Brad Barton is a 48-year-old father of five, living with his wife in Ogden, Utah. He makes a living as a keynote speaker at corporate events. He performs magic to reinforce his points.
But it was no illusion what he did Wednesday night in Chula Vista. Competing at Olympian High School, he became the oldest man to break the 4:20 mile barrier.
His time was 4 minutes, 17.54 seconds.
“What we saw tonight was greatness,” said Paul Greer, meet announcer and himself a sub-4 miler. “One of the best masters performances ever — at least in San Diego.”
Barton’s goal, however, was to shatter the listed age-group world record of 4 minutes, 16.09 seconds, set by Seattle’s Tony Young at age 46 in 2008. In fact, the plan was to run 4:12, beating an unofficial indoor time of 4:13.25 Young ran in 2009.
Barton used 29-year-old Darren Brown as pacesetter at a USA Track & Field all-comers meet, part of the Summer Nights series. Brown, a 3:58 miler, did his part, taking Barton through the half-mile in 2:08.
But Barton — already the world indoor record holder in the age 45-49 mile — said he made some pacing errors.
After coming through the third lap in 3:13, he said he ran the first 100 meters of the last lap too quickly: “I just burned [it], ran hard, really fast.”
But when he tried to change gears again with a half-lap to go, “I thought I might be in trouble.” With 40 meters to go, there was no doubt.
“It was like I was running with pegs,” Barton said hours later. “I had no [turnover]. I couldn’t bend my knees.”
A small infield crowd cheered and screamed — and then went dead silent as a large digital clock trackside showed he had missed the M45 world record by 1.5 seconds.
Barton heard the time being announced, groaned and collapsed to the track. For several minutes, he was disoriented, eyes staring glassily and unfocused. Still unsure of his finishing mark, he asked bystanders.
When they indicated the clock was correct, he put a hand to his grimacing face.
“I knew I was going to be close, so I did everything I could to the finish,” he said. “And from there I don’t really remember a lot.”
Barton, a Hall of Famer at Weber State who competed in the 1992 Olympic Trials, began planning his record attempt weeks ago. He contacted meet director Cameron Gary at Olympian High and reached out to pacesetter Brown (who had never met Barton) and Greer.
Although he was recovering from a groin injury, Barton had set a world age-group record in the 3000-meter steeplechase only a month earlier — clocking 9:06.68 at the Music City Distance Carnival in Nashville, Tennessee. The record he broke was 30 years old.
So Barton thought he was ready to tackle Young’s 4:16.09.
As the last event at the final Summer Nights track meet, the mile took place at 8:25 p.m., not long after sunset. Under stadium lights on a night in the high 60s, starter Gary McDonald (a retired Morse High School coach who guided future Olympian Monique Henderson) shot the gun.
Barton took the lead for 150 meters, then let Brown pull him through the first lap in about 63 seconds.
But Greer announced a 400-meter time of 61.5 seconds, leading Barton to think he’d gone out too fast.
On the second lap, Barton yelled at Brown to ease off.
“He said, ‘Darren, Darren, Darren,’ so I said ‘Calm down. We’re on pace. We’re doing all right,’” Brown said after a warmdown jog with Barton.
Passing the halfway mark at 2:08, Brown said he tried to give Barton “as smooth a ride as possible.” He let Barton take the lead for good before the bell lap.
“It was so close [to the record] — a second,” said Brown, son of 1970s steeplechase star Barry Brown and husband of current mile star Sarah Bowman Brown. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Although mile races are rare in the metric age, and aren’t held at many USATF-certified meets, Brown offered to pace Barton again.
“He’s obviously got it in the wheelhouse,” Brown said. “If he’s in a race where he’s surrounded by people and turns his brain off, he’ll get [the record]. No question he’ll get it. He’ll run 4:12.”
Greer, coach at San Diego City College and the San Diego Track Club, noted that “a lot of us were walking away saying, ‘Aw, darn. He didn’t do it.’ But that could easily have been a world record 10 years ago.”
Greer, about to turn 50 himself, called Barton’s effort a “remarkable, gutsy performance — a man who just left everything on the track and left an indelible memory in our hearts.”
Echoed Barton: “I gave it everything I had.”