburgh Community College, and even began coaching runners.
In 1984, Sam and Arlene Bair welcomed the third Sam Bair into the world.
For Lap 2 CLICK here.