DAVID GREENE, host:

It was this month 45 years ago when track star Jim Ryan became the first high school runner to break the four-minute mile. Two more high schoolers cracked the barrier in the next few years, and so it looked like this would become increasingly common. Instead, it's become exceedingly rare. But high school runners have not stopped chasing that elusive goal, and NPR's Tom Goldman has a look at some who are flirting with that four-minute mark.

TOM GOLDMAN: A couple of Saturdays ago on a cool, drizzly evening in Portland, Oregon, the Portland Track Festival was almost over and the focus was on two big events, 1,800 miles apart. As 10 high school boys in Portland warmed up for the mile, the premiere event of the festival, a similar race had just ended in Illinois.

Unidentified Man: The Midwest Distance Gala out in the Chicago was won by Andrew Springer with a 4:02.70. We have a feel tonight that we feel that under these conditions, could put that to the test.

(Soundbite of gun firing, cheers)

Unidentified Man: They're off.

GOLDMAN: Knowing they have the last shot of the day at sub-four minutes, the boys in Portland burst off the starting line with firm numbers in their heads, four laps, 60 seconds or better each time around. At the halfway mark, it was a fast pace, but not sub-four fast. The time needed to be two minutes or less.

Unidentified Man: 2:04, 2:05 for 880.

GOLDMAN: Race leader Mac Fleet - not a bad name for a runner - knew he had to pick up the pace. As opposed to a normal event, the clock was more important to Fleet than the guys breathing down his neck.

Mr. MAC FLEET (Runner): All of our big athletes here, we kind of have to put our egos aside and, you know, we really have to go after the times and not race.

Mr. CRAIG RICE (Portland Track Festival Director): The guys are swinging for the fences today.

GOLDMAN: Portland Track Festival director Craig Rice.

Mr. RICE: It's better to go for sub-four and blow up and run something you'd be unhappy with in a competitive race. It really is a rite of passage for the top milers that you have to take a shot.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: This last lap is going to be a burner. It's going to be a burner.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. RICE: Early every track season, somebody runs a fast time, gets under 4:10, or, you know, something like that. And then people start to wonder: Is it going to happen this time? Is this the guy that can do it?

GOLDMAN: The answer, says Craig Rice, usually is no. After Jim Ryan broke four minutes in 1964, he and two others ran sub-four miles the next three years. Then nothing until 2001, when Alan Webb set a new high school mile record. Why the long droughts? Theories abound. The change to the metric system in track and field in the 1970s meant fewer mile races. Less intense track training by kids in the 1980s and '90s might have had an effect. Whatever the reasons, a barrier that's regularly broken at older ages remains a barrier for high schoolers.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: Bring it home.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: Officially 4:02.90 - fantastic run.

GOLDMAN: In Portland, it was another close-but-no-cigars night at the track. Winner Mac Fleet was happy with a new personal record of 4:02.90 and not really disappointed that he couldn't shave three more seconds off his time.

Mr. FLEET: You can't be, because it's such a prestigious mark. No one is ever favored to break four minutes and - especially in high school. And, you know, there's a reason only four people have ever done it.

GOLDMAN: Next year, Fleet will join the University of Oregon's storied track team, where he seems destine to break four minutes as a college student.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Portland.

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