Promise, but No Promises


“I was really nervous [the time] was going pop up, and it was going to be 4:00…  I mean, that’s fast, but you don’t get anything for it.” – Matthew Maton, after running 3:59.38 at the Oregon Twilight meet on Friday, becoming the sixth U.S. high school runner to run a mile in under four minutes.

To be brutally honest with you, Quenton,” he said, “I always figured that once you did four minutes, that would have been about it for you.” – John L. Parker, Once a Runner

On Friday night Matthew Maton, a senior at Summit High School in Bend, Oregon, raced a mile against a mostly collegiate field. University of Oregon runners Eric Jenkins and Will Geoghegan would finish first and second, but Maton, who will attend the U or O next year, would run the more memorable race, crossing the line in third with a time of 3:59.38 to become the sixth U.S. high school runner to run under four minutes.

Running a sub-four-minute mile in high school is a rare achievement, and immediately invites historical comparison with the other runner who have done it. In my mind it also raises questions about accomplishing such a prodigious feat at a young age promises for the future. Does history have anything to say about Maton’s chances for continuing to improve as an elite, national class, or even international class runner?

Jim Ryun

The first U.S. high school runner to run sub-four was Jim Ryun, who first did it in 1964 as a high school junior. For many reasons, Ryun casts a long shadow:

  • He was the first scholastic runner to do it when he ran 3:59.0 in an AAU race
  • He was the most prolific, running sub-four five times in high school
  • He was world-class while in high school — not only did he run a time within three seconds of the world record, he competed at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and in 1965 was ranked as the fourth-best miler in the world.
  • His high school record of 3:55.3 stood for 36 years, and is still, by far, the second fastest time ever run by a U.S. high schooler. Some argue that because it was run without the benefit of modern mondo tracks, it is superior to Alan Webb’s all-time mark.

Ryun went from being an all-time high school great to an all-time great in the senior ranks. He twice set the world record, and won silver in the 1500 at the 1968 Olympic Games. His best time was 3:51.1, or about four seconds faster than his high school record. His career essentially came to an end after the 1972 Games, where he fell in a preliminary race and failed to advance. At the time, he was 24.

Tim Danielson

In 1965, while Ryun was taking on the world as a high school senior, Tim Danielson ran 3:59.4 to become the second scholastic runner under four minutes.  He still holds the record for the fastest high school mile by a California schoolboy.

Danielson went on to run at Brigham Young University, but never ran faster than his high school time.

Danielson’s story became much darker a few years ago when he was charged and found guilty of murdering his wife. His exceedingly sad story is told in a recent New York Times article, “After the mile.”

Marty Liquori

Liquori always seemed like the East Coast tough guy, running for Essex Catholic H.S. in New Jersey, and then later for Villanova.  In the 1966 National Championships, Liquori ran 3:59.8, behind Ryan but ahead of Danielson.

Liquori went on to become a world-class distance runners. He was ranked #1 in the world at 1500m/1 Mile in 1969 and 1971. Several years later in 1977 he would be ranked #1 for the 5000m.

Although he became the youngest man ever to reach an Olympic 1500m final when he competed in Mexico City at age 19, he was suffering from a stress fracture and ended up 12th and last in the final. He was injured again in 1972, and so missed out on the chance for an Olympic medal. His lifetime best was 3:52.2, 7.6 seconds faster than his high school time.

Alan Webb

In 1966, it seemed that every year would bring another high school runner breaking the magic four-minute barrier. But the pipeline dried up, and although there were near misses, there were no more sub-fours until Alan Webb ran 3:59 indoors in 2001.

But then the question was, would he be able to do it outdoors, and could he approach Ryun’s 36-year-old record? His race at the Prefontaine classic was superb, and his time of 3:53.43 for fifth place (just behind Bernard Lagat) was nothing short of astonishing.

Perhaps no one could live to the expectations that were raised by that race. Measured by times and PR’s Webb had a fabulous career, but his inability to race well in championships frustrated him and American running fans. Nevertheless, he holds the American record for the mile, a quiet 3:46.91 that was 6.5 seconds faster than his high school best, and is the third-fastest American ever over 1500m.

Lukas Verzbicas

Immensely talented over a range of distances (and disciplines), Verzbicas ran 3:59.71 to win the Adidas Boys’ Dream Mile in 2011. That time, recorded in a high-school only race, followed an equally impressive performance a week earlier at the Pre Classic, where he set the national H.S. record in the 2-mile, running 8:29.46.

He went to Oregon, but didn’t finish his freshman cross country season, leaving college (and the sport of running) to focus on triathlon. A serious bike accident in 2012 threatened his career, but he has recovered enough to resume training.

It seems unlikely he will ever run as fast as he did in high school.

The next generation

Many (myself included) expected Grant Fisher to break four minutes this spring, and he might still. But the fact that Maton did it first isn’t too surprising, as he had been knocking on the door with a 3:42 1500 at the Oregon Relays.

The question that can’t be answered is what it means, beyond its historical significance, to break four while in high school. Does it mean that down the road Maton (or Fisher, if he does it) will be a world-beater like Ryun, and Liquori? Or a superb time trialist, like Webb, or a runner who never again reaches the heights achieved at a teenager.

There’s so much promise, but no promises.

High School Boys All-Time Mile List:

1. Alan Webb, 3:53.43 (2001)
2. Jim Ryun, 3:55.3 (1965)
3. Matthew Maton, 3:59.38 (2015)
4. Tim Danielson, 3:59.4 (1966)
5. Lukas Verzbicas, 3:59.71 (2011)*  (Not U.S. citizen)
6. Marty Liquori, 3:59.8 (1967)

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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