Brett Johnson, center, competes in a relay race for the University of Virgina at the 2011 Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden in New York. Johnson transferred last month to the University of Oregon and last weekend broke the 4-minute mile for the first time.

Staff photo by Ben Fogletto, Jan. 28, 2011

Brett Johnson ran his first mile race when he was 12 years old and in the sixth grade.

The former Ocean City High School standout and current University of Oregon senior then waited 10 years for last Saturday.

Johnson, 22, made history for himself and his high school when broke the 4-minute barrier for the mile run. Johnson finished in 3 minutes, 58.62 seconds to take sixth place at the Husky Classic at the University of Washington.

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"As a miler, it' a milestone you want to go after," Johnson said in a telephone interview last weekend. "It's kind of relief to get it off my back. I've run the mile since I was in the sixth grade. I was stoked. All the hard work I put in kind of came true."

Johnson, a 2009 Ocean City graduate, is just the 14th New Jersey runner and third one from a local high school to break 4 minutes. He and 2003 Ocean City graduate John Richardson are the only two New Jersey runners from the same high school to ever break 4 minutes. Richardson ran it in 3:59.35 for the University of Kentucky on Feb. 2, 2008.

Richardson, now 28 and living in Lexington, Ky., received a text message from a brother-in-law last Saturday. It told him he no longer held the Ocean City alumni record for the mile run.

"I figured the list (of high schools with two or more runners that broke 4 minutes) had to be long," Richardson said in a phone interview last week. "The area produces good athletes and success breeds success. As the years have gone, the (Ocean City) program continues to get better. I'm proud to be an (alumnus)."

In addition to Johnson and Richardson, Mark Sivieri, a 1991 St. Augustine Prep graduate, ran 3 minutes, 59.85 seconds for Georgetown University at a Boston meet in January 1994. Ford Palmer, a 2009 Absegami graduate now at Monmouth University, is on the verge of becoming the fourth local runner to break the barrier. His personal best is 4:01.90 this winter.

Five-plus decades of history

More than 50 years after it was first accomplished, the 4-minute mile is still the goal for distance runners.

The mystique of breaking the 4 minutes transcends track and field. The average sports fan may not understand the significance of running 800 meters in less than 1:50 or having a shot put of more than 60 feet. But they know what the 4-minute mile means.

Roger Bannister was the first person to break it. He ran it in 3:59.4 on May 6, 1954 in Oxford, England.

Before Bannister did it, many thought the achievement was impossible. His race has been commemorated in books and movies.

That has helped the average sports fan understand what the milestone means. But the average fan also understands because at some point in their lives most people have run or walked a mile.

The barrier tests a runner's versatility. You can post impressive times in shorter races with just speed. You can do the same in longer races with just endurance. You need both to break 4 minutes.

To have two sub-4-minute milers from the same school is one of the most significant achievements in local sports history.

"I'm thrilled for the guys,"said longtime Ocean City distance coach Bill Moreland, who worked with Johnson and Richardson during their Red Raiders days. "It's exciting. I wouldn't have thought there wasn't another high school with two. It (breaking 4 minutes) doesn't happen as often as you think."

With its Boardwalk, Ocean City boasts a running culture. People from the region drive to the Boardwalk to run along the ocean.

An O.C. tradition

The Red Raiders are a perennial track and field power. Moreland, the former head boys coach and now an assistant, is a big reason why.

Moreland's training philosophy gives the Red Raiders a chance to improve as they get older and not burn out.

"We have tended to under-train (distance runners) in high school," Moreland said. "If they're under-trained in high school, they're going to improve as they mature. If a kid is running 70 to 80 miles a week in high school, there's really not much space to improve."

Moreland also promotes the running culture by having an alumni run the day before Christmas. Nearly 50 former Red Raiders took part this past December.

"Some of them haven't run since the day before Christmas (the previous year)," Moreland said. "But they still come out to run."

As for Johnson, he can remember almost every detail of the first mile he ran as a sixth-grader. He finished in 6:15 at Ocean City's track.

"I hated the mile when I was younger because it was running around in circles," Johnson said. "It wasn't until about sophomore of my high school year that I started to enjoy it."

Johnson thought he could break the 4-minute mark in high school.

"But I didn't realize how hard it was going to be," he said.

He transferred to Oregon from the University of Virginia in January. It was an amicable parting. Johnson just felt like he needed change to reach his potential.

Johnson said he hadn't thought much about breaking 4 minutes since arriving at Oregon. Even last Saturday, he said, his only concern was winning.

"I was trying to beat (the other runners) and 4 minutes came with it," he said.

Oregon is to distance running what Duke is to basketball and Alabama to football.

"It's the place to be to run distance," Johnson. "Putting on that 'O' is something special. Oregon gave me a chance to come out here, so every day I put on that 'O' in a practice or a race is extra incentive to work hard and really win the day."

(List of New Jersey sub-4-minute milers compiled by journalist and track and field historian Reuben Frank)

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