It’s been 65 years since Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile and since then hundreds of men have turned the trick, and yet it still remains a milestone — so to speak — for middle-distance runners and an exclusive club. For years, Talem Franco, a senior at BYU, had targeted that mark; on Saturday he joined the club.
Competing against collegians and professionals at the University of Washington Invitational indoor track meet, Franco recorded a time of 3:58.09, making him the 550th American to break the 4-minute barrier.
“Ever since I was little I dreamed of running a sub four,” he said. “I always thought that would be super sick. It’s still a big landmark for runners.”
Utah has been home for many great distance and middle-distance runners, almost all of them produced by BYU’s national-class program. Miles Batty, a Jordan High/BYU product, set the collegiate indoor record of 3:54.54 a few years ago. Doug Padilla, a two-time Olympian, ran 3:56.85 while at BYU, then ran two seconds faster as a professional. There have been others — NCAA champion Kyle Perry (Alta High/BYU) ran 3:59.14, Bryan Lindsay (Timpanogos High/BYU), 3:59.16, NCAA champ and Olympian Paul Cummings (BYU) 3:59.85, Nathan Robison (Provo High/BYU) 3:59.99, Jeremy Tolman (Vernal High/Weber State) 3:59.99.
BYU grads Jason Pyrah and Henry Marsh — both Olympians — ran sub-4 miles as professionals. Wade Bell, an Olympic 800-meter runner from Ogden who competed for Oregon, ran the mile in 3:59.8.
Franco grew up in Heber, the seventh of 12 children. His father encouraged him to run track in high school to improve his conditioning for football, for which he served as team captain and earned all-state and all-region honors while playing multiple positions on offense and defense.
“I didn’t know it, but he thought I’d be better at track,” says Franco.
As a senior Franco ran in three cross-country meets during the football season — pre-region, region and state. He managed to place 17th in the state championships, racing 5,000 meters on football conditioning. He ran from the finish line to his father’s waiting car and raced back to Heber City for football practice.
Franco became one of the finest prep middle distance runners in Utah history. And never won a state championship. As luck would have it, he competed in the same region as Park City prodigy Ben Saarel, who went on to win the Adidas mile in New York against the best in the nation before becoming an All-American for Colorado.
At the 2013 state championships, Franco ran 1,600 meters (the metric mile) in 4:10.22, the third fastest ever by a Utahn prep at the time — and finished three seconds behind Saarel. He also covered 800 meters in a fast 1:52.96 and finished about 1½ seconds behind you know who. They met two more times in college and Franco finally beat his rival in the second one. “I got him back,” says Franco. “It took a while.”
He served a church mission in Tahiti immediately after high school and then resumed his running career. He had his choice of several schools, but chose BYU, partly because of a bond he had with his late brother Kalem, who drowned just before the start of his senior year.
“He and I did everything together and we grew up dreaming about playing college sports,” says Talem. “He was getting recruited for football. We told each other that we wanted to play for BYU. When he passed, I resolved to run for BYU.”
Since American track and field switched to metric distances for the outdoor season, there are few opportunities to run the mile and most of those are indoors, which has retained the distance. Early last season, Franco was able to compete in the outdoor mile at Arizona State and barely missed breaking 4 minutes, finishing in a time of 4:00.91. But he had no more shots at the distance until this winter.
He finished the 2019 outdoors season by qualifying for the finals of the 1,500-meter run at the NCAA championships, but finished 11th. He believes he spent too much energy jostling with the lead pack and finished poorly because of it. Heading into Saturday’s meet at the University of Washington, Franco decided on a more conservative strategy while targeting the 4-minute mile again.
He stayed in the back of the pack for three-quarters of the race. As it turned out, all four of the top finishers did the same thing. With 400 meters to go, Olympic bronze medalist steeplechaser Evan Jager and two others made a big move; Franco didn’t go with them, a move he believes cost him a faster time and better finish.
“I made a more conservative move,” he says. “That’s probably where I went wrong. I felt strong through it all. I was not gasping for air at the finish.”
Jager won the race, but you wouldn’t have thought so given the way Franco was jumping around in celebration after seeing his time. He finished fourth — second among collegians. His quarter-mile split times were 58, 60, 60 and 58 (seconds).
Jager was first in 3:56.50, Sean McGorty second in 3:57.19, George Kusche third 3:57.19. Jager and McGorty are professional runners.
“Before the race, standing on the (starting) line, I was thinking about the sub-4, and I was thinking about people in my life who got me there,” he says. “I definitely thought of Kalem, dad, mom, family, teammates, coaches.”