Once Upon a Time in the Vest

Monday, March 20, 2017

V 6 N. 20 One High School, Two Sub 4-Minute Milers

Tom, Jack and The St. Ignatius Four-Minute Mile Legacy

By Paul O’Shea

It’s a brick wall.  I shall not attempt it again.
--John Landy, after running between 4:02 and 4:03 six times in 1953.  

Fortunately for the track and field world, the determined Australian broke both his vow and four minutes when he set a world record of 3:58 in l954. Unfortunately for Landy, his feat came forty-six days after Roger Bannister’s epic run.

Since those fondly remembered days, more than a thousand men have run under four minutes (but where are their Ran Sub-4 bumper stickers?). Nearly five hundred Americans now claim that distinction.

Only two high schools have graduated a pair of sub-four minute milers, Wichita East High School in Kansas (Archie San Romani, Jr. and Jim Ryun), and Chicago’s St. Ignatius, which gained this recognition just weeks ago.

Thomas Martin Ignatius O’Hara (St. Ignatius ’60, Loyola ‘64) was the first Ignatian under four minutes when he ran 3:59.4 in l963 for Loyola University.  He went on to break two world indoor mile records and earn an Olympic berth. The latest is Jack Keelan (St. Ignatius ’13, Stanford ‘17), emerging at Stanford University as one of the nation’s highly promising distance runners. He ran 3:59.62 in February. The O’Hara-Keelan breakthroughs came fifty-four years apart.
In the 1960s Tom O’Hara was one of the world’s finest middle distance competitors.  A 4:20 miler for St. Ignatius when the national high school record was 4:03.5, his college career took off at Loyola, where he ran 4:08 his freshman year. With his first sub-four he became the ninth American to crack the barrier following Don Bowden who ran 3:58.7 in 1957.
O'Hara using his St. Ignatius honed skills winning the
USTFF Nationals in Chicago in 1963.

Nineteen sixty-four was O’Hara’s career year.  He broke the indoor mile record twice and made the Olympic 1500-meter semifinal. Landing on the front of Sports Illustrated as O’Hara did, gave the sport immense recognition. SI’s June 22, 1964 cover featured the gaunt and pensive Irishman, with his trademark hair variously described by other writers as “red,” “carrot” and “pumpkin.”

A handful of Sports Illustrated writers provided extensive coverage of track and the Chicagoan, even before the lyrical prose of runner-writer Kenny Moore.  Their stories about O’Hara were headlined, Running Is Such Sweet Torture, Now If O’Hara Really Tries and, And Now There Are Two, after Jim Beatty moved up to the two-mile when O’Hara beat his one-mile record.

That first world record came at Madison Square Garden in the New York Athletic Club meet when O’Hara ran 3:56.6. Closing in 55 seconds, he sliced a huge two full seconds from Beatty’s mark. Three weeks later, in sold-out Chicago Stadium before more than 18,000 screaming fans, O’Hara slipped under his own mark by two-tenths of a second. Running in the Chicago Daily News Relays on the Stadium’s rickety eleven-lap board track, the largest crowd to see an indoor meet roared approval of its hometown hero. It was a mark that would last a decade.

“Even the mayor himself, Richard J. Daley had to scrounge for tickets to the meet,” wrote Tom Brody in Sports Illustrated.  Trackside seats were six bucks, two dollars in the second balcony, where cigarette smoke gathered in a fog.

Speaking of O’Hara as a high school freshman in l956, his coach, Dr. Ralph Mailliard told Sports Illustrated’s John Underwood: “The first time I saw him, I said he should start planning for the Olympics.  I’ve never told a boy that before or since but with O’Hara there was something—something there you could sense.  Guts, courage, dedication, whatever you call it.  He never did better than a 4:20 mile for me, so I deserve no credit, but you could tell it was just a matter of time.”  The Wolfpack coach, however, did indeed deserve a measure of credit, as he guided one of the city’s consistently high performing teams.

Tom O’Hara was never to appear on the Illinois high school stage, as Jack Keelan would do so successfully decades later. St. Ignatius did not join the state athletic association until the mid-l960s.

Following his dominating indoor season O’Hara was a strong favorite to make the l964 Olympic team. He finished second to Dyrol Burleson in the Trials 1500, in front of Jim Ryun. Some thought O’Hara might defeat world record holder Peter Snell in Tokyo, but the Olympic rounds proved more challenging. O’Hara easily came through in the opening qualifier behind Kip Keino, a tenth ahead of the blocky Snell.  In the semifinal, however, bitten by the flu bug the American was seventh and did not advance.

After seeing O’Hara establish himself on the indoor circuit, his potential for excelling at longer distances became a possibility.  Australia’s Ron Clarke, who came to the United States to run a series of indoor meets, watched him circle the indoor ovals and said, “O’Hara could run two miles, three miles even, and break world records.”  In fact, the promise in moving up had earlier become reality when O’Hara won the 1962 NCAA cross country championship at Michigan State.

Nicknamed “Mousemeat” by track writers, O’Hara’s distinguishing features began with his stripling frame, a five-nine, 130 pounder who took on the likes of the three Jims (Beatty, Grelle, Ryun) as well as Burleson.  He was so skinny that the L and the A on the front of his Loyola jersey were like bookends scattered under his armpits.  One writer said he looked more like a bellhop than an athlete. Yes, and he always seemed to deliver the message, in less time than you might think.

During Chicago’s notorious winters, O’Hara and the other Loyola Ramblers trained at the Chicago Avenue Armory, an ugly, drafty building built in l907 for the Illinois National Guard.  With an indoor dirt polo field and sharing space with four-legged training groups, the venue gave special meaning to the warning Mind Your Step.

O’Hara was one of the world’s most popular middle distance runners in the Sixties, an athlete with great crowd appeal.  During his career he ran 17 sub-four minute miles. Though Track and Field News world-ranked him fourth in l963, and seventh a year later at the l500/mile, his desire to achieve faded away.

Hal Higdon, one of our sport’s most prolific writers, wrote in a l983 Chicago Tribune story:  “During college, while other students were partying, dating girls, O’Hara had devoted his time and energy to twice-daily workouts, endurance runs along the railroad tracks each morning, searing sprints on the track each afternoon, trips to races in towns like Des Moines and East Lansing on Saturdays, long runs through Lincoln Park on Sundays. O’Hara never lived what he considered a normal life. ‘I was so sick of running I thought I would get away from it for a while and catch up on life.  I even started smoking.’”

Turning the page and moving though the decades, Jack Keelan is the second St. Ignatius alumnus to gain membership to the exclusive sub-four enclave. As sometimes happens, it began by leaving a successful club soccer career behind. The LaGrange Park, Illinois native discovered he could run far and run fast.  So did his new coach and teammates.
Jack and Coach Ed Ernst, after Jack forgot to wear his number.

Ed Ernst, current St. Ignatius head boys cross country and track and field coach remembers a yearling of great promise, winning a Chicago Catholic League championship, but forgetting to affix his participant number.  The first year he ran about 16:30 for three miles. Sophomore year Keelan soon became the Wolfpack’s top varsity distance runner, finishing twelfth in state cross country on Peoria’s storied Detweiller Park course. The next year as a junior he was favored to win the Illinois cross country large school title, but inexplicably failed to qualify in the sectional.  He overcame that disappointment by having an outstanding season on the track.

"Jack Keelan passes Alex Riba of O'Fallon to win the Illinois 3 A 3200 state championship race, running 8:5761 for the win.  Keelan and Riba had battled for the Illinois 3 A state cross country championship the previous fall.  Riba went on to run at Texas A&M."

The two photos of Jack's high school career are by Steven Bugarin, assistant coach at St. Ignatius.

Senior year Keelan’s performance in the large school 3A cross country meet was the tenth fastest in Illinois history.  At the Nike Cross Country Nationals, against many of the nation’s finest individuals and teams he finished 26th. In addition to the cross country title, in the spring he won the Illinois 1600- and 3200-meter races.  Packaged together it was the distance Triple Crown. With times, titles and academic achievement at elite levels, he was on his way to compete for one of the nation’s top running programs, Stanford University.

Now in his fourth year at Palo Alto (he redshirted freshman year), Keelan is deep into an impressive collegiate career.  His first year saw him finish second as an unattached athlete in the U.S. junior national cross country championships.  On the track he ran a 13:45.82 five thousand meters at the Payton Jordan Invitational.  As a sophomore he made the Cardinal top seven in cross country, placing 100th in the NCAA meet.  His five thousand time fell to 13:40. He was Stanford’s seventh man at the NCAA cross country meet as a junior.  In all, he was a member of three teams with NCAA podium finishes. Off the course and track he made the Pac-12 All-Academic second team.

Keelan’s sub-four race this February was less a career target than seizing an unforeseen opportunity.   His best mile had been 4:06.25. Originally the team plan was to run only the Distance Medley Relay at Penn State, with a teammate scheduled to run the mile.  Illness prevented highly recruited Grant Fisher from traveling so Keelan volunteered.  The DMR came the night before the 1600 meters, and he anchored the final leg in a foreshadowing 3:59, which converts to a 4:01 mile.  Twenty hours later he was back on the Nittany Lion track.  

“After the DMR on Friday, coach Chris Miltenberg was happy with how the race went and wanted me to rest up and not run the next day. I told him that I felt really good and wanted to race again.  He said to sleep on it.  The next day we talked it over about an hour before the gun, and agreed I should go ahead.”

Asked what he remembered as he finished first in 3:59.62 and became the 479th American to achieve that milestone (pun intended), Keelan said:  “Crossing the finish line I was just focused on trying to win the race.  Once I saw the time though, I was really more relieved than anything.  While the mile has not been my main focus while in college, breaking the four-minute barrier has been something that my coach and I have been talking about for several years.  So having everything come together and break four was really something special.  

“As far as sinking in, I am not sure it really has yet.  I was blessed with a tremendous amount of support after the race which I am incredibly thankful for, but that barrier has such a special place in distance running, so it still feels rather surreal.”   

Later, Coach Miltenberg said: “He is a great example of a guy in our program who has steadily developed and built confidence with each race.”

When Tom O’Hara learned about Keelan’s own sub-four minute mile, he said: “I’m very pleased to see that Jack ran such a fine race and time.”

The great middle distance runners of the past were articulate about how they viewed the event.  Landy said that every part of the race was tactically important.  “You can never let down, never stop thinking, and you can be beaten at almost any point.  I suppose you could say that it is like life.”

John Walker, owner of 135 sub-four outings said that no one remembers the records in almost every other middle- and long-distance race.  “The mile they remember.  Only the mile.”

Now there is a second name at the top of the St. Ignatius distance running legacy.

Paul O’Shea is a lifelong participant in the track and field world, as athlete, coach and journalist.  After a career in corporate communications he coached a high school girls’ cross country team and was a long-time contributor to Cross Country Journal. He now writes for Once Upon a Time in the Vest from his home in northern Virginia, and can be reached at Poshea17@aol.com.  He attended St. Ignatius High School from 1949 to 1951, but was unable to complete a mile in less than four minutes.

Comment from John Bork Jr.

The failure of Tom O'hara to medal at the 1964 Tkyo Olympics had little or nothing to do with the flu.

Rather, It was due to the fact the Tom's father died, and had him gieving at Tokyo!

Some one can help me here........ but, I no longer remember if Tom went home to his Father's Funeral
and came home and then went back to Tokyo: or, if he stayed in Tokyo, hoping to honor his Father and thus gave way to his grief


From Bruce Kritzler:

Great story on the Chicago boys.
Stillwater HS (Minnesota) coach Scott Christensen has produced 4 sub 4 milers - Ben Blankenship, Jake Watson, Luke Watson, Sean Graham.

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