Sub-5-Minute Mile

There is something magical about running the mile.  How many of us ran the mile in high school?  OK, maybe you’re dating yourself if you admit to it since most high schools now either run the 1500 or whatever you call the bastardized distance of 1600 meters.

From Roger Bannister first breaking the 4-minute barrier in 1954, to Hicham El Guerrouj running the current world record of 3:43 in 1999, to Alan Webb running 3:53 as a high schooler in Eugene in 2001 and then setting the American Record 3:46 in 2007, the mile has captivated track fans.  While the mile is seldom raced in the rest of the world anymore, each June at the Prefontaine Classic we get to watch the best in the world run the mile.  Last year we saw 13 guys break 4-minutes for the mile.  4 laps plus a little bit.  1609 meters.

What about the women?  Well, they don’t race the distance as often as the men, but the current bests are 4:16 by Mary Slaney (American Record) and 4:12 by Svetlana Masterkova (World Record).

So this summer, after a decade of running 100 milers, I wanted to see if I could still run a “fast” mile.  My partner for this was Tbag, a 4:28 1600 meter runner in high school.  He’s still got some wheels as he runs a fast mile each year, usually sub-4:50.  But he’s getting close to being old (he’s 39) and he’s been drinking beer like AJW does, so it wasn’t a gimmie for him this year.

With five or six weeks of faster track workouts and drastically reduced weekly mileage, we set the date and time of Sept 11, 6pm at Hayward Field for our sub-5-minute mile attempt.  I recruited 2:18 marathoner and former UO track runner, John Lucas, to help us with the pace.  John, who is preparing to run Chicago Marathon next month, thought he needed to be tired before the mile so he wouldn’t go too fast.  So Friday morning he ran 24 miles, with 21 of them at 5:30 per mile pace.  A surprising number of people showed up to watch the old slow ultrarunner run 4 laps and 9 meters around the track.  Not so sure why there was such a crowd, but it was great to have so many friends there.

You can watch the video to see how it shook out, but at 1000 meters it got very hard for me. Thanks to perfect pacing by John both of us got under 5:00.  Tbag put a move on me in the last 400 meters to finish in 4:57.4 while I squeaked under with a 4:59.0.  If you’re stuck in a rut doing that 100 mile shuffle, maybe you should get on the track and see what you can do.  The speed comes back pretty quickly.  In my first repeat 400 workout just six weeks ago I barely averaged 78s!  It’s a lot of fun and can be a great source of motivation. Oh, and a personal challenge to AJW – let’s see if you can run faster than my 4:59.0.  And don’t forget I’m 4 years older than you.


    • Great job. I’m 52 and hoping to break 5 minutes in the mile this year. Unfortunately, every 5 years adds a few seconds, just by getting older. I ran 5:20 last year on about 20 miles a week. I’m guessing that a bit more mileage might be in order?

    • @Joe, I know you thought we’d run faster, but I think we were lacking some strength-type workouts. I was comfortable with the pace for 1000 meters and then the pace didn’t feel so good. If you still want to do one this fall I’m sure we can gather the troops again. Oh, and I forgot to mention that BK took the video. You can see he got a little bit excited on the final homestretch.

  1. Most people, even runners, have no idea how difficult a sub 5 minute mile is to achieve, for anyone, let alone in one’s 40s.

    I have my own successful sub 5 minute mile experience, when I was 40 in 2005, but as for today, after all this long, slow distance for ultras this year, I’d be lucky to break 6:15, unless riding around the track on a bike. 🙂

    It’s comforting to hear you say that the speed can come back, with reduced weekly mileage and a real focus on the goal, including the requisite weekly speedwork.

    Great job, Craig! It is simply amazing.

    • @Darin Swanson, I’m hestitant to give out advice as I think a training plan should be devised based on the individual’s background and recent training. The group I train with regularly does a “faster” workout once a week year-round – this may be from 5:30 to 6:30 paced stuff during most of the year. If you never run even that fast, I’d be very careful about adding the faster track work.

      That disclaimer out of the way, this is what I did. After WS I took a big break and didn’t run much at all for a couple of weeks. I started doing barefoot strides on a soccer field once a week to get some turnover. Then I got on the track for workouts that didn’t total more than 1.5 or 2 miles: 8 x 400; a 1600 simulation drill 400, 600, 400, 200 at Goal Pace; the “8-minute mile” where you run 8 x 200, starting one every 60 seconds; and some other combinations of the above. Tbag and I did a time trial 800 one week before (he ran 2:18, I ran 2:21). Ideally, I would have waited a couple more weeks so I could do another 1600 simulation drill of 1000 and then a 600 at Goal Pace but since my brother was coming into town it just seemed like a good time to do it. My mileage was generally 30-50 miles a week. Oh, I guess we did do a couple of 4-5 mile tempo runs not very fast (6:30ish).

      Mike Scannell would be a better guy to give coaching advice for old guys. He’s both really old and really fast. Maybe he’ll chime in.

  2. Craig,

    That was awesome! OK, I’ll take the challenge…I’ll run a sub 5. I want my first Masters event at Hayward field to be the ‘Sub 5 @ 50’ race. I’ve only got a few months to go. You’ve got 4+ years to plan it. Are you really only 45? Puppy.

    • Mike, You might want to check with Oregon Track Club Masters (OTCM)in the Spring, if you can’t wait until the Classic. They sometimes run master’s “exhibition” races before the Duck home meets. Good Luck!

  3. Great post Craig…. I’m inspired. I’ve only been running for about 3 years now…and I started with the slow ultra shuffle… I’ve wanted to try and build speed for the sub-5 min mile. I’ve actually started at ultras and now I’m working my way backward. After watching track on TV its funny to watch a 5 min mile. I just think…” how can going so slow hurt so much!!??” Congrats on some great leg speed. My 75 sec 400’s hurt!! What did you get your 400’s down to before the 5 min mile?


    • @Ted Nunes, So true, we ask ourselves how going so slow can hurt so much all the time! You should come up to Eugene for a track meet and watch live instead of on TV. Some big track meets will be here in the next few years.

      As for my 400s, my last workout 3 days before the mile I did 3 x 400 in 68.6, 66.8, and 67.2 w/ 400 jog/walk breaks. Then did 3 x 200 in 32.0, 32.2, and 30.8. That was the fastest I had run in many years.

      Good luck and be careful about adding too much too quickly.

  4. Craig,
    I think your attempt brings up an interesting debate for over age 40 ultra runners. 4 years ago when I was paying for coaching from Jurek, I insisted on going to the track every week and running 6×200’s — I was questioned and challenge for doing so, “CB – running 200’s has nothing to do with ultra running”. Why did I go to the track?
    1) I like running 200’s, my favorite interval to run, they make me feel fast.
    2) I always have said and continue to say, yes, running 200’s today has nothing to do with my next ultra, but has everything to do with running ultra’s 5 years from now.
    3) Efficient running form = faster times or less energy used or both.

    I wonder if splitting your season, spending 6-7 months running ultras, then shifting gears and running shorter stuff will achieve:
    1) Better ultra performance for aging ultra runners.
    2) Better long-term bio-mechanics, being a faster runner or slowing down less fast as other aging runners?
    3) A break for the mind and body from ultra running ensuring long-term participation in the sport?

    Frankly, after I have gone after the one big effort in the year with ultra running, I am not really interested in another event in late Summer or Fall, maybe a 50 miler. That doesn’t make it right, that’s just right for me.


    • @Cougarbait, I’m not sure I’m prepared to criticize Jurek’s coaching methods as I’ve never seen specific workout plans. That said, it seems reasonable that if one hires a coach for a short-term goal, say running a single 100 miler, then for the success of the business, the coach would not want to “waste” workouts that don’t help achieve the immediate goal. Now, if one hires a coach for a longer term, say multiple years, then I would hope the coach would look at longevity in the sport.

      You make some very good points with respect to longevity. I’ve been running for 31 years now and have been doing ultras for the last 12. I have worked hard to not completely lose all my speed but it isn’t easy when you do the long slow training runs required for 100 milers. 7, 9, 11 hour training runs suck the ability and desire to run fast. But I try to do a workout once a week year-round. Sometimes during the year it is only 5 miles at 6:40 pace while other times it is 3 x 1600 at 5:30 or 6 x 800 at 2:40. My reason for this is that I do not want to just be a slow ultrarunner. I want to feel like a runner. The last few years I’ve had a short track season where I work on a specific distance. It has been very fun. It is a great change mentally. It might help with ultra performance and long-term biomechanics as you suggest but I have no way to prove or disprove that.

      Shhhh…. We’re not revealing all the long-term secrets to AJW are we? I want the all expenses paid trip to the Grand Canyon when I win the 10-year Western States bet.

        • @AJW, Not sure about any proven secret but what is certainly not a secret is that I currently enjoy a four hour lead in the 10 year bet. With four races remaining that means you’ll need to beat me by an hour each year for the next four years. So, at least from my perspective, my technique seems to be working.

        • @AJW,

          Let’s get some ground rules for this here, mile, before Jizzle Wizzle decides to make changes the night before to suit his needs; a la WTC 2008.

          It doesn’t matter how many feet of snow you have in your front yard, the mile is still 4 laps plus 9 yards. No snow handicap will be placed on the time. No altitude conversion will be placed on the time. There will be no handicap given for clydesdale status or d-cup status due to “wintering”. Ashy Larry status will be deemed unacceptable after 3 winters in Idaho, please lube up.

          You train with the plow man, so being unable to attend due to not being able to leave your compound will not be an excuse.

          In other words, if you want alibis consideration, please remit to the competition committee for review promptly.

  5. Now y’all are getting me inspired talkin’ about running fast miles. I’ve never run a mile faster than 6 min before so I think I’m going to shoot for that first. Then we’ll see if I can’t shave any time off that towards sub-5. Now if only my ankle would hurry up with its healing process… 🙂

  6. Reply to MonkeyBoy!

    The plow man and I are on it and I’m running 4:59 before the end of 2009. You can say what you want about changing the rules, etc… and if you want to come to the Canyon next March all I can say is BYO!!!

    • @Cougarbait, Oh, I like the way you are thinking. That is going to be brutally hard. Of course, I don’t have an automatic spot in WS so it is possible I won’t be as tired as AJW 🙂

      Maybe we could expand this to include top WS finishers. It could be the Haggin Cup decider.

      And, we can make it a way to raise funds for a good cause – the WS Trail Foundation, perhaps?

      What say you, Mr Wizzle?

      • @Craig, I like the idea of a mile race two days after WS. Count me in! Just a couple questions:

        1. Will Cougarbait be the RD for this event?
        2. I understand that there will $200 for the winner but what’s the bonus for sub-8?
        3. And, the Big One, what will the handicap be should LB fail in his effort to get his speedy ass into the race?

        And, PS — I’ve decided to race for 10th:) I kind of like M10

        • @AJW, I used to think you didn’t have what it takes to be M10 but you proved that you do last June. Think the only thing that could be more exciting would be fighting for the win.

          I know a lot of time has passed since last June and our memories have faded but do you remember how messed up your feet were? Yikes. I hopped on a plane Monday after the race and flew to DC. My feet and legs were swollen and I was wearing compression socks! A mile race on Monday is going to be very interesting.

          • @Craig, Indeed, it will be interesting and I’m up for it. In fact, I may need to adjust my race day expectations so I am ready to do a 7:59 on Monday.

            One additional question, will we run the mile early in the day or later in the day? Just trying to budget my post-race beer consumption:)

  7. 1. High noon, on the track.
    2. Sub-8, a case of brew of your choice.
    3. We will need a “turtle” to set the pace.
    4. LB not in WS, no mile race, it just wouldn’t be the same.
    5. Me RD? No way, putting an event on like this is far beyond my logistical abilites.
    6. On fresh legs, we would be asking what kind handicap AJW needs?
    7. Yeah, right, AJW gives up M10 to save himself for the Placer..or should I say “Placid Mile”..
    8. I still would like to see an event at WS where Pacers square off on Sunday, like a “Pacers 5K,” winner gets auto entry into next year, money goes to charity.

    • @Cougarbait, Thanks CB. Sounds good. But…

      1. It will be hot. Misters???
      2. Sierra Nevada. Cold
      3. I recommend MonkeyBoy
      4. Yes, it wouldn’t be. But, I have a hunch he’ll find a way to weasel his way in. Some of us have to get top-10 but LB, he pulls strings
      5. We will miss you
      6. Good point. I should have thought of that
      7. Don’t be surprised. Smarter guys than me have raced for M10
      8. I would too. Although my pacers would lose:)

  8. I like the idea of the donation of the prize money. I tell you what, since AJW probably needs to start saving for his new hip, I’ll match the prize money with a donation, in the name of the winner, to the WS Trail Foundation.

    Think we can get Twietstache to be the starter? Maybe Potato?

  9. Wow Craig, what an accomplishment. Very fast. Much faster than Hal’s winning time. No wonder they call Eugene Track Town USA. Down here in the Rogue Valley we’re wondering what type of beer you consumed? The video was good but they must have edited out that part. Also, did you have the beer at room temp or cold?

    • @SLF, Usually it is the Ashland crowd that pretends to have more class than the rest of us but this is just pathetic. For a man who can’t burp due to that unfortunate birth defect that must have been fun trying to do a BEER mile. 16:38?

      Oh, and don’t even get me questioning whether you guys actually did a mile.

  10. Ya know, I actually belched for the first time in my life at the end of the third lap. Thought I was gonna toss but, holy shit, it was only air. That enabled me to go from DFL to a tie for second to the last. What a wonderful feeling (the belch, not the tie), I can see why it’s so damn popular.

    Oh yeah, those lost nine yards. I think we did those walking around trying to consume the beverages between laps.

  11. rumour has it AJW will attempt the same sometime around Thanksgiving. Will you please inform the crowd of the date/time, so there is a comparable cheering section? fair is fair. No sprinklers. Rain is likely.

  12. Impressive – thanks for sharing. I am 45, aiming for a sub 5 minute mile. Last test was 5:32 – have a ways to go. Trying to build some leg strength with plyometrics work and lots of 100’s, 200’s, and 400’s. This has helped inspire me. Never thought about having pacers but it looks like it helped you on your video. Way to go – CONGRATULATIONS!!!!

    • @John Byrne, I am not sure if I would have made it without the perfect pacing. I probably would have run 72 for the first 400 which would have really hurt me later. Good luck with your mile. We’re gonna try another one this month in Eugene. If you’re in Eugene, shoot me an email.

  13. I’m 15 and I run a 5:45 mile and I was spot on for the 5:30 range but didn’t get the chance. Can I run a sub 5 by next year with running 40 miles a week during the summer plus cc next season? Any training advice?

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