The Four-Minute Mile Is Still Worth Celebrating
The Fast Forest Project is honoring the fastest American milers as part of a broader sustainability initiative
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Earlier this week, word got out on Twitter that Track and Field News, the self-proclaimed “bible of the sport since 1948” would apparently no longer be updating its chronological list of Americans who break four minutes in the mile. There was a statement on the Track and Field News 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 and 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-four 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 and 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 Olympic 1,500-meter finalist (and aspiring marathoner) had been harboring an idea to plant a tree for every American man who breaks the four minute barrier 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.
The Fast Forest represents half of Blankenship’s “Endless Mileage Project,” a running-themed sustainability venture that also collects clothes and gear for donation. As to the question of why he chose to honor fast mile times with trees, Blankenship says that, in his experience, “all the best running spots are through the woods.”
On its website, Endless Mileage acknowledges that the barrier isn’t as vaunted as it used to be. “In track & field, the 4-minute and 4:30 mile barrier seemed elusive—until it didn’t. The barrier has become the standard.” Given the lack of spatial limitations on the Dorris Ranch grounds, however, Blankenship doesn’t see any reason not to recognize those who accomplish the feat. “Theoretically, as long as something insane doesn’t happen where we have 2,000 people breaking the barrier every year, we will have plenty of trees for decades to come,” he says.
The park is open to the public and includes miles of dirt paths popular with runners. Anyone who hopes that the Fast Forest will one day provide soaring canopies for mid-run reveries might be disappointed; mature hazelnut trees typically only grow to about 15 feet. Technically, they are classified as shrubs. As Blankenship pointed out, however, the choice of species is consistent with the Fast Forest’s sustainability initiative. The vast majority of U.S. hazelnuts come from Oregon. As orchards in the state have long been beset by a fungus known as the Eastern Filbert Blight, the Fast Forest is part of a coordinated effort to keep up the population of healthy trees.
To that end, earlier this month 64 trees were tagged in the Fast Forest—the class of 2022. Only two of these newly designated saplings commemorated the achievements of female athletes, which suggests that 2022 was a lean year for American women milers. Of course the discrepancy also indicates that perhaps 4:30 is not a good women’s equivalent for the four-minute mile. Indeed, according to the conversion calculator based on the World Athletics 2022 scoring tables, the women’s equivalent of 3:59.99 is 4:36.23.
But 4:36 doesn’t really have the same ring to it. At Endless Mileage, the principal advocate for setting the women’s benchmark at 4:30 was Stephanie Garcia, a professional steeplechaser with a 4:24 mile PB, who serves as the organization’s vice president. She is not alone. In 2017, Oiselle CEO Sally Bergesen wrote an op-ed for Outside that also makes the case for 4:30 as a sensible choice for “women’s four-minute mile,” even if it’s harder to attain.
In her piece, Bergesen notes that the “dearth of women’s milestones and tradition is a result of our relatively recent entry into competitive sports.“ The lag is also reflected in the chronology of Fast Forest inductees, Blankenship says: “When you consider that Don Bowden first broke the barrier in 1957, there were no opportunities for women and it was nearly 20 years until Francie Larrieu broke the 4:30 barrier in 1975,” he says.
They seem to be making up for lost time, last year notwithstanding. When Bergesen’s piece came out, 71 American women had run under 4:30. According to the website Bring Back the Mile, that number currently stands at exactly 100, with five new barrier breakers already joining their ranks in 2023.
Bring on the trees.