Don Bowden Opened Gateway for American Milers
By Mark Winitz
Longtime track & field writer Mark Winitz interviewed Don Bowden in 2004 for an article that appeared in American Track & Field magazine. On the 55th anniversary of Bowden’s first sub-4 minute Mile by an American, Bring Back the Mile asked Mark to contact Don for his thoughts about resurrecting the Mile to the prominence it had during his athletic era. Much of the original American Track & Field interview remains intact here, along with interesting, new material from one of the world’s legendary Milers.
On Saturday, June 1, 1957, in Stockton, Calif., 20-year-old University of California junior Don Bowden broke a barrier that only three years earlier people had called insurmountable.
Roger Bannister had first transcended that barrier—the sub-4 minute Mile—on May 6, 1954. That June day in Stockton, at the Pacific Association / AAU Track & Field Championships, the lanky Bowden led the Mile all the way, hitting the finish in 3:58.7 to become the first American to break the 4 minute barrier.
His breakthrough made headline news from New York to Los Angeles. And although he never ran sub-4 again, he had left an indelible moment in U.S. track & field history.
Bowden, by his own admission, was actually a better half miler. But he was more than just an athlete. He was student body president at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Jose, Calif. from which he graduated in 1954. That same year, Bowden set a world high school record of 1:52.3 for 880 yards. In 1957, a couple of weeks after his epic Mile, Bowden turned in a 1:47.2 880 to win the NCAA final in Austin, Texas—at the time the second fastest ever run.
Despite his brilliance, Bowden fell short of Olympic glory. At the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, hampered by a bout with mononucleosis, he failed to make the 1500 meter final. In 1960, a severed Achilles tendon kept him from reaching the Olympic Games in Rome.
In 2008, Bowden was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame.
Today, Bowden, 75, still works out of a San Jose office near his Saratoga, Calif. home—the same office in which he’s spent the last 33 years as a businessman. The former Miler now runs a business exporting Tech-Tone brand tennis court surfaces and lighting and accessory items for tennis courts and tracks. A blue and gold wind breaker, Cal’s (University of California Berkeley’s) colors, is draped over a chair. Track memorabilia accent the room. Several oil paintings of his family’s log cabin in redwood tree groves near Santa Cruz, Calif. highlight a wall.
Bowden and his wife, Betsy, own three Great Pyrenees dogs. Today, the former Miler keeps fit, he says, to continue pursuing his longtime love of fly fishing. He attends a physical education class at West Valley Community College. Bowden has an engaging smile and a confident, measured way of answering questions.
Question: How does it feel to have been the first American under the legendary 4 minute barrier?
Don Bowden: It was a great honor for me. It was a goal that I had worked hard for with my coach Brutus Hamilton. I feel quite fortunate because it has opened a lot of doors for me over the years.
One reason that I went to Cal was because of Coach Hamilton. Not only was he a great philosopher, but he had a great outlook on life. One of his primary goals with any athlete was to make sure that they had a well rounded education. It was physical, social and very academic. He believed in the old Greek ideal, and part of that was books. I was also fortunate to have a very supportive family and a great coach. Sports were just part of your life because there was no way to make a living in track in those days. The real goal was to be a balanced person.
Question: What motivated you to compete in track & field over other sports?
Bowden: My coach at Lincoln High School in San Jose, Lee Cox, was the football coach and a good track coach. In those days, I was 6-3 and weighed 140 or 150 pounds. I wanted to play football. When I told Coach Cox, he said, “Don, if you do that we’re going to need a mop and a broom to pick you up. Plus, your father is my dentist and he’s going to come back at me. So, I’m going to make a track man out of you.” True story. He started working with me, and fortunately, I had the natural ability to do well in high school.
Question: Do you think young people’s attitudes about sports have changed a lot since you were a youngster?
Bowden: Yes, I think they’ve changed, and, perhaps, not for the better. Participation in sports is a great way to maximize your physical abilities. But not everybody can win. I think today there is too much of an emphasis on winning. I think people lose focus about simply doing your best and maximizing your own abilities. The young people who can go on and become professional athletes is so infinitesimal. So, parents shouldn’t put too much weight on winning.
Question: Which leads right into the next area I’d like you to comment on. An integral piece of Bring Back the Mile’s three-part mission is to create a national movement for the Mile as America’s distance and to replace the 1600 meters at high school state track & field meets across the country. When you were in high school, you were familiar with the half mile and the Mile. There was no such thing as 800 meters or 1600 meters.
Bowden: Yes, the Mile is a U.S. standard. We measure many things in miles, and it’s a unit of reference that we’re used to. So, I think people, in general, relate to a Mile. Also, when I was competing, athletes wanted to be a Miler. That’s American. It has some ring to it. Today, we need more programs like National Run a Mile Days organized by the American Running Association [a Bring the Back Mile partner - Editor]. It should be a model for youth fitness and for use in PE classes. Kids should get a certificate for running a Mile that says "I’m a Miler".
Number one, if we can get people involved in running the Mile, it will help address the larger problem of obesity in America. It would serve as a motivator to get out and exercise.
Number two, I think it could revive a lot of interest in track & field. People could see the Mile times in meets and relate them to their own experience walking or jogging a Mile, or whatever. And, they could talk about it to other people.
Also, the general media in the U.S. can relate to the Mile distance better than they can to 1500m or 1600, so they might be more inclined to write about a notable Mile performance than a metric mark.
Question: Have you discussed the movement to bring back the Mile with coaches and other influential folks in our sport?
Bowden: Yes, I have discussed it. We can have the Mile in high school and in college in the U.S. At Cal’s Brutus Hamilton Invitational meet, they have a [Don Bowden Invitational] Mile. We can bring back the Mile and have people relate to it. You can always go run the 1500 meter for the Olympic qualifying standard, or whatever, because it is the international standard. But, they run the 1500 and a lot of people look at me and ask how fast is that for a Mile?
Question: Can you tell me a little more about your training and your life as an athlete?
Bowden: I never worked out more than an hour and a half a day. Coach Hamilton would tell me to go in and hit the books. We had very concentrated workouts, a lot of intervals. A person on that kind of program can’t run a lot of miles. So, you don’t have the background to run fast Mile races time after time. You can do it once, like I did. Or, you can have a good day when everything comes together. The point is that I was able to spend time in other aspects of my life—in academics, with my family and with my other interests.
Question: You had two big disappointments in the pursuit of your Olympic dreams. How did you deal with those disappointments?
Bowden: The big thing about the Olympics is that it comes once every four years. The date for your race is set, and you need to be ready at that particular moment. Well, the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne were in October, and Cal was on the semester system. My father said that it was okay to participate in track as long as I graduated in four years. To compete in Melbourne, I had to drop out of the fall semester. And, to stay with my class, I had to do a double summer session. I did that while flying off somewhere every weekend to compete. It was too much, and I got mononucleosis which affected my performance in the Olympics. But I was really inspired just by being there. It made me want to come back. I got over the mononucleosis and 1957 was really my best year.
1960 really should have been my best year. But in those days we had the hard tracks, and we didn’t have the soft shoes. I had tendons that couldn’t handle all that hard pounding. So, I broke down. Then, when I got out of the Army, I had to go get a job. Yes, not being able to do well in the Olympics was a big disappointment, but you take the good with the bad.
Question: Since Roger Bannister’s historic sub-4 in 1954, the world record in the Mile has been lowered 16 seconds. What do you think are the biggest factors in these improvements?
Bowden: The reasons are obviously both psychological and physical. Bannister’s was a psychological barrier that he broke. It was the same with me. My mother kept writing Brutus Hamilton because she thought my heart my going to go out [from the effort]. That was a psychological factor for me. Also, in my day, weight training was really taboo for track athletes. Of course, you add in the hard surfaces and the old, heavy spikes. Today, you can run on the track on rainy days. Back then, you had to do something else. [Editor’s Note: Bowden and 1960 Olympic shot put gold medalist, Bill Nieder, were hired by 3M, where they developed the Tartan track, a popular synthetic track surface that was first used in an Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968.]
Of course, nutrition has played a large role. We used to load up with the same things before a meet that the football players ate before a game—steak. We also have some good coaches now who specialize in distance training. It wasn’t as specialized back then.
Question: Your historic sub-4 Mile stood as the American record for only three years before it was broken. More recently, the relative scarcity of ARs in the outdoor Mile sometimes fuel critics who maintain that Americans are failing in the middle distances. Until Alan Webb set the current men’s record in 2007, Steve Scott owned the record for 27 years. Mary Slaney’s current U.S. outdoor Mile record has stood since 1985. (See Mile record Progressions for more.)
Question: Do you have thoughts on this phenomenon?
Bowden: That’s a tough one. I’m not really close enough to it to really know why. The Brits were really big [in the Mile] at one time—Steve Ovett and Steve Cram. Before that, it was the Aussies—Herb Elliott. Then, you had New Zealand with Peter Snell. Since Steve Scott, who was very dominant, I don’t know. There’s a real vacuum. I do know that you can’t do it on an hour a day like I used to. For example, the Kenyans today are training almost full time because they know it’s their meal ticket to a better life. I admire that.
Question: It appears to me that American’s are on the upswing again, particularly among women; for example, Jenny Simpson, 2011 World Champion 1500m, and Morgan Uceny, ranked #1 in the world last year in the Mile and 1500 meters by Track & Field News.
Bowden: Yes, I think there is an upswing of professional distance coaches in the U.S. who coach women.
Question: Here’s a tougher question. Who do you think was the greatest Miler of all-time?
Bowden: I don’t go back that far (laughs). I know the greatest Miler of my time was Herb Elliott. He might have been the greatest of all-time. He had it both mentally and physically. Percy Cerutty was just a great coach. I went down there [to Australia] one time, but there was no way that I could train with his people. They were so dedicated.
Bannister, of course, was great, but he was trying to do the same thing that I was doing. He was going to medical school and running part time under Franz Stampfl, who used the old interval system. And, I think, that’s the best way to maximize your abilities given the time parameter. But Cerutty had Elliott doing fartlek, hills, sand dunes which gives you the strength to run one [fast Mile] after another. And, Elliott could do it.
That’s what I always point out to people about the Olympic Games in the distances. It’s not the fastest athlete who wins; it’s the strongest athlete because you have to get through the heats. And, Elliott [the 1960 Olympic gold medalist - Editor] was the strongest guy.
Question: Don, thanks for sending us the photo of yourself taken with Louis Zamperini in September 2011 for this article. That’s one for your wall, I’ll bet.
Bowden: I’m sure that you’ve read Zamperini’s book, Unbroken. He turned 95 in January and is still very sharp. It’s hard to believe after all he went through. He is an amazing American hero. I sincerely believe with his physical talent and mental determination Zamperini could have been the first under 4 minutes. Life does take unpredictable turns that often are not in our control. [Editor’s Note: In 1934, while attending Torrance (Calif.) High School, Zamperini set a world high school record in the Mile (4:21.2). At the 1938 NCAA Track & Field Championships, competing for USC, he set an NCAA Mile record (4:08.3). Zamperini’s athletic career ended after he enrolled in the U.S. Air Force and became a prisoner of war during World War II.] Photo right, Zamperini and Bowden. courtesy of John Naber, September 2011
Question: You’re still very involved in track & field, and sports in general, aren’t you?
Bowden: Yes. I’m on the Board of Directors of the foundation at my old high school (Abraham Lincoln High School) where I’m involved in raising money to support the students. I’m involved with the Big C—the graduate letterman society at Cal, a support organization for Cal athletics.
Of course, some of my closest and oldest friends are my old track teammates. I still enjoy going to track meets, although most of them are local. Betsy and I went on a Track & Field News tour to the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin, and I was at the last U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene. And, I watch track coverage on the web.
Question: In the big perspective of your life, how does your achievements on the track—particularly, your breakthrough American Mile—compare with your other accomplishments?
Bowden: It depends on how you define the word accomplishments. If you define it as world and American records, the accomplishments that I achieved on the track were because of hard work. But they were also because I was born with physical abilities to do it. I was blessed. Brutus Hamilton had a term for it that I thought was quite appropriate. He said that I was divinely gifted. And, I was.
In terms of a happy, balanced life with good friends, great family, and enjoying what I do everyday, yes, I’m a very blessed person.
Question: It’s been a real pleasure, Don. Thanks for taking the time to lend your thoughts and ideas to the Bring Back the Mile movement.
Bowden: It’s a very worthwhile project. In particular, I’d love to see some unification of efforts in expanding school fitness efforts across the country to encourage kids to a run a Mile. I’d certainly be willing to be involved in any way I can.
MARK WINITZ, based in Los Altos, Calif., is a longtime freelance track and field/distance running writer. He sits on USATF’s national Men’s Long Distance Running Executive Committee and Law & Legislation Committee. He also sits on Pacific Association / USATF’s Board of Athletics and is a Certified USATF Master Level Official / Referee. Mark is also a consultant, publicist and elite athlete recruiter for road races.