By Nate Sell, Daily Sports Writer
Published July 31, 2013
In 1954 Roger Bannister was the first man to run a mile in under four minutes — something that was thought to be impossible. Four laps in four minutes was believed to be the absolute threshold for human fitness for many years, but that all changed with Bannister.
More like this
Now, running a mile in under four minutes is no longer elusive — it’s become a benchmark for elite runners.
The question is no longer if faster than four minutes is possible, but how much faster than four minutes is possible.
On August 4, a collection of elite runners — many of whom have broken that four-minute barrier — will gather just outside of Michigan’s campus at Saline High School’s track to participate in the Running Institute Mile. Former Wolverine track athlete Nick Willis is responsible for putting everything together and creating a race that has drawn world-class runners from Oregon and Colorado, to New York and Ann Arbor.
When the US is finished with track season in June, there are no more elite races for athletes to compete in without going overseas to Europe. This was a problem for Willis, who could not make it to Europe, but wanted to compete before heading into the World Championships. The solution was simple — he would create an elite race right in his hometown of Ann Arbor and also take a shot at breaking the record for the fastest mile run in the state of Michigan. The record is currently held by former Michigan track star Kevin Sullivan, with a time of 3.55. Willis admitted that Sullivan was one of his heroes growing up and was a big reason he chose to run for Michigan.
“Sullivan was a legend from U of M, so it would be nice to have a crack at that,” Willis said. “It gives the crowd something to look forward to. To say, ‘Wow, we just saw the fastest race ever run in the state of Michigan,’ especially on a high school track, in a local town like Saline.”
When news spread that Willis would be hosting an elite race to prepare for the World Championships and attempt to set a state record, there were plenty of runners interested.
“I know a lot of these runners and they respect my running, so they trust it will be a high-quality race if I’m in it as well,” Willis said.
The respect from his fellow runners is well earned. Willis has competed in three Olympic Games, winning silver in the 1,500-meter run in 2008 and bearing New Zealand’s flag for the opening ceremony in 2012. While competing for Michigan from 2003-2005, he was a five-time NCAA All American, three-time Big Ten Champion and two-time NCAA Champion.
It also helps that the Running Institute in Ann Arbor will be sponsoring the race and providing prize money to the first five finishers.
The runners who make the trip to Ann Arbor will be treated well. Willis is hoping to show them just how great the city and Michigan’s campus is.
“We’re going to show them out to some restaurants the night before and the night after and give them a dose of what Ann Arbor is like in the summer,” Willis said. “It’s the best place in the world in my opinion, so hopefully they feel the same way.”
If there is enough community support and general interest, Willis has goals of making this the first of an annual competition. Having this race every year would be a huge advantage for American runners who would otherwise head into the World Championships without a tune-up race. It also has implications for recruiting and the future of Michigan track.
“It’s always good for recruiting when they know that this is a town that supports high-level completion in our sport,” Willis said. “It just gives a bit more credibility when high schoolers are thinking of where they want to go. Do they want to go to Tulsa, Oklahoma or Ann Arbor where a world-class mile was run?”