Coach Pat McGregor On Breaking 4:30 In A Sub-4:00 World

Coach Pat McGregor On Breaking 4:30 In A Sub-4:00 World

Indoor track season is in full tilt, and opportunities for men to crack the elusive four-minute mile are as abundant as ever.

Feb 28, 2019 by Pat McGregor
Coach Pat McGregor On Breaking 4:30 In A Sub-4:00 World

Indoor track season is in full tilt, and opportunities for men to crack the elusive four-minute mile are as abundant as ever. 

Year after year, some have to see "4:00" flash next to their names and leave meets wondering if they’ll ever get under. Some say it’s the only reason they continue to compete after college—they yearn to be in the same club as the runners who inspired them to pursue such a difficult endeavor. 

I personally felt an enormous burden lifted from my shoulders when I ran under four minutes; I could move on to the next dream in my life. I’m sure if I continued, faster times would've come, but the juice just wasn’t worth the squeeze for me. Improving from 3:58 to 3:54 wasn’t appealing; however, if I hadn’t gotten under 4:00 that day, I would've definitely continued running. Breaking the four-minute mile was the only way I felt validated as a good runner. 

Yeah, I was little crazy—my commitment to breaking four became my identity. 

Apart from getting on the “Go Go Juice,” I would have done just about anything. But is breaking four really that hard? The popular opinion among track enthusiasts seems to be that it’s not, and that it's far easier than the 4:30 “equivalent” barrier for women. 

In 2018, more American men dipped under 4:00 for the first time than ever before as 29 accomplished the feat. This is almost half the number of American women who have broken 4:30. 

Based on this statistic, you could say the two standards are not comparable, and many would agree that 4:30 is a relatively harder standard. I’m sure it’s more convenient to use 4:30, a round number, than it is using the less marketable 4:34, but 4:34 is probably closer to an equivalent standard. The current men's and women's American records, by Mary Decker Slaney (4:16.71) and Alan Webb (3:46.91), are practically equidistant from 4:00 and 4:30. 

So why is there such a disparity between the vaunted milestones? Perhaps there is more nuance to these two barriers than previously believed. 

The four-minute mile is a language that speaks to the masses beyond track and field fanatics. It holds a unique social equity with people that a women’s 4:30 mile time doesn’t quite possess. Running under 4:00 may be easier, but regardless of how many new men dip under the standard each year, its value has not diminished. Men who wish to become accomplished distance runners make it a real crusade to go sub-4:00 regardless of the distance they specialize in. I’m unsure if women feel a similar pressure to come down from the 10k and 5k, or move up from the 800m. Yes, I'm sure many would love to lower their personal best in the mile, but they are generally not judged on whether they do or do not break a specific standard.

Also, women’s mile races are scarce outside of a collegiate track season; in fact, they are hard to find beyond a collegiate indoor season when compared to men’s mile opportunities. Meet directors tend to put on a women’s 1500m in place of a mile, and this is even more evident in the summer European season where the old British Imperial measurement is rarely contested. Some women’s professional contracts don’t have bonus incentives for running a fast mile, but do for a fast 1500m. 

When we convert down from a 4:30 mile to 4:10 for 1500m, the number of U.S. women under that standard jumps from 77 for sub-4:30 to 130 for sub-4:10. The lack of opportunity for women to race the mile has clearly kept numbers down and also reduces the possibility of a woman getting to race a mile in a window of peak fitness. Though women seldom run the mile after college and even with the cultural imperatives to break 4:30, women have still been flourishing in almost every distance event—including the mile. 

The last six years have produced more than half of the newly minted sub-4:30 milers in our history. The recent success in U.S. women’s distance running could be the product of a cultural shift in track and field and athletics in general. America is three years away from the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that guaranteed no one would be excluded from participating in federally assisted educational programs on the basis of sex. Two generations of female athletes since this government intervention have produced a plethora of successful female distance runners. There are more incentives for women to continue post-collegiate training from an elite level to world class than ever. Coaches are learning more about how to optimize performance in women and foster better strategies. Men have benefited from some of those factors, too, but it is undeniable how many unprecedented performances have occurred in U.S. women’s distance running in recent memory. 

Other helpful influences include the campaign to “bring back the mile” and summer mile festivals that draw large crowds and prize money. In fact, this is where much of this debate between the 4:00 and 4:30 barriers caught fire. In the past five years, the Sir Walter Miler meet in Raleigh, North Carolina, has produced eight first-time sub-4:30 female milers and 12 first-time sub-4:00 male milers. Sir Walter provides time bonuses regardless of place, and a bonus for “first-timers” under 4:30 and 4:00—the highest time bonus offered. Some elite women feel getting paid the same dollar bonus for breaking a harder standard is equal pay, but not for equal work. On the other hand, the Sir Walter Miler organizers believe creating a monetary incentive for sub-4:30 will make their races faster, and hopefully pull more women under the barrier. Undeniably, Sir Walter Miler has created a progressive opportunity to get women under 4:30, as it has accounted for 10% of new women under 4:30, but I also believe paying women more would further incentivize them.

Going forward, it is really difficult to say what the equivalent of the 4:00 mile barrier is for women. 4:30 may be a harder standard to break than 4 minutes, but if the current trend continues, we will see the number of women under increase exponentially. In 15 years’ time it may take a sub 4:30 mile to just qualify for the NCAA Championships. I know that women’s distance running will continue to improve from the bottom up, as long as it stays a bastion for fighting women’s equality endeavors. I fear that if we settle for, “I’m a sub-4:00 miler” as the only cool running jargon outside the confines of our sport then we are destined to never find a finish line. In this case equality doesn’t always have to be finding an equivalent standard to 4:00 for women, but finding success that is uniquely their own.