My First Sub-4
My head was pounding and I struggled to catch my breath as my time finally appeared: 3:59.78 and all the pain instantly went away.
By Steve Slattery
The story of my first 4 minute Mile started in elementary school gym class. We were running the Mile and I decided I was going to run as hard as I could. I don’t remember my time, but it was a lot faster than any kid had ever run at our school and I was in the youngest grade. My gym teacher called my parents that night and told them I needed to run track. That was my first Mile and the beginning of my journey as a runner.
I always thought that I could break 4. I have never been a person that puts a limit on myself, but it wasn’t until after the New Jersey Meet of Champs my freshman year when I ran 4:20 that I realized it would be WHEN and not IF I could do it. I improved every year, taking seconds off my time, but in college at the University of Colorado, I began concentrating on the 3000 meter steeplechase and my opportunities to break 4 became limited. The closest that I came was in a quad meet at Nebraska in indoor track. I ran 4:01 by myself and came back about 45 minutes later to win the 1000 meters. I knew that I was ready; I just needed a race.
My first Mile after college was the Bowerman Mile at the Prefontaine Classic in 2004. The field was loaded, the winning time would be closer to 3:50 than 4 minutes. This was my opportunity. My last workout before the meet was a ladder and in the middle I ran an all-out 600 meters. I ran 1:18, the fastest 600 that I would ever run. I knew then that I was ready to go.
When I arrived at the meet in Eugene, Oregon, Nike was making a big deal out of the Mile that year. It had been 50 years since Roger Bannister became the first man to break 4 minutes and they gave us throwback uniforms to honor the occasion. The Mile at Pre was the biggest, deepest in the world, and was contested on the most famous track in America. The stands were going to be packed and it would be live on TV. Breaking 4 minutes was not the goal of the race, I wanted to mix it up with the best Milers and that would require a time much faster than 4 minutes.
The Pre Classic is always in the middle of the day, and it was a hot and windy that June day. Jogging out onto the track I was ready to go. Running the Bowerman Mile in front of a sold-out crowd at Hayward Field is magical.
I remember thinking to myself if I don’t break 4 minutes here then maybe I never will. The race was loaded, led by Alan Webb who was running really well that season and was trying to break 3:50. My goal of the race was to just compete, so I don’t remember all the details of my splits.
From the second the gun went off, the pace was hot as Webb gapped the field. Like every Mile, the first lap flew by, the pack was running single file and I was right in the middle. Webb was about 1:52 through 800 meters and the rest of us were slow going through in a little over 2 minutes. Nobody wanted to lead the chase pack on a windy day.
Just before the bell, Nick Willis exploded out of the pack. I hit the bell a little over 3 minutes and was in 4th place. I tried to charge hard down the backstretch but the wind was stiff. As I rounded the turn onto the homestretch, the crowd was on its feet. I was still in 4th but Webb was way out front and the first three runners were out of reach. I was kicking as hard as I could, but someone shot past me then another then another. I fought all the way through the line, but could not gain back any of that lost ground. I crossed the line in 7th, disappointed.
As I stared at the scoreboard waiting for my time, I had no idea what I ran as the finish clock was stopped at 3:50, Webb’s winning time. My head was pounding and I struggled to catch my breath as my time finally appeared: 3:59.78 and all the pain instantly went away. I raced the best Milers in the biggest track meet in America and I got my ass kicked, but running your first sub-4 is always special and I left the meet excited that I had checked that box off my running bucket list.
Breaking 4 minutes – #260 U.S. man – was the biggest stop on my journey as a runner. The Mile was the reason why I started running. Without a doubt, it is the most iconic distance in track & field, and the 4 minute Mile is still a barrier runners and non-runners alike celebrate and understand the importance of going sub-4.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Steve Slattery, who has a Mile personal record of 3:56.75 from 2006, won the 2003 USA 3000m Steeplechase title. Slattery also was a three-time Team USA member (World Championships 2003 & 2005 and World Indoor Championships 2006). He is married to Sara Slattery (nee Gordon), also a world class runner, and both were All-Americans at the University of Colorado.