Ben True won the 5000m at the Peyton Jordan Invitational Sunday night, running a personal best time of 13:02.76, with Hassan Mead only four-hundredths of a second behind. When I saw those times, I thought to myself “Wow, that’s fast!” But then I thought “too bad they didn’t go sub 13:00…”
It’s a funny reaction, whe you think about it. I think it’s funny that I instinctively attached so much importance to the arbitrary standard of 13:00. This week we’ve also been celebrating the 60th anniversary of Roger Bannister becoming the first human to run the mile in under four minutes. Was there ever a more famous barrier? And yet a mile is an arbitrary distance, and four minutes is an arbitrary time. It’s a peculiar calculus that sees such a world of difference between 3:59.99 and 4:00.00, or between 12:59.99 and 13:00.00.
I think the reason that we adopt such a calculus is that these arbitrary standards allow those of us who are not elite to rank and judge performances that are so far beyond what we could ever hope to achieve that we have no personal experience to guide us.
Running 5000m in 13:02.76 means averaging around 4:10.4 for each 1600m. It so happens that the fastest mile I ever ran — when I was in the best shape of my life — is several seconds slower than that. I literally cannot imagine running that fast and then continuing for another two miles. Because I can’t imagine it, it’s easy for me to say, “Oh, too bad he didn’t run 2.77 seconds faster.”
How fast is 13:02.76? It’s so fast that it’s hard to grasp without reference to other performances and athletes, to the history of American track and field.
Frank Shorter is the most decorated American distance runner of all time, with gold and silver medals in the marathon, a fifth in the Olympic 10,000m, and numerous U.S. championships in track, cross country, and the marathon. His best-ever 5000m was 13:26.60.
Steve Prefontaine was the rock star of distance running in the early 1970s. At the time of his death in 1975, he held every American distance record from 2000m to 10,000m. His best-ever time for 5000m was 13:21.87.
Alan Webb is the American Record holder at the mile, and is considered perhaps the most talented U.S. born middle distaance runner in history. Although he didn’t focus on the 5000m, he made a late career move towards the longer distances, so he was no stranger to them. His best-ever time for 5000m (set in 2005) is 13:10.86.
In all, only eight Americans have ever run faster than 13:02.76. If I bothered to list them, all the names would be familiar to you. Nevertheless, unless and until True and/or Mead run sub-13:00, their status as all-time greats will be precarious. Impressive, but not part of “the club.”