NEW YORK -- Lukas Verzbicas sat alone at a table checking his phone, still smiling 30 minutes after he closed out what might be the best high school distance running career ever with a 3:59.71 mile at the adidas Jim Ryun High School Dream Mile at Icahn Stadium in New York City.
The 18-year-old recent graduate of Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Ill., was already in rarefied air before he became just the fifth U.S. high school runner to ever break four minutes on Saturday. He won five national championships between December and March, and last weekend, he shattered the national high school outdoor two-mile record by five seconds when he ran 8:29.46 at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. But even for Verzbicas, the sub-4 showing was "unreal."
"For me, this is the most impressive win," he said, "just because it was so difficult and because of the conditions. It was just so hard to do. The fact that I did it made me really proud of that."
He vowed to break four minutes in the mile before he graduated high school, but his splits were slow enough halfway through the Dream Mile that he momentarily stopped thinking about his goal. The 6-foot, 135-pound runner had the cool temperatures he wanted, but the wind coming down the homestretch made his task more difficult, and the 2:02 split for the first half mile was not what he planned.
He expected to take the lead from the pacer, but he hit a snag there, too, as California state champion Jantzen Oshier kept a small advantage. Verzbicas didn't move ahead for good until about 700 meters to go. He put a small gap on the field, but New Jersey's Edward Cheserek, Indiana's Austin Mudd and California's Elias Geydon kept within reach. "I couldn't have done it without all those guys," Verzbicas said.
As he made the first turn of the final lap, Verzbicas flashed a small smile, but at that point, he was only concerned with winning the race. "I thought with around 600 to go that I'm not going to go for a time anymore," Verzbicas said. "I did not know until the last 50 meters. I was really hurting that last lap."
When he saw 3:52 on the clock halfway down the final stretch, he battled his way to the line with a quarter second to spare. Verzbicas said after winning last year's Dream Mile in 4:04 that he thought he planned to return to the meet and run sub-4. He told SI.com last month that if the conditions were right, "Why shouldn't it be possible?" But the reality of the feat was still more difficult than he expected.
"Until the race started, I thought this was going to be effortless and I was going to do it," he said. "But once the race got started, it was actually harder than I thought."
Verzbicas, who moved to the United States from Lithuania when he was 8, will now skip the outdoor national meets to prepare for the triathlon junior world championships in Beijing in September. He might even be a better triathlete than runner, having finished fourth at the world championships last year.
But he's in special company on the track. The race's namesake, Jim Ryun, accomplished the feat in 1964 to become the first high school runner to break the four-minute mark. He was on site for the race, and he congratulated Verzbicas afterward. "When it came time to push that last 600, he did," Ryun said of Verzbicas' showing. "With a 100 meters to go, I thought he had a very good chance for it. He made the race in the middle when you had to go with 600 yards and start pushing. I'm just very excited for Lukas."
Two other runners, Tim Danielson in 1966 and Marty Liquori in 1967, went sub-4, but 34 years passed without another runner beating the mark. In 2001, Alan Webb broke four in January and set the high school record of 3:53.43 at the Prefontaine Classic.
After another decade, Verzbicas joined the historic club. But he's a 21st century distance running phenom, too, with more than 5,000 Facebook friends and a Twitter account. For a few minutes between media obligations, though, he could sit alone and think about his race. It was still unreal, he said. He had eight new messages on his phone a half-hour after his race. Only eight, Lukas? "I don't give out my phone number much," he said, with a laugh.
That's probably a smart move. A lot more people will want it after Saturday.