The 4-Minute Mile is still worth celebrating
After outrcry, Track & Field News brings back its first U.S. sub-4 list for 2023; Fast Forest Project is honoring the fastest U.S. Milers as part of a broader sustainability initiative
By Martin Fritz Huber, Outside
Earlier this week, word got out on Twitter that Track & Field News, the self-proclaimed “bible of the sport since 1948” would apparently no longer be updating its chronological list of Americans who break 4 minutes in the Mile. There was a statement on its website justifying the decision that read: “The advent of super-shoes has bombarded the 4:00 barrier into something no longer relevant for tracking, although many new members would have made it even without high-tech footwear.”
Ouch! Although the dramatic influx of sub-4 performances in recent years has been well-documented, to some members of the very online track community, the bible of the sport was committing a kind of heresy. Clayton Murphy, an Olympic bronze medalist in the 800 meters and 3:51 Miler chimed in to ask why a benchmark’s becoming more attainable suddenly rendered it irrelevant. Others pointed out that it was a little reductionist to chalk everything up to the rise of high-tech footwear; much has been made, for instance, about Boston’s new indoor facility that touts itself as “the fastest track in the world.” Some of the responses hinted at a generational divide, as if in refusing to acknowledge future sub-4 performances the folks at Track & Field News were acting as gatekeeping fogeys. Pro runner Gabriela DeBues-Stafford responded with a dinosaur emoji. Austin Miller, who competes for Tinman Elite and who just recorded his first sub-4 Mile two weeks ago, was impressively succinct: “Lol, all these old track nerds love to blame the shoes.”
As something of an old track nerd myself, I considered writing a spirited defense of my geriatric cohort over at Track & Field News. (Why chastise anyone for what was ultimately just a labor of love to begin with?) But there was no need. On Friday, the editors changed their mind and announced that, due to popular demand, they would continue to update the list going forward.
“The original decision was simply based on our (non-scientific) belief that the stat had lost its popularity,” the site’s editor Garry Hill told me in an email. “In retrospect I now think the opposite might be true, as modern shoes / tracks / training have combined to make a shot at a sub-4:00 now a reasonable goal for a lot more people.”
In the spirit of this week’s kerfuffle, it’s worth highlighting a venture that has found a novel way to commemorate the nation’s swiftest Milers.
Enter Ben Blankenship’s “Fast Forest” project. For a long time, the Rio Olympic 1500 meter finalist (and aspiring marathoner) had been harboring an idea to plant a tree for every American man who breaks the 4 minute mark and for every American woman who runs sub-4:30. (There’s also a non-binary category, which uses the barrier for whatever gender category the athlete competes in.) Last year, Blankenship was able to actualize this arboreal tribute in Dorris Ranch, a park in Springfield, Oregon, as part of a collaboration with the Willamalane Park and Recreation District. The park is situated a mere three miles from Hayward Field, the University of Oregon’s famed track stadium and bears the distinction of being the oldest commercial hazelnut orchard in the nation. At present, there are 756 designated hazelnut tree saplings, each bearing a small biodegradable name tag with athlete’s Mile time, the date and location of their accomplishment, and a number designating where they fall in the chronological order of barrier breakers.
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