The Quest to Run a Sub-Four-Minute Mile at Age 40
Being old doesn’t mean you can’t be fast. Just ask two-time Olympian Anthony Famiglietti.
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I used to think that turning 40 was something that only happened to other people. Now that I’m in my mid-30s, I’m starting to steel myself for the inevitable. Not that I’ll be investing in an obscene sports car, or anything like that. The economics of online publishing being what they are, I’ll probably have to find a less ostentatious way to cling to my vanishing youth. Worst case, I’ll start using Snapchat.
Anthony Famiglietti has loftier ambitions. After the two-time Olympic steeplechaser turns 40 this November, he wants to become the fourth man in history to run a sub four-minute mile after hitting the big 4-0. (If he can secure the funding, he intends to make a documentary about it called Age Defiant, which will also feature other athletes who maintained elite-level performances well into their 40s and beyond.) Famiglietti’s moonshot mile is perhaps an unusual way to confront the beast of senescence, but it makes a crazy kind of sense. When you’ve spent more than half your life constructing your identity around the fact that you can run faster than 99.99 percent of the world’s population, it’s not easy to let go.
“As an elite athlete you have to come to terms, on a much deeper level, with the slow degradation of your ability,” Famiglietti says. “When you see that number, 40, the mid-life crisis, the waking up at night stuff starts to creep in. You take an inventory of what you’ve achieved and what you haven’t.”
And Famiglietti’s inventory of running accomplishments is nothing to scoff at. In addition to making two U.S. Olympic teams (2004, 2008), he was a dominant presence on the New York City road running scene in the mid-aughts, honing his ability by churning out endless loops in Central Park. According to the IAAF all-time list, Famiglietti’s mile PR (3:55.71, set in 2006) makes him the 388th fastest man in history over the distance. With his 40th birthday looming, Famiglietti wants to substitute that small piece of running immortality for a larger chunk.
“There are seven billion people, but only a thousand and change have ever run a sub four-minute mile—that’s astonishing. And only three, after 40, have ever gone under four,” Famiglietti says.
The three runners who belong in that exclusive latter group are Bernard Lagat, Eamonn Coghlan, and Anthony Whiteman. It’s worth noting that these men were all 1,500-meter specialists at one point in their careers. (Though Lagat and Coghlan also went on to establish themselves as world-class threats in the 5,000-meters.) That was never the case for Famiglietti, whose principal discipline was the steeplechase, before he turned to longer road events like the 8K, where he was the 2007 USATF champion.
The standard approach for professional runners is to move up in distance with age—not the other way around.
If Famiglietti were to reinvent himself as a miler, it would fly in the face of the conventional wisdom of his sport. The standard approach for professional runners is to move up in distance with age—not the other way around. A 1,500-meter runner may graduate to the 5,000 for the latter part of his or her career (see: Lagat or Shannon Rowbury), just as 5,000 and 10,000-meter specialists (see: Mo Farah or Galen Rupp) often move to the marathon. The frequently cited reason for this is the gradual decline in VO2 max, which typically begins around age 30, as well as a decrease in muscle mass and power. Although we still don’t have a comprehensive scientific explanation for the myriad factors surrounding athlete age and performance, generally speaking, the belief is that speed goes before strength. Haile Gebrselassie was 35 when he broke his own world record at the 2008 Berlin Marathon. In the mile, on the other hand, the world record has almost always been held by someone in their mid-20s.
Seen in this light, Famiglietti’s attempt to run within four seconds of his mile PR (which he set as a 27-year-old) feels like act of defiance. This would be consistent with the devil-may-care persona that he has cultivated over the years. When we spoke on the phone, Famiglietti told me that in his first race ever, as a fifth grader, he ran so hard that he passed out midway through. Famiglietti’s notoriously crappy diet also stands out in a sport where most pros are hyper-vigilant about what they eat. While competing at the 2001 University Games in Beijing, Famiglietti claims he ate at McDonalds every day for two weeks. True to form, Famiglietti’s running apparel company, which he co-manages with his wife Karen, is called Reckless Running. (In case you’re wondering, the Reckless aesthetic seems to be vaguely retro with an emphasis on skulls, as if Tracksmith were taking posthumous creative instruction from Alexander McQueen.)
All recklessness aside, Famiglietti says he is taking his current training very seriously. He is being coached by Alan Webb, the American record holder in the mile. The main challenge is dealing with accumulated injury, like severe arthritis in his right foot and ankle joints that have taken a beating from years of competitive steeplechasing. “Sometimes, when I start to run, my left foot will dislocate and I’ll have to run up to a tree, place it between the branches, and pop it back into place,” Famiglietti says. Occasionally he will solicit help from a lucky stranger.
Admittedly, that doesn’t sound like someone who is on his way to breaking four minutes in a few months’ time. Although Famiglietti has already improved on the 4:16 road mile he ran at the beginning of this month by clocking 4:11 on an uphill course last weekend, 11 seconds in the mile is an eternity.
Still, Famiglietti may have an outside shot of achieving his goal. The fact that only three 40-year-olds have run a sub four-minute mile is probably a little misleading; it’s safe to assume that the majority of runners who might have been capable of achieving the feat retired from competitive running long before their 40th birthday. In other words, at least part of the reason why so few elite runners have done it is because most haven’t bothered to try.
Famiglietti wants to be the exception. And while he never had the running economy of someone like Bernard Lagat, whose hypnotic stride is the epitome of grace, he says that he’s never given much credence to the idea that getting older means you can no longer be fast. Famiglietti can back up this skepticism: he coaches several top high school runners in North Carolina and says there are days when he can still outsprint them in practice.
“In the past, I think a lot of people made the assumption that as you age you lose speed and that it wasn’t worth trying to maintain, and that it would be easier to just dive into marathons and ultras. Even Lagat is doing half marathons now,” Famiglietti says. “I used to abide by the same myth. But I noticed in workouts that I wasn’t losing speed—I just wasn’t utilizing or activating it. When I did, initially it was difficult, but then there would be these moments where I’d outkick all the kids, run a 26-second 200, and feel great.” The day after these sessions, Famiglietti always feels a little sore, but it’s reassuring to tap that reservoir of speed. “I realized that it’s still in there,” he says, “it just needs to be awakened.”