Charging into the final lap of the third heat of the mile race at the Boston University Valentine Invitational Saturday, senior Michael Williams was in excellent positioning. With only 200 meters to go, Williams was in third place, and the clock read three minutes, 32 seconds. Closing the final circuit in 27 seconds, Williams let loose a huge kick to take first place and stop the time at 3:59.63 — crashing through the revered four-minute mile barrier.
“I was coming down the home straightaway and looked at the clock, saw 3:56, 3:57 and thought, ‘Holy … I think I can get this,’” Williams said. “I leaned at the line, and the crowd went nuts. I looked at the board, saw 3:59, and went crazy.”
Coming into the race, Williams did not have any high expectations. After running a series of subpar races for himself earlier this indoor season, he came in just wanting to be competitive in his heat and run a decent time. After breaking off the line and fighting for a position in the pack, Williams quickly decided he would settle in and let the race come to him.
“Fifty meters in, I remember my coach yelling, ‘stay relaxed,’ and I immediately settled in,” Williams said. “I was in 10th or 12th, and just figured I’d stay right there and feel really good and slowly move up.”
Running conservative splits of just around 60 seconds per quarter-mile, Williams held steady. Biding his time for the majority of the race, Williams carefully and consistently moved up through the field, until he reached that final lap. But even then, with only one lap to go, he did not expect what was to come.
“The announcer got the crowd really pumped up and everyone was screaming. With 150m to go I just went, and it was one of the best kicks of my life,” Williams said. “It was only when I came around that final turn, with everyone going crazy, that I thought it was a possibility. If my coach had told me with 200 meters to go, I wouldn’t have thought that I could. It’s the best surprise I’ve ever had.”
In breaking four minutes, Williams became a part of an elite club of distance runners. Since Don Bowden became the first U.S. miler to break the barrier in 1957, only 400-some other American runners have achieved the feat. At Princeton, Williams became the fourth athlete to ever break four, with his time ranking him behind only Peter Callahan ’13, Joe Stilin ’12 and Bill Burke ’91. As of this weekend, Williams is ranked ninth in the NCAA.
For Williams, running a sub-four mile has been a goal for a long time.
“Back when I was a freshman in high school I broke five minutes in the mile, and said, ‘I want to break four in the mile,’” Williams said. “Obviously I didn’t have an idea then of what a crazy idea that was.”
It wasn’t until Williams ran 3:44.97 in the 1500m in the spring of his sophomore year that he realized running under 4:00 for 1609m — the mile — was a true possibility. Plagued with nagging injuries junior year, Williams never realized his goal. This fall, however, Williams ran a 1000m time-trial in 2:23 with little speed training and knew that this might finally be the year.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for eight years now, and having finally broken that barrier is so awesome,” Williams said. “It’s definitely one of the top running moments of my life. I did this by myself, and no one can take that away from me.”
With the Ivy League Championships just a few weeks away on March 1st and 2nd, Williams’ breakthrough comes at an opportune time. Earlier this season, Dartmouth’s Will Geoghegan broke the conference record with a time of 3:58.04. Including Williams, a total of seven runners have run under 4:02 this winter. For Williams, while in terms of seconds a 3:59 is not that much faster than a 4:01 or 4:02, the confidence boost it gives is significant.
“Finishing that race, closing in 57 seconds and running sub-four, it makes me believe that I can definitely compete with the guys in the Ivy League,” Williams said. “Before this race, I was questioning where I fit in with all these guys laying down these huge times. Obviously the race is going to be stacked, but I think I’ll have just as good a shot as anyone to put it together once I step on the line.”
Yet, whether Williams wins or not, at 3:59.63, he will always be known as one of the best milers ever in the league.