By August Howell

For nearly every professional sport, there are certain numbers and statistics that are recognized as a pinnacle of achievement: Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 38,387 career points, Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships. For track and field, the sub-4 minute mile is not just a time — it’s a status.

But the Bowerman Mile, which will take place Saturday at the Prefontaine Classic, is one of only a handful of major international mile races left in the world. The few others include the Wannamaker Mile at the Millrose Games in New York and the Hy-Vee Men’s Invitational Mile at the Drake Relays.

The Bowerman Mile consistently fields the best milers in the world. It’s a tribute to an older track race, honoring two Oregon greats at the same meet. Though it is held in a Diamond League meet, it does not count toward points at the end of the professional circuit, yet it still gets reigning world champions and junior world record holders to compete. 

Competitors this year include the 2017 gold and silver world championship medalists in the 1,500 meters, the 2016 Olympic champion in the 1,500 champion, the meet record holder and the youngest sub-4 miler ever.

However, most of those athletes have careers that revolve around running the 1,500 meters, not the mile. Yet that distance is harder to follow for viewers, and only devoted track fans know what a fast time is.

Even though the 1,500 meters has been an Olympic event for over 100 years, most sports fans recognize the mile, with its 4-minute mile barrier, as more historically significant. The mile exists in this delicate balance. 

The mile has remained popular because breaking four minutes is still seen one of the few accomplishments in the sport that any athlete can distinguish as truly special. Even as running under becomes more common, there is a cultural history behind the mile that still persists.

The lore of the first sub-4 minute mile was established when Roger Bannister broke the barrier in 1954. There’s little doubt among historians this is one of the single greatest achievements in athletics history, and 64 years later, running sub-4 is something all runners recognize as truly elite.

That’s why the Prefontaine Classic has yet opportunity to race the mile: the International Mile, which is filled with up-and-comers. Saturday’s runners in what is actually the “B” race will get a moment in the spotlight, too: The winner of the race will be the 400th person to break the 4-minute mile in the Pre Classic, and the sixth-place finisher, provided he too breaks the barrier, will become the 500th person to do so at Hayward Field.

Meet director Tom Jordan brought back former middle distance star Alan Webb to make presentations to each runner, recognizing the history and prestige of the event and the barrier.

Another person who believes in the mile is Ryan Lamppa, who started an online campaign started in 2011 called Bring Back the Mile that is dedicated to bringing the mile back to relevance on the track and on the road. Lamppa, the founder of the movement, believes the 1,500 meters does not have the same cultural or promotional value as a traditional mile.

“The mile isn’t going away,” he said. “It’s embedded in our culture, but it has lost some of its profile.”

In the seven years since Bring Back The Mile launched, five high schoolers have broken 4 minutes in the mile. Prior to the campaign, only five high schoolers had ever broken the barrier. Lamppa believes that promoting awareness of the mile is raising the performance level, at least subconsciously.

“That’s why some meets like the Prefontaine keep the mile,” Lamppa said. ”They understand how important it is.”

Part of the reason the 1,500 meters is so institutionalized in track and field is because the metric system is widely used around the world. In 1896, when the 1,500 meters became part of the Olympic Games, French tracks were 500 meters long, making three times around the most convenient middle distance race.

“The mile race is kind of an anomaly because it’s a totally metric sport,” said Joe Henderson, a track expert who moved to Eugene from Iowa in 1981 and has written dozens of books about running. “Four laps, four minutes.”

Ever since the inception of the Prefontaine Classic in 1975, the meet has hosted an elite mile race featuring the best middle distance runners in the world. It became known as the Bowerman Mile after legendary Oregon coach Bill Bowerman passed away in 1999.

It’s remarkable today just how fast the world’s best milers can run. Breaking the 4-minute barrier has become the standard, not the exception, at professional meets. At the Pre Classic, Ayanleh Souleiman of Djibouti holds the meet’s all-time record with a blistering 3:47.32, set in 2014. And even that is still four seconds behind Hicham El Guerrouj’s world record of 3:43.13.

Matthew Centrowitz Jr., a former Oregon Duck and professional runner for Nike Oregon project, has raced the Bowerman Mile several times. He makes sure this race is circled on his calendar each year. His father ran for Oregon in the late 1970s, so he is very aware of the culture and history surrounding the Bowerman Mile.

“In the past, even if I’m not in great form, I’ll still race,” Centrowitz said. “Unless I’m completely injured or sick, I’m going to be competing here.”

Each year, The Bowerman Mile also invites a select few high schoolers from around the country. In 2001, a young Webb set the national high school record in the mile, running 3:53.43, breaking Jim Ryun’s record which had stood for 36 years. Henderson recalled that race as the loudest he had ever heard Hayward Field.

“People were cheering for him so much,” Henderson said. “People were cheering much louder for him than the world record holder, who beat him by a bunch.”

In 2016, Andrew Hunter was invited to the run in the Bowerman Mile. Unlike most high schoolers invited to the Pre Classic, he did not run in the International Mile, another middle distance race focused on the younger up-and-comers.

The senior from Loudon County, Virginia, ran 3:58.86, breaking the sub-4 minute barrier for the first time outdoors. Though he finished in last place, his time solidified him as one of the best high school runners ever. His time marked him as the only high schooler along with Webb and Ryun to run under 3:58 outdoors. Hunter had run 3:57 indoors, earning him the No. 3 slot behind Webb and Ryun.

In last year’s International Mile, 17-year-old Jakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway became the youngest sub-4 miler in history. This year, he was invited to the participate with the world’s best in the Bowerman Mile.

That includes Centrowitz, who has raced many in the field before and knows just how hard it can be to win.

“I can’t think of anyone right now who’s been running extremely well in the last past year that’s left off this list,” Centrowitz said. “Everyone that’s medaled at the last world championships and Olympics is pretty much in there. …I think they won it in 3:49 last year, and I’m sure it’s going to take a similar to have that win.”