Rounding the bend to the final straightaway of the 1964 Compton Relays, Jim Ryun’s arms pumped. He felt no pain as he kicked the home straight. When Ryun crossed the finish line in eighth place, the 17-year-old from Wichita, Kansas, became the first high school boy to run a sub-four-minute mile.
“Coach Timmons and I wrote the goal down. We planned and prayed, and it turned out that I ran 3:59 that day,” Ryun said. “It was the beginning of a new future.”
For nearly a decade, the world record in the mile was stopped at four minutes. When Roger Bannister broke the barrier May 6, 1954, he accomplished the impossible. Ten years later, Ryun raised the benchmark for high school boys. Since then, progress has stopped. High school boys and girls rarely run the mile. The crowd’s favorite distance has faded into an obscurity through an act of Congress.
“The people in the stands were going crazy, they were clapping, stomping and making as much noise as they could,” Scott says. “That’s how important the sub-four minute mile was to the people of Des Moines.”
Sixty years after Bannister’s record run, a grassroots organization is hoping to change all that—and rebuild American running from the mile on up. Bring Back the Mile, founded in 2012 by Ryan Lamppa (who also helped create Running USA), intends to lobby state high school athletic boards to bring the distance back to championship events. Their hope: the world’s most iconic distance will inject new enthusiasm into track and field and preserve the history of the sport.
“In the 70s the sub-four minute mile was a huge deal,” says former American record holder Steve Scott. “Back in those days, it was the one event everyone could relate to. The fans understood the mile, they understood the significance of it.”
In 1979, Scott set out to run the first sub-four minute mile at the Drake Relays, a long-standing and top-tier track meet at Drake Stadium. Despite cold and windy weather, Scott was on pace to break the four minute barrier.
“The people in the stands were going crazy, they were clapping, stomping and making as much noise as they could,” Scott says. “It was the most unique moment for me, ever, because the whole stadium was there rooting just for me.”
"That’s how important the sub-four minute mile was to the people of Des Moines."
Track fans used to fill stadiums and were knowledgeable of the sport, but today even championship events have empty seats. The 2013 U.S. Outdoor Championships at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa, sold 6,500 to 10,000 tickets each day in a stadium that seats more than 14,000.
So when and why did the mile die? You can start by blaming Congress. In 1975, it passed the Metric Conversion Act, which established a United States Metric Board to coordinate the conversion from the imperial system to the metric system. Even though the country never made the switch, most tracks were converted to the metric system in the late 1970s and 1980s when they were upgraded to all-weather polyurethane surfaces. The new metric tracks were the international standard, but many were built without a mile start line. High school competitions continued to cover four laps, but four laps on a metric track is 1,600 meters and nine meters short of a mile.
“By the mid-80s every state dropped the mile and two-mile, except Massachusetts, and went to four laps on the track—the 1600,” Lamppa says. “Because the so-called adults made a decision to do four laps on a track and say that's close enough.”
As interest in the mile has waned, recreational running is at an all-time high in America. According to Running USA, 2013 was a record year for marathon participation with 541,000 finishers, a 40 percent increase over the past decade. But many track and field events haven’t seen this boom, possibly because recreational runners cannot compete alongside the pros, an element that has been credited with boosting marathon participation.
“People understand the mile because they can relate to it,” says Morgan Uceny a three-time U.S. champion. “In a sport that needs as many spectators as possible it would be beneficial to have people understand more about the sport.”
If the mile is key to reviving track and field participation, BBTM will first need to bring back the iconic distance. This year, the organization is promoting road mile events around the country. The inaugural 2014 Bring Back the Mile Grand Prix offers significant prize money and encourages recreational runners to toe the start line with the pros—in an attempt to duplicate the success of marathon racing.
But the most important step to reviving the iconic distance is also the most difficult. In its fourth year, the organization hopes to eliminate 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter races from high school competition. While the National Federation of State High School Associations, the leadership organization for high school sports, can make recommendations to the states, each is ultimately independent and free to make its own rules.
There really isn’t a resistance to the movement, but lack of action from state track and field directors. (Oregon, Vermont, and New York girls run the Olympic standard 1,500 and 3,000 meters.) Massachusetts and the New Balance Nationals run the mile, while the rest of the states seem to shrug their shoulders. Maybe all they need is a little push from Bring Back the Mile.
When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute barrier 60 years ago and Jim Ryun followed 10 years later, the world celebrated. The 1,600 meters? No one would have noticed.
“High school boys still dream about breaking four minutes for the mile, because it means something,” says Lamppa. “Breaking four minutes for the 1600 means virtually nothing.”