San Jose Mercury News - Bowden comfortable with slice of track history

The day Don Bowden became the first American to break the 4-minute mile barrier, he was drained from taking an economics final at Cal.

"I didn't know if I wanted to run or not," said Bowden, whose landmark race took place June 1, 1957.

But after completing the 3 1/2-hour exam, he drove to Stockton for a Pacific Association AAU meet at defunct Baxter Stadium. Bowden arrived an hour before his race and found the conditions ideal. "Oh, I've got to do this," he thought.

At 20, Bowden (pronounced BO-den) became the 12th person to break the 4-minute mark with a time of 3 minutes, 58.7 seconds. He blew away the five-man field by 80 yards.

Bowden, now 70, was given a ring of roses at the finish. Reporters dubbed the runner from San Jose the "Miracle Miler."

With this month's 50th anniversary of the feat, the former Lincoln High star has returned to the spotlight. Bowden, of Saratoga and Aptos, will be recognized this weekend at the NCAA championships in Sacramento and the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore.

Much has changed since his milestone. The current world record is 3:43.13 by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco. Steve Scott set the U.S. record of 3:47.69 in 1982.

Bowden, whose passion today is his Great Pyrenees dogs Max and Lady, didn't start out as a miler. He wanted to play football at Lincoln, but then-coach Lee Cox wouldn't let him.

The coach was worried Bowden's father, Paul, would be upset if he allowed the gangly teen to play. Paul Bowden was Cox's dentist. Instead, Cox turned him into a runner. Bowden perfected his craft by running around the Rose Garden, which he said was a half-mile long.

Before his historic race, Bowden's best mile was 4:08.2 during his sophomore season at Cal. A two-time state champion in the half mile for Lincoln, he first ran the distance as a college freshman.

The Bears' legendary coach, Brutus Hamilton, thought Bowden could break the 4-minute barrier in 1957 after he had run 4:01 in a relay a few weeks beforehand. The coach targeted the AAU meet in Stockton to do it.

"It was almost this single attempt to run a fast mile and it all fell together," said Jon Hendershott of Track & Field News.

Before the race, Hamilton told Bowden: "This is your last opportunity."

The words proved more prescient than either could have imagined. Bowden never broke 4 minutes again.

The performance, though, inspired a nation that had waited for three years for an American to match Brit Roger Bannister's pioneering run in 1954.

After Cal, Bowden became a second lieutenant in the Army and eventually was stationed in San Francisco. He failed to make the 1960 Olympic team, rupturing an Achilles tendon before the U.S. trials. That pretty much ended his competitive career.

The recent attention has brought renewed interest in Bowden's place in track history. Bert Bonanno, a longtime San Jose track coach, is lobbying to get him named to the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame - and not just because of the mile.

Bowden succeeded at almost every level; he held relay world records, NCAA titles and national high school marks. But his hard luck at the '56 Olympics in Melbourne might help explain why he has been overlooked.

Bowden failed to advance from the first heat of the 1,500 meters after suffering from a recent bout of mononucleosis.

"He was one of those in-between Olympic heroes," Hendershott said.

Bowden, however, doesn't worry about rewards or recognition. He possesses a large silver trophy donated in 1941 by a Swedish immigrant - a token given to the first American to break the 4-minute barrier.

He also keeps two bound books filled with yellowing newspaper clippings and certificates of achievement. The mementos seem to be enough.

He cares more about preserving the wholesome values of his era. Bowden embraced the teachings of Hamilton - the 1952 Olympic coach who wanted his athletes to absorb the Berkeley experience. He de-emphasized competition by holding one- or two-hour daily workouts.

"He was like a Greek philosopher," said Bowden, who owns a sports surfacing company.

Hamilton also didn't appreciate runners bragging about what they might accomplish.

Back in Berkeley, before the historic race, teammate Monte Upshaw asked if Bowden planned to run that weekend.

"I might be going to Stockton," he said.

Bowden never mentioned his plan to break the 4-minute barrier. Upshaw learned about it in the morning paper afterward.

"That's Don," Upshaw said.

"It's not that big a deal."

Even when it is.