When they were two of Pennsylvania's best while wearing the colors of Easton Area and Central Bucks East, Colin Abert and Jake Brophy didn't cross paths that much even though their schools were only about 30 miles apart in the Delaware River Valley.
However, their 2020 indoor season plans were definitely aligned as the Penn State grad and Naval Academy senior went to Beantown in late January with one goal in mind. And they did not come away from Boston University's revered Track and Tennis Center (TTC) disappointed, adding their names to the ever-growing list of sub-4:00 milers on the banked oval.
"The big goal was going to Boston this year because I had never raced there before and everybody said that the track was so fast," said Abert, who already was a member of the exclusive sub-4 club heading into the 2020 season. "Going into the race, I definitely had the goal of breaking 4. I was feeling very fit. I'd had some really good workouts.
"I was happy with where my fitness was, but then a week before the race, I ended up getting some kind of cold. I was worried. I was drinking as much fluids as I could get. I was taking tablets for immunity, I've just got to get through this and stay positive and hope that I'm feeling good race day. If not, there will be more races, but it all lined up."
A little scheduling luck brought Abert and Brophy to Boston for the same meet, with the now Minnesota resident and the future Navy pilot selecting the John Thomas Terrier Classic out of the nearly half-dozen dates on BU's home meet schedule.
For Abert, the race in Boston was the second of his abbreviated season, while Brophy's trip north came at the end of a busy month of January and was one of only two meets where the senior had just one race.
"That atmosphere is very cool up there," Brophy said of the Terriers' indoor venue. "That's the first time we've been up to a meet like that in Boston, for one of their premier ones like John Thomas or Valentine. That was really cool to be there.
"It almost took a little bit more pressure off because I knew if I just sat in the race and competed with those guys, it will bring me to a fast time rather than worrying about the clock and trying to do that aspect of it."
That's one fast track
Already a favorite destination of track stars around the globe, BU's TTC added to its mystique in 2020 as the place to run fast in multi-lap races.
According to the World Athletics site, 24 of the 40 sub-4 milers from this past winter were at their best on the Massachusetts banked oval, while the 11 fastest men's 5Ks also occurred in front of a raucous crowd in Boston. In all, 26 of the 27 fastest men's 5,000s in 2020 were on the six-lane, 200-meter track.
"I like the track a lot," Brophy said. "Maybe it is a self-fulfilling prophecy about people running fast."
As for the mile, the Boston track held volumes of mile racing history before this indoor season, with 100 men going sub-4 and 68 women covering the mile in under 4:40. Twenty-one men and 23 women added their names to those facility lists in 2020.
And at the head of the class in Boston and worldwide is the performance by Yomif Kejelcha. Only 21 at the time, the Ethiopian star took down the 22-year-old standard of 3:48.45 by mile legend Hicham El Guerrouj with his 3:47.01 clocking on the banked oval in March 2019. With American Johnny Gregorek moving to No. 6 all time with his 3:49.98, the indoor race was the first ever in the world with a pair of finishers under 3:50 as the BU track has produced half of the 10 fastest indoor miles in history.
With an eye toward longer races
While compiling comprehensive high school running resumes and attracting their share of attention from college coaches, neither Abert nor Brophy envisioned himself a miler. Both ended their senior years with PRs well under 4:20, but their talents appeared to lie with longer track events or cross country.
At Easton, Abert was a three-time state medalist in cross country, finishing 5th as a senior and runner-up in his junior race in Hershey. On the track, he ran one of the state's fastest 3,200 times in history - 8:56.00 - for second in the memorable 2015 Class AAA finale that produced 4 sub-9:00 clockings and also placed 5th in the AAA 1,600 title race in 2014.
"In high school, I'd almost say that I was more of a cross country guy," Abert said. "I did well on the track, and I was happy with my track career, but when I was recruited to Penn State, my coach actually told me that he was mainly bringing me in as someone for the cross country team who will run track as well.
"I thought my main priority was going to be running the 5K and maybe the 3K indoor. I didn't realize how necessary it is even for even those distances to run the mile, so my freshman year my coach telling me I was opening up with the mile, I was like, 'Wow. I didn't even think I was going to get to run one.' One race I went from 4:11 to 4:03, and ever since then, I've kind of just been considered a miler. It's my absolute favorite event on the track."
Meanwhile, Brophy also has a spot in PA MileSplit's all-time top 10 in the 3,200 with his 8:57.68 for the win at the 2015 Henderson Invitational. He wasn't able to repeat that level of performance in the PIAA meet and was 8th at Shippensburg in the state 3,200 in his final two track seasons at Central Bucks East.
In XC, Brophy was a two-time Foot Locker Finalist, claiming 8th and All-American honors in a senior-dominated finale in December 2015. Five weeks before that race, the future Midshipman won his second consecutive PIAA AAA race, adding to medalist honors he received as a sophomore.
"Definitely when I was coming from high school, I saw myself more as a cross country guy," said Brophy, whose 8th in San Diego was the highest finish by a Pennsylvania boy since Council Rock North's Danny Coval was 7th in 1999. "None of my track seasons in high school were extraordinary as my cross seasons had been comparatively. I was definitely looking more to cross as I came onto the college scene."
Coming back to the mile
As freshmen, Abert and Brophy quickly were able to adapt to college competition, with both runners ending their initial cross country seasons in their team's top 5. For Brophy, the adjustment also included getting acclimated to the regimented life at one of the nation's service academies.
"The first fall for anyone here, you are figuring a lot of stuff out, just how this place works and where you can find the extra time to devote to the sport," Brophy said. "That first fall semester during cross country (you) use that as an adjustment phase for sure. After that, it's pretty routine stuff. I guess you know kind of what to expect, even if it is a lot. You just kind of work around it."
Once back on the track for their first college indoor and outdoor seasons, the duo responded well to the heavy dose of 1,500s and miles that were on their schedules at Penn State and Navy. Abert's aforementioned 4:03.92 in the 2016 Penn State Tune-Up on the Nittany Lions' banked oval was a preview to a point-scoring eighth in his first Big Ten indoor championships, a fourth in the conference outdoor 1,500 final and the first of two trips to the NCAA East regional for the metric mile.
Brophy also dropped a handful of seconds off his mile best indoors in 2018, finally running 4:05.66 for the win in the Army-Navy meet on the 200 banked track in Navy's Wesley Brown Field House.
In his first venture under 4:00 - 3:59.51 - while a junior at Penn State, Abert experienced one way to break the barrier. He recently expanded his race strategy database thanks to videos he consumed while putting in treadmill miles during his first winter as a pro representing the Minnesota Distance Elite.
"It was definitely different because at that race I was in second the whole time until I passed Dominic," he said of following teammate and pacer Perretta, a future Big Ten champ in the 800, through the early going on Feb. 3, 2018. "This one was pretty cool to have the chance to race against some people and make some passes and making sure that you're not passing too much on the turns so that way you're adding any extra meters at the end of the race."
Boston - January 25, 2020
Abert, Brophy and 168 other milers made the trek to BU for the John Thomas Terrier Classic, with the men's races coming on Day 2 of the weekend meet. Only a select few knew long in advance which of the 14 heats they would be in, with the PA duo and the rest having to wait until just minutes before the 8-lap plus 9-meter races began to hear their heat assignments.
"I knew that I was 9th on the performance list going in, that was an ambitious seed time," Brophy said of the sub-4 time that Navy distance coach Aaron Lanzel turned in for his senior. "I hadn't run that, but my coach had argued through practice workouts and stuff like that, I looked like I was ready for that time. Looking at it, the past couple years I knew they had taken the top 12 so I felt comfortable that I would make it in the fast heat.
"At the last second if they pulled Colin or one of the other 3:59-edge guys out, I might have been the first guy in the second heat. So there was a little bit of nerves there ... I actually talked to Colin before the race, and he was telling me he thought he was going to be in the second heat. I thought it was kind of funny how that worked out, but obviously he had a great race in the second heat."
Lanzel, who ran 3:59.88 in 2004 just over a year at graduating from Annapolis, believed Brophy was in the perfect spot to do what he emphasizes to his athletes at the Naval Academy. Brophy simply needed to compete with the likes of 3:51 miler Craig Engels and the others in the first and fastest heat.
"Jake was really ready," Lanzel said. "A lot of guys in their careers ... normally the stars will not align. Never in a race really everything aligns for you. It usually takes more than once or twice or three times even going after it to have a real shot where you feel like, 'Yep, everything came together today.'
"We wanted to get him ready for it. He ran 4:04 the week before. I knew in my mind if some special energy was in the air that day for him, maybe he could have had a great kick and done it. But realistically it was if you could hurt that bad, next time you cannot worry about the pain and just concentrate on the guys around you."
And the guys around him and, for most of the race, in front of him were quality milers, especially Engels.
"I knew that the race was going to go out fast enough that no matter where you were in that pack, you'd be OK," Brophy said of the hot heat's early pace provided by trusted rabbit Ben Bosworth. "The first 600-800 meters, I was just focused on staying smooth and not running with a shortened stride or anything, trying to run in a specific spot.
"I actually spent most of the race almost on the second lane line, which looking back was probably not a great move. I ran probably a couple extra meters that I didn't need to. it helped me stay smooth through the first 800 and be ready for the 600- to 500-meter kick that was coming."
With 350 remaining and Engels having started his run for home, Brophy's coach wasn't sure the stars would align for his senior, who suddenly found himself ninth out of the remaining 11 runners.
"He was outside the entire race, I don't think he ever touched the pole once," Lanzel said, confirming Brophy's view from the track. "They were 3:01 at the 1,200 ... and he was 3:02 with a lot of traffic in front of him. It was a little bit of a nailbiter in the live aspect of it watching, but when he gets geared up and he's ready to go, he cranked out the 58 to pass some guys and get up into the competition again."
The only thing left for the Navy senior was the seconds that seemed like hours as the finishing times were posted and met with thunderous applause from the TTC crowd.
"That was awesome," Brophy said of seeing his Navy-record 3:59.98 time flash on the scoreboard. "That's one of the best moments in this sport that I've had so far. I saw third place go up and it was 59.82 and fourth place go up and 59.85.
"I thought there's no way I fit in between .85 and 4 flat. Absolutely no way. But then I saw and I just couldn't believe it. I think I made a fool of myself actually in the fieldhouse, but I was very happy with it."
With many lining the edge of the track, the crowd was definitely in the mood for more mile history and Abert delivered with the fastest final four laps of heat No. 2. Moving from the chase pack to join the lead quartet just past halfway, the former Penn Stater saved his best for last, dropping a 28-second lap and reaching the line first in 3:59.70.
"The only reason that I'm really pursuing running after college is in hopes of being able to try to qualify for an Olympic or world team, to represent the U.S. in some capacity," Abert said. "Any step toward that direction is a positive reinforcement for me. Breaking 4 again made all that training worth it. I'm just really excited to continue with this strength training that I've been doing, laying it on the line ... and trying to get faster."
Time for an encore?
Along with the rest of the sports world, the competition schedule quickly screeched to a halt for Brophy in March, about five weeks after he became the first midshipman to break 4 minutes. As expected, the former Central Bucks East star contributed significantly to Naval Academy team sweeps at the Army-Navy meet and the Patriot League championships, winning the mile in the dual meet and jumping up in distance to sweep the 3K and 5K races at Lehigh.
"Winning those two events is huge for the team," Brophy had said in anticipation of the remainder of the indoor season. "And so whatever I can do for the team there, whether it's doubling or tripling, that will be definitely the priority. I don't know if we'll get another shot to go a little bit faster in the mile."
Brophy has not returned to Annapolis since the Naval Academy started spring break back on March 9, doing online classes from 8 am to 3:30 pm each day. Currently, Lanzel's training plan has two main workouts a week for Brophy as coronavirus uncertainty clouds a return to competition.
What is known for Brophy is he will be commissioned into the Navy at graduation on May 22 and will start flight school in September in Pensacola, Fla. However, his desire to run fast in between those events remains strong.
For Abert, the worldwide standstill has allowed the former Nittany Lion to focus on training and get healthy again after a back issue caused him to skip what was scheduled to be a return to Happy Valley for a 3,000 in this year's National Open. The COVID-19 pandemic also took away his outdoor opener at Bryan Clay.
"I am doing alright," Abert said about a week ago. "The Olympics being pushed back is actually kinda helpful so I can get some solid training in. I'm running my highest mileage week this week so I have a lot of time to focus on building strength."
Their spots on the U.S. sub-4 timeline - No. 502 for Abert and No. 549 for Brophy of the 558 American men to have turned the trick - are forever preserved. Their accomplishments indeed are more rare than scaling the highest point on the planet, a point the now Minnesotan emphasized to Brophy after their races and weeks later.
"I asked him, 'Is this your first time?'" Abert recalled. "He said, 'Yeah.' I said just enjoy it. This is one of the best days I think of your life then. I can still remember my first time.
"The first time I broke it, I let out a scream afterward. There's a picture of me with my hands up in the air. This time, I got a fist bump at the end and then just enjoyment from it, but that first time is really special."