Breaking Four: A Family Affair
Joining his father as a sub-four-minute miler drove Sam Bair III to new heights.
By Liam Boylan-Pett, originally published at Bring Back the Mile in 2012
The crowd watched in awe, voices speaking softly to one another asking: “Is he finally going to do it?”
At the 2010 Penn State National Indoor Invitational, a line of five runners separated from the rest of the pack in the one-mile run. They went through the first quarter-mile in 59 seconds.
Two more circuits on the banked 200-meter track and they came through the half-mile in two minutes flat.
Spectators lined the entire oval. Most of them focused on the runner in red: Sam Bair III. He remained calm on the rail in third place, his choppy stride and arm carriage unwavering.
“Come on, Sam!” some fans yelled. “You got this!”
Others watched hopefully, their eyes traveling from him to the clock, the clock to him and back again.
From the crowd came cheers and chants for other names. But none were as urgent as those for Bair. There was something about this day. The crowd could feel it. It was going to happen.
It takes a little over eight laps to run the indoor mile.
It takes a little under four minutes to achieve immortality at the distance.
No one had to tell Bair that. He knew.
He came within a second of breaking four minutes on four separate occasions from 2006 to 2009.
But that was only part of it for Sam Bair III.
Because over thirty years ago his father, Sam Bair Jr., ran a mile in 3 minutes and 58 seconds. Only two other father/son duos in America had broken four, the Bairs wanted to be the third.
The 26-year-old Bair III glanced at the clock as they neared the three-quarter mark of the race.
It read “3:00.”
“Fifty-nine seconds to go,” thought Bair.
Such a familiar spot.
* * *
The footage is in black and white and specks of sand seem to cover the film, but there are 10 men in the crouched position awaiting the crack of the gun. It is June 23, 1967 in Bakersfield, California. Ten skinny, long legged men are attempting to run a mile as fast as they can. From the gun, Jim Ryun shoots to the lead. He pulls away from the field throughout the race and blisters through a 53 second last quarter mile to break the World Record in 3 minutes, 51.1 seconds.
Ryun destroyed his competitors, winning by over four seconds. The camera, focused on Ryun, fails to show the rest of the racers crossing the line, but a slew of them ran lifetime bests.
Dave Wilborn ran 3:56.2. Tom Von Ruden was right behind him in 3:56.9. Then slightly behind them in 3 minutes and 58.7 seconds was a short runner in a Kent State singlet and a mop of hair atop his head. That man was Sam Bair, Jr. and he was the 24th American to run a mile in less than four minutes.
“In those days it was a big deal,” says Bair, Jr. “Breaking four was relatively new when I did it. That was something special.”
Bair, Jr. was a three sport athlete in his Pennsylvania high school. With only 130 students in his graduating class, if you were an athlete, he says, you did it all. Football in the fall led to basketball in the winter and the day after the basketball season ended, he was on the track preparing for the season.
Excelling on the oval, Bair, Jr. won two state championships in the 800-meter run. After running 1:56 his junior year, he lowered his time to 1:54 during his senior season. The time was good but not great, and only a few schools offered scholarships. Kent State in northeast Ohio seemed to be the right fit, and Bair, Jr. accepted a scholarship to run for the Golden Eagles. After running around 30 miles a week in high school, he was ready to up his training for college.
Walking into the coach’s office to report for the first day of practice, Bair, Jr. was a surprise to the man behind the desk. Even a disappointment.
“He thought he was getting this tall guy,” says Bair. “Some big, powerful guy who was going to power out some half miles for him.”
Instead, standing in the doorway was a 5 foot 7 inch, rail thin kid who couldn’t have weighed more than 120 pounds.
“You better run the mile,” the coach decided after taking one look at the kid.
“That’s what I wanna do anyways,” Bair, Jr. replied.
The young runner planned on running the mile since the day he graduated high school. Not having to worry about getting ready for football or basketball anymore, he could concentrate all his efforts on running. There wasn’t much in terms of running literature, but with issues of Track & Field News strewn across his bedroom floor, Bair, Jr. poured himself into whatever he could find.
Peter Snell of New Zealand was viewed as the greatest middle distance runner in the world at the time, and the famed Arthur Lydiard was his coach. Lydiard was considered the number one mind in terms of training athletes as the tiny country of New Zealand was producing throngs of world class milers. New Zealand was to miling what Jamaica is to sprinting today. In one of the magazines that Bair, Jr. came across, he found out that Snell was running 100 miles a week.
He figured he should do the same.
He bought Lydiard’s training book: Run To The Top. With the book on his bedside stand that summer before enrolling at Kent State, Bair, Jr. started running.
Devising his own plan, he spent the first week of his summer training running five miles a day. The next week he was up to seven per day. By the third week, he ran 70 miles in the seven day span. By adding morning runs, he got up to 85. Sure enough, only a month and a half into his summer training, Bair was running 100 miles in a week.
So when his coach told him he was going to be a miler, Bair, Jr. happily obliged.
A little over three years later, he was breaking four minutes.
He ran 4:08 as a freshman. Then 4:04 as a sophomore. And 3:58 in the magical Bakersfield race. As if reciting from an encyclopedia off the bookshelves of his brain, Bair, Jr. can reel off his race results—to two decimal places—four decades after he ran them.
“I ran my own splits,” He says of the Bakersfield race. “I didn’t even care about being competitive. It was a big deal, and all I wanted to do was break four.”
He didn’t have much time to celebrate.
The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) was the main governing body of track and field. They held races all over the country throughout the year. The runners were expected to be there.
Bair, Jr. hop-scotched across the U.S. running races. In one 52 week period, Bair ran at 28 different venues. A cross country meet through the muddy sludge of an Iowa cornfield in December. An indoor two-mile in February in New York. An outdoor Mile in Los Angeles in June. All the while he was running his 100 miles a week, sometimes even topping out at 120.
However, like most runners in that time period, Bair, Jr. was struggling to make ends meet. Amateur athletes couldn’t accept sponsorship or prize money to race, so they had to find other ways to support themselves. It was practically impossible to train and make a living.
Eventually, Bair had enough of the AAU. In 1974 he joined the International Track Association, a start up professional racing series. He accepted money from the group and was only allowed to race other runners that were a part of the ITA. The association disbanded before the 1976 Montreal Olympics and Bair was left to try to rejoin the AAU. They wouldn’t make it easy.
Claiming he would “contaminate” the other races, the AAU would not allow Bair, Jr. to compete against other AAU athletes.
According to a 1978 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bair, Jr. would have been allowed to rejoin the AAU if he had repaid the $750 he was given for racing: $250 to his local AAU chapter, $250 to the National AAU Chapter, and $250 to charity. He gave it all to charity. The AAU wouldn’t budge. So neither would Bair.
He continued to run his 100 mile weeks and found non-AAU sanctioned races (there weren’t many), but his days of elite running were over. His battle with the AAU faded.
Like the other runners of his time, he decided to stop running competitively and do the real world things like get a job and start a family. He took a job teaching Health and Physical Education classes at a Pittsburgh Community College, and even began coaching runners.
In 1984, Sam and Arlene Bair welcomed the third Sam Bair into the world.
In January of 2006 at Penn State University’s indoor track on the State College, Pa. campus, Sam Bair III took 4:00.14 to run 1760 yards. He was only a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I thought, OK,” Bair the father says of his son. “The kid’s a sophomore. He’s going to do it.”
“It” being a Mile in under four minutes.
At the time, no American father / son combo had ever broken four. Could this be the first?
Bair III ran at Notre Dame two weeks later. He ran 4:01 this time.
As a college athlete, the only real times to run a mile are indoors, as the metric mile (1500 meters) is competed during the outdoor season. The mile stayed on Bair III’s mind.
Bair III’s junior year he opened up the season with a 4:00.35 to win at the Penn State track again. Two weeks later at Notre Dame he ran 4:02.
His senior year it was two more “oh so close” 4-flat races — 4:00.99 and 4:00.87. In four separate races over a three-year span, he missed out on breaking four by a combined 2.35 seconds. An average of just over half a second per race. It seemed the running gods didn’t want Bair III to break four.
Meanwhile, two other father / son duos came along. In 1973, Barry Brown ran a 3:58.8 mile in Gainesville, Florida. Then his son, Darren, broke four by the narrowest of margins in Austin, Texas with a 3:59.99 in April of 2008. They were the first U.S. father / son members of the sub-4 group.
Then came Matthew Centrowitz. His father, Matt Centrowitz ran 3:59.2 in 1975. By 2009, Matthew ran 3:57.92 in Seattle. (The same Matthew Centrowitz who would go on to win the bronze medal in the 1500 meters at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea and win gold in Rio in 2016.)
The Bair’s wouldn’t be the first, but it didn’t mean it wasn’t going to happen. They had been planning on it for a while.
“Fifth grade was the first time I tried to run a mile, but I couldn’t finish,” says Bair III. Breathing problems hampered the young, budding athlete.
Like his father, sports were in his blood. Soccer and basketball took precedence over running. By the time seventh grade came around he decided to go out for track. But he steered clear of the mile.
“I ran 56 seconds for 400 as a seventh grader,” he says with a chuckle, “which is actually pretty good.” Like his father, he recounts results of races with ease, citing specific races, like 53.4 for 400 as an eighth grader and the first time he ran under 2:10 for 800 meters, both times that showed signs of talent.
It wasn’t until high school that his breathing problems subsided and he could give the longer distances a try. Luckily for Bair III, his father was on board as the high school coach and could provide some insight into the world of miling.
“My Dad always made it pretty fun,” says Bair III. “Whenever he was running back in the day, he always just enjoyed running. Period.”
As a coach, Bair, Jr. was still able to get in his miles, and he was nervous about his son running under him, but he did the best he could to keep the pressure off.
“I did enjoy coaching him,” Bair, Jr. says of his son. “As a parent, I use whatever trick I had to keep the pressure off of him and to teach him to enjoy the sport. I didn’t want him to feel obligated to run. Didn’t want him to deal with the burden of a father who had run under four minutes.”
Not that there wouldn’t be any pressure. Bair III ran 4:14 as a sophomore in high school and won the Pennsylvania State Meet. With 50-flat speed for a quarter-mile, and the endurance to run a mile that fast, Bair, Jr. saw in his son a great deal of talent.
Bair, Jr. turns on his coaching voice, which, by deepening and steadying, sounds more assuring and powerful: “If someone has that kind of leg turnover, OK, if this guy doesn’t get hurt, if he likes the sport, stays out of trouble, he’s got a shot at doing quite well. I really felt that there was some potential with Sam.”
Even though he didn’t hear a peep about sub-4 from his father, Bair III knew what it meant. He tried to avoid the pressure, but he thought about it.
When he ran the 4:00.14 at Penn State as a sophomore, he had the same types of thought as his father: “I have a couple of years left. This is exciting. I’m going to do this.”
But it didn’t happen. It just wouldn’t happen. All of those four-flat type races, and he couldn’t get under. Was he becoming a head-case like the anonymous message board posters suggested?
To the runner, a tenth, even a hundredth, of a second is everything. It can be the difference between a win and a loss. It can be the difference between a new personal best or just another race. Or it can be the difference between 4:00.00 and 3:59.99.
Somewhere along the line, it was decided that 4 minutes was the benchmark for a great Mile. The difference between 4:00.00 and 3:59.99 is drastic. Just like in a basketball game where a player has 9 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists, they played a darn good game, but they still didn’t achieve a triple double. In the world of the miler, the four-flat runner will remain as unknown as the online message board posters. Whether right or wrong, running sub-4 means everything.
I started running at an early age, and by the time I reached high school, even though I was only a 4:38 miler, running under four meant everything. My ATM pin code was 3590, a girl in a psychology class asked me if I needed help with calculus when she saw me writing down the splits for a 3:59 in my notebook instead of listening to the teacher. In 2009, I ran a mile in 3:59.40. It was one of the best moments of my life. My best before that day was 4:04.64, but if I had run 4:00.02, the big jump wouldn’t have meant as much. Yet it meant everything even though the only tangible thing that came out of it was my name appearing in the Track & Field News Chronological Listing of U.S. Milers Who Have Broken 4:00 In The Mile. No medal, no prize money, no calls from the president.
In the Mile, 4 minutes is everything. Roger Bannister, the first man to ever break four, looked at the Mile as “having all the elements of drama.” John Landy, the second man to dip under, claimed it to have “classic symmetry, a play in four acts.” Sebastian Coe, one of the greatest middle distance runners ever, said, “Theatrically, the Mile is just the right length: beginning, middle, end, a story unfolding.”
What they forget to mention, is how hard it is. As a seventh grader I ran a mile in 5:20. It took me twelve years to drop 80 seconds and run that magical 3:59.40. Those 12 years weren’t easy. Neither were the 3 minutes and 59 seconds. A sub-4 mile is special because not many people can do it. The symmetry, the name in a magazine, and all that other stuff are cool, but running sub-4 is special because you put all your heart and soul into something that might not work out. But when it does, there is triumph.
In 1963, Barry Bishop summited Mt. Everest. In a 1964 National Geographic article, he wrote: “What do we do when we finally reach the summit and flop down? We weep. All inhibitions stripped away, we cry like babies. With joy for having scaled the mightiest of mountains; with relief that the long torture of the climb has ended.”
It is a dangerous thing to partake in, what happens if you put everything you have into something and then it fails to work out? Sam Bair III desperately wanted to join his father as a sub-4 minute miler.
He was a fraction of a second away, but it seemed like a lot more than that.
It was such a familiar spot.
The clock read 3:00 as Sam Bair III crossed the ¾ mark of the race at the 2010 Penn State National Invitational.
He was in third place still as the bell rang and they ran into the final lap. The crowd was in a frenzy now, all looking from the clock to Bair III and back again.
A runner in green bolted away from the pack of three. Bair III strained to stay close. Around the turn, his back arched as his shoulders tightened. Runner’s rigor mortis started setting in. He strained to finish the race.
Binghamton’s Erik Van Ingen won the race, Bair III wasn’t close behind. It was eerily silent around the track as the spectators looked at the scoreboard waiting for results.
They popped up: 1. Erik Van Ingen – 3:59.58. 2. Sam Bair – 4:00.35.
The crowd sighed. It would have to wait.
“Tomorrow, this is yesterday’s news,” is what Sam Bair, Jr. often says to his son. “Get back on the horse and start riding. You never know what’s gonna happen when the gun goes.”
So Bair III jumped back on. He jumped on a flight out to Seattle in February that would hopefully end the waiting.
The University of Washington has an oversized indoor track. At 320 meters, it takes a little over five laps to complete a Mile. Being indoors with no wind and long curves, it is conducive to running fast.
Thanks to FloTrack, the race was being streamed live over the Internet. Bair, Jr. could watch his son attempt to break four yet another time. The announcers behind the camera were well aware of the back-story.
As the race progressed they gave updates on the splits. “They’re through in 1:59,” said Ryan Fenton, FloTrack’s play-by-play announcer, “and Sam Bair is right there. Could this be the time he does it?”
The footage was choppy and a little blurry, but a pack of runners floated over the track. Bair III remained in the midst of it. To the viewer, the pack looks like a blob of runners racing undeterred, moving as one along the tartan passing below them. In the midst of it however, there are runners all around, one bad step and down they go.
It is more of a controlled chaos than the seemingly calm picture displayed on the computer screen.
Around the track they ran. A group of 12 runners making their way towards what they hoped was a sub-4 Mile. They came through the ¾ mark in 2:59. The excitement started to build as Bair III remained in the pack. He was fifth with 320 meters to go. The bell rang signifying the final lap.
He tightened up again. Down the backstretch the group behind him swallowed him up.
It couldn’t possibly happen again, could it?
The Bell Lap
Around the curve Sam Bair III pulls it together some. He doesn’t allow the group to roll away from him. The shoulders tighten, his back arches, all the signs of runner’s rigor mortis setting in. The jaw locks. The runner questions what he is doing it for. He contemplates stopping even though he knows he won’t. The finish line can’t come soon enough.
Nine runners cross the finish line before him. He tries to lean forward to get across the white line that marks the end.
Then he waits.
“I was glued to the computer,” Bair, Jr. says when talking about his son’s race. “He has a tendency to tie up, and off the last turn, I just didn’t know. He finished. The announcers were saying they thought he did it.”
The phone rings.
“I had him at 3:59.14.” It is Dave Nealy, a friend of Sam who made the trek to the race with him.
“Okay, well with automatic timing, they’re not going to take more than 0.3 seconds off that,” Bair, Jr. thinks in his head. He hopes this can all be over.
And then the announcers on FloTrack: “Sam Bair – Three minutes! And 59.72 seconds!”
The phone rings again.
This time it is Sam.
“Congratulations, son,” Sam Bair, Jr. says. “Now you don’t have to put up with this bullshit anymore.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Sam replies.
“You can enjoy life and do whatever the hell you want.”
“I know, Dad.”
“No one can take this away from you.”
“It was funny,” Bair III says about the race, “I didn’t feel like I ran that great of a race. It’s such a weird concept. I only had to come down 2 tenths of a second. If I would have done that in any other event, even the 800 where it would be more impressive to drop time, it wouldn’t have even mattered. It’s a barrier, and you need to run under, so you’ve got to do it.”
In the more than seven years since Bair III became the 342nd American to break four minutes, his name has been absent from any big time race results. He now lives in Boulder, Colo. He was an art major at Pitt and is working at the CU Art Museum at the University of Colorado.
His dad hasn’t stopped running. He’s almost 64, but he still gets out there and pounds out the miles. He hopes his son does the same. “He is exercising his demons. I’ll support him as best I can when he decides to quit. But it’s gotta be his deal.”
Bair III, like his father, still runs, getting around 50-60 miles per week around his work schedule. He says he is starting to feel in shape even, and if his body can hold up he’d love to get in a few races this winter. But, he cautions, “We’ll see.”
The original Sam Bair wasn’t a runner. He fought in Guadalcanal during World War II as part of the First Marine Division. He was one of the few to make it back. He was wounded, but he made it home.
His son oozes with pride talking about Sam Bair, Sr.
To Sam Bair, Jr., his son running under four minutes for a Mile means more than just the time.
“I was thrilled and relieved when Sam ran 3:59,” says Sam Bair, Jr. “But I felt it was more important for my dad.
“This is significant because of my dad. And I told him, you know, Dad, Sam and I will be remembered in a trivial sense. But it’s your name…your name is always gonna be a part of that.”
Year Two of Løpe Magazine, in print!