Last night at Emerson Track in Concord, Middlesex School senior Garrett O’Toole ran a full mile in 4:01.89, breaking Andy Powell’s 16-year-old Massachusetts High School record and becoming the 14th fastest U.S. prep miler of all time.
His run into the record books is the latest accomplishment in a magnificent season that has also seen him run the U.S. #1 time for 1500m (3:45.55), the U.S. #5 time for 800m (1:50.16), and the U.S. #4 time for 3000m (8:19.17, en route to a 8:53.08 3200). He has at least one more chance to compete against the best in the country at the High School Dream Mile, part of the Adidas Diamond League meet in New York on June 14th.
On a cool and humid evening, at the same track where Middlesex, Concord Academy, Concord-Carlisle HS, and several middle schools share practice time, it never occurred to me that O’Toole might seriously threaten the four-minute mark. Yes, he had run 3:45.55 for 1500, a time that converts to a 4:03-something mile. And yes, he had run 1:50 for 800m just five days earlier, a personal best by over two seconds. But because he was local and familiar (we regularly ran into him at the Emerson track), the thought that he might become the sixth high school boy to go sub-4:00 (along with Jim Ryun, Marty Liquori, Tim Danielson, Alan Webb, and Lukas Verzbicas) didn’t cross my mind,
I still have very distinct memories of watching Victor Gras run 4:05 at the Mass. State Meet in 2004, and then 4:06 at the Nike Outdoor Nationals two weeks later. In this day and age, professional runners run sub-four routinely, and it takes a sub 3:50 to get our attention. But it’s still a very rare thing to see a high school kid run that fast. If you’re watching, you see an opening quarter of 59-60 and it makes you wonder, but it’s too early to get your hopes up. When the opening lap is followed by another at very nearly the same pace, you stop whatever else you’re doing and press up against the fence or shift to the front of your seat and begin to clap or cheer along with the rest of the crowd. But it’s not until the three-quarter mark, passing at 3:01-3:02 that you become fully invested in the attempt.
When Gras ran 4:05, I remember seeing the clock at 3:45 as he came around the final turn, and all down that straightaway my head kept turning from the runner to the clock, wanting the former to move faster than the latter, hoping that magic number “3” wouldn’t be replaced by the ordinary number “4.”
It wasn’t exactly like that last night. Following his pre-race plan to the letter, O’Toole held back at the start and settled into last through a first quarter of 61-high. As he passed the finish line, I remember thinking that the opening lap was too slow and had killed any chance for a sub-4:00. But he ran another lap of 61, staying well within himself, and then began to move up. he went through three-quarters in 3:03; how fast could he close?
At the is point, the race for first had become white-hot, with Manzano the Olympian trying to hold off three challengers. Manzano looked like he was straining, but he often looks that way. Did he have his world-class kick tonight or not. Around the far turn the leaders sped, and incredibly, O’Toole appeared to be closing the gap slightly. Into the final stretch, and the clock was in the 3:40’s, with the small crowd willing the seconds to be longer.
As each man desperately tried to hold form, maybe even find something extra, the finish line finally arrived and brought their suffering to an end. Eric Finan (Team USA-Minnesota), Hamish Carson (New Zealand), and Julian Oakley (Providence) had all run under 3:59 and were separated at the line by only 0.16 seconds. Manzano, the headliner, had run hard but had finished only fourth in 3:59-low. Finan’s teammate Jonathan Peterson had taken 5th in 4:01.12, and O’Toole had taken 6th, having run 58-point for the final lap.
After the race, O’Toole answered questions from the media, and of course one of them was whether he thought he could go sub-4:00 in his next race. He wasn’t focused on that, he said. He wasn’t going to put pressure on himself to do it, just try to run fast against good competition. Wise words from a kid who had very nearly accomplished what’s still one of the most recognizable and impressive feats in Athletics.