A little history was made on Saturday, when not one but two BYU athletes — sophomore Casey Clinger and freshman Lucas Bons — broke four minutes in the mile during the annual Robison Invitational — 3:59.02 for Clinger, 3:59.28 for Bons.

Maybe sub-four miles have become almost commonplace in the sport — almost 600 Americans have done so since Roger Bannister first did it in 1954, a feat that was as celebrated as the moon landing at the time — but only once had it been done in Utah. Then, in a single afternoon, both Clinger and Bons did it, too.

“It was a lifetime goal for both of us, so we thought we might as well do it Saturday,” said Bons.

BYU sub-four milers

3:56.4: Paul Cummings, 1974 (Tempe, Arizona)

3:56.6: Doug Padilla, 1981 (Daly City, California)

3:59.99: Nathan Robison, 2004 (Seattle)

3:59.16: Bryan Lindsay, 2005 (Los Angeles)

3:59.12: Kyle Perry, 2008 (Seattle)

3:54.54: Miles Batty, 2012 (Seattle)

3:58.09: Talem Franco, 2020 (Seattle)

3:55.45: Lucas Bons, 2021 (Seattle)

3:59.02: Casey Clinger, 2021 (Provo)

Note: Site of race in parenthesis

There are several reasons that Utah has seen only one sub-four mile despite being home to BYU, which has actually produced more standout runners than quarterbacks over the years. For one thing, Utah’s elevation — 4,597 feet in Provo — means thinner air, which means less oxygen for runners.

For qualifying times, the NCAA deducts four to five seconds for times at altitude — that’s how debilitating altitude can be on runners who are already deprived of oxygen during their efforts. Also, the mile is no longer contested in collegiate outdoor competitions; it was replaced by the 1,500 decades ago when the sport went metric (it’s about 109 meters short of a mile). The mile is still contested in indoor collegiate meets.

Bons, who ran a 3:55.45 mile in Seattle in January, and Clinger are the eighth and ninth BYU athletes to run sub-four miles, and most of them have occurred indoors. The list does not even include Olympians Jason Pyrah and Henry Marsh, who managed the feat only after leaving BYU.

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Still, despite all those accomplished runners, no one had run a sub-four mile on a Utah track until 1983. That year, Doug Padilla, a two-time Olympian at 5,000 meters who had graduated from BYU in 1981, took the suggestion of a newspaper columnist and arranged to have a special mile run during a BYU track meet with the specific intent to become the first to break four minutes on Utah soil. With fellow Olympian Henry Marsh rabbiting the first 1,000 meters, Padilla clocked 3:57.23.

No one has done it since then, although there have been at least a couple of attempts. In 2012, Miles Batty, who had just set the collegiate indoor record of 3:54.54 in Seattle, attempted to repeat Padilla’s mark on BYU’s track. The school even had a T-shirt printed: “Run, Miles.” Miles’ time was 4:04.53. Clinger, who was in junior high at the time, attended that event and determined that he wanted to run a four-minute mile someday. Padilla also made another attempt at the four-minute mile on the East High track, but came up short. 

Although the mile has been abandoned by the NCAA outdoors, BYU contests the mile in one of its home meets each year — “for the fans’ sake,” said Eyestone. “They know what it means.” That turned out to be Saturday at the Robison Invitational.

“At no point did we say let’s do this (break four minutes),” said Ed Eyestone, the BYU coach. Eyestone simply wanted a fast effort over a mile. The plan, he said, was to run 60-second laps the first three laps and then see what happens, acknowledging that by then both runners would be eyeing four minutes.

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But from the start, Clinger and Bons were aiming for four minutes. “Definitely,” said Clinger. “We didn’t want to put a ton of pressure on ourselves, but once we got to the meet and saw the fans we wanted to put on a show. We decided at least one of us had to break four minutes.”

Despite the growing number of sub-four milers, the sub-four retains its luster as a benchmark for any middle-distance runner. Which is why, late in his professional career, Marsh, a four-time Olympic steeplechaser, flew to Europe in 1985 to attempt a four-minute mile (and ran 3:59.31).

Clinger’s previous best mile was a 4:02.90 he ran while competing for American Fork High in 2016; Bons, whose best high school time was 4:10, ran a startling time of 3:55.45 last January in Seattle. The school’s best miler is actually Talem Franco, but he flew to Oregon over the weekend in pursuit of a fast 1,500. Otherwise, the Cougars would have had three runners chasing four minutes in Provo.

Conner Mantz, the school’s reigning NCAA cross-country champion, agreed to pace the race through 1,200 meters (three laps) despite having done a hard eight-mile run two days earlier and feeling the effects of a COVID-19 vaccination.

“We knew Conner was going to be pacing, and all we had to do was just stick with him and hold on as long as we could,” said Bons. Because Bons had already put a four-minute mile on his resume, it was decided he would run second behind Mantz and allow Clinger to tuck in behind him for less wind resistance.

The start was almost a disaster. The 20-man field found it difficult to merge in all the traffic and a few runners went down on the first turn, requiring the race to be restarted. Eyestone stewed. He worried this would take something out of his runners. The race was restarted, this time smoothly. As Eyestone planned it, Mantz ran precise 60-second laps — 60.3, then 60.1 and 60.8 — with Bons on his heels and Clinger running third, both of them keeping an eye on the stadium clock. Mantz stepped off the track and the race was on.

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“We wanted to be around 60 seconds per lap and trust that we could make up time on the last lap,” said Clinger. Lucas saw the split at the outset of the gun lap — about 3:01. “I thought, oh, gosh, there are no excuses now,” he recalled.

They picked up the pace on the backstretch, with about 300 meters to go, and with every stride down the homestretch they stared intently at the clock.

“When Lucas took off with 300 meters to go, I knew right then we were going to do it,” said Clinger. “Lucas was looking strong.” The crowd rose to its feet and cheered loudly. Besides the thrill of seeing a possible four-minute mile, they also were watching a great race. Clinger passed Bons at the top of the homestretch, about 80 meters from the finish, with teammate Aidan Troutner, a freshman from Provo, close behind (he would finish in 4:01.73 and five runners would break 4:05). They closed the line almost in lockstep.

For the first time in 38 years someone had matched Padilla’s accomplishment. Padilla watched the race and posed for a photo with Clinger and Bons afterward.

“That was fun,” said Padilla. “Those two dug down deep that last lap and made it happen. The truth is, they were trying to win and that made that (sub-four) happen. Ed has a good crew of runners here.”

In the end, Clinger and Bons did everything they set out to do: They broke four minutes and gave the crowd a show.