(Author’s note: This is the third in a five-part series detailing my favorite sports memories of all time.)
There’s something mythical about a sub-four-minute mile. Doctors and physicists alike used to scoff at the very idea that man was capable of propelling himself in four 400-meter loops in under a minute each.
Roger Bannister, of gangly limbs and current knighthood, imploded that notion like the decrepit and condemned foundation that it was built upon.
He showed that human potential far outstrips what we can imagine in a laboratory or what we can devise on a chalkboard.
As a former runner, whose favorite event was indeed the very same as Bannister's specialty, I have always held a special place in my heart, a particular wistful reverence, for that elusive Holy Grail of distance running: sub-four.
I’ve been lucky enough to watch several races with runners going under that fabled barrier of speed, pain tolerance, and grit since I first witnessed a man do the once-unthinkable, but this was the first and most breathtaking time.
I was truly blessed to grow up in Lincoln, Neb., and not strictly because I lived close enough to Memorial Stadium to hear the tunnel walk on Saturdays.
Nebraska has a phenomenal indoor track facility, with hydraulic banked curves, mondo surface, both straightaways lined with bleachers, and banners lining the outer edges of the track.
Fellow nerdy track dweebs know what all of that gibberish means. In short, this is a state-of-the-friggin'-art track. And in 2002, when the track was new to NU’s campus and picked to host a Golden Spike Tour event, it was one of the best in North America if not the world.
Nebraska had never before hosted a track meet with such big names.
Olympic decathlon dold medalist Dan O’Brien was there competing as was two-time Olympic gold medalist Allen Johnson.
As an aspiring distance runner, I was equally excited to see the Kenyan sensation and Olympic bronze medalist Bernard Lagat.
Needless to say, I was starstruck as my father and I found our seats somewhere in upper section of the grandstand. (There really aren’t any nosebleed sections in indoor track facilities, but, much to Nebraska track fans’ credit, the place was packed, so we were fairly high up.)
The meet went flawlessly.
We got to see Olympic gold medalists, shot putters who were as large as the houses you see in reruns of MTV Cribs, and a level of athletic excellence that I have seldom seen since. I have never been blessed enough to get to another fully professional track meet, but this one was truly incredible.
The finale of the meet was to be a one-mile showdown between the aforementioned Lagat and fellow Kenyan and almost equally as decorated distance runner Laban Rotich. Rotich himself was no slouch and had been known to be one of the better indoor racers of the time.
The two headliners were going to attempt something that had never been done on Nebraskan soil: They were going to try to go under four flat for a mile.
Not merely to go under four on an outdoor track—which is a feat in and of itself that is mind-bogglingly impressive when you consider it—but to do so on an indoor track would truly be nothing short of amazing.
As the runners took the starting line, I’m not sure what was bigger, the Mini Cooper-sized calf muscles of Lagat or my rap-video-24-inch-rim-sized eyes.
Once the gun went off, the announcer, in his best heavyweight championship announcer baritone, told us all to head down to the track and “push them all along.”
I excitedly whiffed on high-fiving my Dad, who wasn’t expecting it at all as it had been more of an improvisational attempt, and nearly killed myself in my attempt to run down the bleachers to get to the edge of the track.
Had there been a world record for “one man stampede to near paralysis-inducing doom,” I would have shattered it then and there.
Crash-landing near the fence, I was, relatively, unscathed. What unfolded before me was, simply put, speed—raw, unbridled, sustained, pin-your-shoulder-blades-to-the-back-of-your-seat speed.
Indoor track is unlike anything else in the sports world: It’s intimate; dangerous.
As the race unfolded before me, I became acutely aware that I was watching something raw and predatory. Lagat and Rotich went breezing by at a breath-taking clip, hardly registering on their faces or limbs that they were doing anything other than taking a perfunctory victory lap.
It was as if the crowd had all collectively started the ascent of some great roller-coaster ride.
We’d fastened our seatbelts, and now we were heading up a steep slope.
We were on our way to something special; some dazzling, flair-filled, loop-the-loop, and the anticipation was sonorously building, rippling through the crowd like a collective shiver.
As the race unfolded down to the final 200 meters—the blistering last lap of indoor competition is always tantalizingly fast due to its being merely half as large as outdoor ovals—we began our drop.
Rotich, who had held the lead gamely throughout much of the race, was powerless to stop Lagat as the bell lap sounded.
I remember hearing an urban legend when I was growing up about some foolish man who had strapped a JATO (Jet-Fuel Assisted Take Off) device to his station wagon and the car had rocketed off the ground directly into the side of an Arizona mountain.
I was reminded of this legend when the bell lap sounded and Lagat made his move.
So fast and so decisive was his pass of Rotich that I felt as though I may have gotten whiplash watching him explode past.
The pace, which had gradually been crescendoing to near-suicidal levels, ratcheted up.
The crowd, mere feet from the action, exploded along with Lagat’s finishing kick.
Hoarsely screaming, 12-15 feet from one of the best distance runners in recent history, I clapped so hard I thought my hands might fracture. The crowd was swept up in the wake of the runners as they went by, and to this day I would swear that Lagat, by his very force of movement alone, created a very palpable undertow that nearly pulled us all down onto the track with him.
With his patented eye-bulge and sprinter-like leg-lift, he rocketed past the finish line.
The clock froze at 3:55.
My eyebrows haven’t lowered since. My face looked like Nicholas Cage after witnessing [insert any ludicrous Nick Cage movie plot here].
The indoor track facility has never been louder. Thunderous applause was ricocheting off the walls, cascading from the stands; a Niagara Falls of crowd noise.
Lagat, ever the beaming gentleman, jogged a slow victory lap, basking in our adulation.
It was the first ever sub-four run on Nebraska soil. It was my first ever witness to such a monumental track event. It forever altered the way I viewed track and field, cementing my love of the mile race, and it was something that will remain with me until I am grizzled and ancient.
Lagat went on to become a U.S. citizen, a mulitple-time world champion, and the conqueror of virtually every American record he felt like shattering.
He’s still formidable, even now at the age of 35 (In track and field years that makes him roughly the same age as Hugh Hefner.), and looks to be amongst the leaders in this year’s world championships at 5000 meters.
For a track junkie, this was my gateway drug; my first hit of a track-rock (Get it? Get it? Alright, I’m sorry.) that forever hooked me.
I’ll treasure forever having been there, a few feet away from what I would argue is sport’s most exciting barrier being broken.