It started out as a milestone to pursue; it became a millstone around his neck.
The mystique grabbed hold of Lou Serafini when he was a sophomore at Niskayuna High School in 2007.
Running against Shenendehowa senior Zach Predmore in the 1,600 meters at the Suburban Council Championships at Colonie High, Serafini finished second with a time of 4:22.50.
That planted the idea to chase a sub-four-minute mile, one of those legendary sports achievements that strikes a chord with people. With two more years of high school, then college, it seemed like a worthy goal within reach, someday.
But through four years at Boston College, Serafini still had not added his name to the list that began in 1954 when Roger Bannister ran 3:59.0 at Oxford University in England.
“I had pretty much given up on that distance,” he said. “I got burnt out on it in college. I was so frustrated with the distance. I ran between 4:08 and 4:13 23, 25 times. I got to the point where even the sport of running was tough to do.”
So you can understand and appreciate his reaction on Feb. 25.
The 26-year-old Serafini was ready to move on from the mile, concentrating on longer distances, but not before taking one more crack at the elusive goal that at first had inspired him, then grew to haunt him.
And now the millstone is gone, after Serafini ran a 3:59.33 at the appropriately named Last Chance Meet at Boston University.
He didn’t win the event, didn’t even win his section, but that was impossible to tell from his emotional response, as Serafini raised his arms, palms up, with eyes bugged out in amazement.
Then he covered his face with his hands as he got a hug from his roommate David Melly.
“The finish line was the most special feeling ever, even better than qualifying for the Olympic Marathon Trials or breaking 14 minutes for 5k,” Serafini said. “It was complete and utter relief. I knew I broke it, but all I wanted to do was lay on the track in relief. I was riding that high for three, four weeks.”
Like many elite distance runners in the U.S., Serafini juggles a fulltime job (at Tracksmith in Boston, an independent running apparel company) and coaches a group of runners on the side, while staying in serious training.
And like it is for many elite distance runners, the allure of the marathon is strong, especially when you ran for Boston College and live in Brighton, Mass., a short jog from the tail end of the fabled 26.2-mile Boston Marathon course.
While the mile was pushed to the back of his mind, Serafini posted a 1:04:31 in the Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon in 2015 to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, a 2016 season that also saw him run 2:17:25 to finish second in the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon and win his hometown race, the MVP Healthcare Stockade-athon in Schenectady.
He came to a crossroads on Feb. 9 this year at the Valentine Invitational on Boston U.’s lightning-fast Track and Tennis Center, entering both the mile and the 5,000 meters and promising himself that if he ran a 4:01, he would bag the 5k and maintain focus on one more hard push for the sub-4:00.
His finish time at the Valentine was 4:02.30 — close enough.
“I think that’s when I knew what I wanted,” Serafini said. “The mile was my favorite event at Niskayuna, and I did it almost exclusively in college. My workouts indicated that I was close to four . . . let’s give it one more crack.”
The sub-4:00 has a long history. It started with Bannister in 1954, then Jim Ryun became the first high school runner to do it, in 1964, followed by a 3:55.3 the following year that stood as the U.S. high school record until Alan Webb broke it 36 years later.
Barry Brown of Colonie, who helped spearhead the nationwide running boom in the 1970s, posted a 3:58.8 in Gainesville, Fla. in 1973, a feat equaled by his son Darren in 2008.
“The relatibility factor is big,” Serafini said. “When people find out you’re a runner, the first two questions they ask are have you run a marathon and what’s your mile time. People can relate to a mile. I grew up running the mile, so it’s always had that little extra for me.”
He just needed that little extra push to achieve his old goal from high school.
Serafini got it on a day when 13 other runners also were under four minutes. He found himself boxed in early, but a runner right in front of him who started to back up against the field moved outside, opening a lane for Serafini to maintain his stride and pace with a quarter-mile left.
“In the mile, there aren’t as many moves you can make,” he said. “You have to be a little more calculated and make them count.
“I was just so focused on the moment. It wasn’t a case where I don’t remember the last three laps so much as that all I had in my head was my race plan, which was to get aggressive with three laps left, then get excited with two laps left.”
Then he saw the clock at the finish, and almost 10 years of waiting and wondering were fulfilled. Serafini was the 514th American to be under 4:00.
“It was incredible. It sounds cliche, but words can’t describe it,” he said. “The mile has always been my first love of running. It’s the reason I started pursuing it more seriously in high school.
“Things don’t always go according to plan. I didn’t really improve until my senior year of high school. In your head, you have this perfect plan. But you can’t approach running like that. You have to go about your business, and it took me all of college to learn that.”
Bannister died on March 3, which would seem to be a poignant reminder for someone who just broke the four-minute barrier, but “I don’t like to think of it that way,” Serafini said.
“He paved the way and was doing something that people didn’t think was possible.”
Now, one more person knows, first-hand, that it is.