On Saturday, Garrett O'Toole, a high school student from Massachusetts, will attempt a sub-four minute mile at the adidas Grand Prix in New York City. Could he or one of the 13 other boys in the field accomplish what only five other American preps have ever done? There's a chance—there's always a chance—but the odds are even longer than they seem.
The U.S. prep record was set by Alan Webb in 2001. Boosted into the Prefontaine Classic, a professional meet that the world record-holder won, Webb was not racing against other high schoolers; he was racing the best in the world. His 3 minute, 53.43 second-mark is amazing, but it occurs outside of nature. To examine O'Toole's chances on Saturday in a high school-only meet, you have to look at sub-four miles run by high schoolers, with high schoolers.
When you pull out all the races that included collegiate or post-collegiate athletes like Webb's, the chances of a U.S. boy running sub-4 drop even more severely, by over 50 percent. Only two of the five, Jim Ryun (3:58.3) and Lukas Verzbicas (3:59.71), have ever done it when racing their peers. Ryun, the first American boy to ever break the four-minute barrier, did it in '65 and Verzbicas, the last, did it in 2011.
One of the reasons this is so notoriously difficult is because good pace-setters can be difficult enough to find at the professional level, but for high school boys, almost impossible. To hit precise splits of 59-60 seconds for even the first two laps is a rare occurrence. Last year, O'Toole acted as the rabbit and would drop almost three seconds behind pace before finally giving up the ghost. Ben Saarel, the winner, ran 4:02.72. "The idea of a sub-four is pretty much out the window. This is about bragging rights," said announcer Toni Reavis after the half split, around two seconds slow, during Verzbicas's amazing race. For O'Toole and the others to have a realistic shot, they'll need to come through the half right around 2:00, and history has shown that it's unlikely.
Even with the long odds and unreliable pace-setting, the question remains if O'Toole has the requisite fitness required to go sub-four. He ran his best mile last Thursday, June 5, in 4:01.89, which was led by an Olympic silver-medalist. O'Toole comes to the mile from a distance background rather than the speed, so he's without the closing speed of Webb (1:47.74 for 800m in 2001), and he doesn't have the distance strength of Verzbicas (8:29.46 for two miles in 2011). O'Toole (1:50.16 and 8:53.08) sits a little slower than both.
"I think it's a possibility on the right day," O'Toole told Race Results Weekly after his 4:01. "I'm not going to put a lot of pressure on myself to break four but I think on the right day that could be something to think about, yeah."
On Saturday, even with an ideal forecast, O'Toole faces historically long odds made more difficult by limitations on his competition and with a lesser fitness than the two most recent sub-four high school milers. The chances he slips under the 4:00 barrier are slim. But a race isn't a race without some degree of magic and a whole lot of uncertainty.