Many middle-aged Americans measure physical fitness with something you might call the Levi’s self-evaluation: Can I fit into the same size jeans I once wore in high school?
Steve Spence uses a slightly different method.
In 1976, as a high school freshman, Spence ran his first sub-five-minute mile. Likewise, he broke the mark as a sophomore, junior, and senior. The streak continued throughout college and during his professional running career. In fact, he hasn’t missed a year since!
Earlier this week, the 51-year-old former U.S. Olympic marathoner and current head cross-country coach at Shippensburg University posted a 4:51.4 mile, breaking the five-minute barrier for the 38th consecutive year.
Spence, the marathon bronze medalist at the 1991 World Championships, told MileSplit.com he thought little of his streak throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s. An avid runner and frequent racer back then, he routinely did sub-fives in 5Ks, but in 2009 he began to notice a change. “I started thinking, ‘Wow, I’m not very fit; I haven’t broken five minutes yet this year for the mile,’” he said in a video interview with Milesplit.com.
Ultimately he hit the mark in 2009 and the record continued. 2011 was an easy year—he clocked 4:37 in February—but he struggled in 2012 when an Achilles tendon injury sidelined him for part of the season.
After hitting the 38-year mark, Spence said it’s crucial to do more speed training before each attempt, especially as he gets older. Looking ahead, he hopes to keep it up “as long as [I] can.”
His daughter, distance runner Neely Spence-Gracey, may well keep him on his toes, and a colleague recently told him about a 60-something man in California who ran a 4:49.
“I don’t think it’s all that amazing,” Spence said of his current streak. “But if it continues on, and I’m closer to 60 and still doing it, I think it’s certainly something to be proud of.”
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg