The last time many runners took notice of Brad Barton was July 2014. A viral video showed him staggering, glassy-eyed, at Olympian High School in Chula Vista after barely missing a world age-group record in the mile run.
He was 48 and clocked 4 minutes, 17.54 seconds — making him the oldest man to go sub-4:20 in the mile.
On Friday night in Nashville, Barton ran the same distance in 4:19.59, this time shattering the outdoor world record for men 50-54 by 5 1/2 seconds. He is 53.
But even more stunning was how Barton battled injuries — including concussions, separated shoulders, broken toes and ribs — and self-doubt to regain fitness.
“Fail, fail, fail, fail and then lightning strikes,” the resident of Spanish Fork, Utah, said after returning home from the Music City Distance Carnival at Vanderbilt University.
It was his first track race in nearly three years, and the climax of a comeback that saw him relying on an 82-year-old retired track coach — Charles “Chick” Hislop, who mentored him at Weber State in the early 1990s.
A 4:04.97 miler at the Ogden, Utah, college, Barton eventually became an author and career motivational speaker, married to a former runner and father of five kids (including a prep record holder son).
Barton needed motivation himself, however, after suffering ill-timed injuries that robbed him of seasons and months of serious training.
“Coach [Hislop] inspired me with a question and got me to thinking, and within a couple weeks it turned my head around,” he said.
The query several months ago was simple: What is your goal?
Barton said he’d been piling up weeks of 50 miles in training but didn’t feel right — “it was a grind to get out there every day. Every step was a grind. It was a mental drag.”
But he says he mused on a target and found it in the fabled M50 mile record of 4:25.04 set in 2001 by Pasadena’s Nolan Shaheed, a professional jazz trumpet player.
“I thought about running a mile and breaking Nolan Shaheed’s record,” Barton said in a phone interview. “I admire and respect Nolan so much. I would be privileged to be the one to retire his record. And I think Nolan would be happy to have it retired.”
Within a couple weeks, he was having fun, he said — “and that was it. I just had this burn again.”
Barton sizzled at the top of middle-age middle-distancing before his recent suffering.
In March 2013, he claimed a world indoor age-group record in the mile, clocking 4:16.84 at the Armory track in New York.
In March 2014, Barton ran 3,000 meters (nearly 2 miles) in 8:26.15 for another world indoor record, also at the Armory in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan.
In June 2014, he bettered a 30-year-old M45 world record in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, clocking 9:06.68 (also at Nashville).
He basically took off 2015, but a run of bad luck began in January 2016.
On a training run in Cabo San Lucas, he said he was doing what “those motivational speakers encourage — look at the flowers.” But he didn’t see “this stupid wire” from a broken fence 6 inches off the ground.
“Ran straight into it, shattered my toe,” he said. A front bone of his left big toe was “in pieces.” His doctor said he probably wouldn’t run again. And even if it healed, he’d be left with arthritis.
It was an Olympic Trials year — with a masters exhibition 1500 meters set that July for Eugene, Oregon.
“I was just sick,” he said. So despite doctor warnings, he hopped on an Airdyne exercise bike “and trained with three limbs. … Just pounded it out, did intervals.”
It was 2 1/2 months before he could run — leaving him one shot at qualifying for the Olympic Trials race. He went to Oregon City and, despite going out “way too fast” (a first lap in 63 seconds), ran a 1500 in 4:05.3 — which he later realized was an American record.
Then disaster struck again.
While doing a “big boy workout” 15 days ahead of the trials, he stepped off the track and “pulverized” his ankle, watching it swell to three times its normal size.
“Thought my skin was going to burst it was so big,” he said. “I was in agony. …. My heart was hurting worse.”
He turned to cryotherapy for six days and was finally able to stand. At the end of the following week, he toed the line at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field. Finishing behind runners 40 and 45, he took third in 4:01.77 — another American record for 50-54.
But his hopes of mowing down other M50 records, especially those of fellow American Sean Wade, were crushed in late 2016 when he ripped a quadriceps (thigh) muscle in a “podunk 3000-meter workout.”
Barton lost his 2017 indoor season, and then misfortune befell him again.
While on a training run, he looked back to encourage his dog, “and some kid comes screaming around the corner on a bike.” Barton suffered a head injury while perhaps hitting the kid’s helmet. The handlebars left him with broken ribs.
“Those weeks were kind of a blur to me,” he said. A Weber State trainer gave him a football concussion test, “and I scored really badly on the thing.” (He’d later learn that he can’t handle loud music or being in public places.)
Then he broke his toe on garage steps, the same toe he’d injured at age 24. Then he suffered a groin pull. Then in April 2018, while running downhill on some grass, he tripped over a low tree stump he didn’t see.
“Another vicious head injury,” Barton said. “If I didn’t have my sunglasses on, it would have taken the front of my face with it.” He also suffered a separated shoulder and had a couple stitches in his eye — as well as another concussion.
Finally, last fall, he again ripped a quad muscle — and considered quitting track.
Then his old coach asked the “goal” question.
Chick Hislop, the 1996 U.S. Olympic distance running coach, retired in 2006 but still guides some high school runners and, Barton says, “calls me an old man.”
“Still reads a ton. Thinks he’s a better coach now than when he retired,” Barton says. “He reins me in and reins me in, and pushes me when I need a push. Mostly it’s reining in.”
A world authority on coaching the steeplechase, Hislop was preparing Barton for another record try in that distance hurdle race. Barton mostly trained alone early this season on the track at Spanish Fork High School, where former Weber State steepler and teammate Kris Cary is head track coach. (Lately, he’s been traveling 90 minutes — if traffic is light — to meet up with Hislop at Weber State.)
In mid-May, fellow runner Peter Brady interviewed Barton for a masters milers podcast, where Brady noted the perception of Barton as you “never hear anything about him, months and years on end. And then he drops out of the sky and runs a record.”
Barton took the opportunity to put out a call for help.
He said Hislop regarded him as 4:24-mile fit “and we’ve got to find a mile, and there’s just very little out there” at that distance. “If anybody listening to this can come up with an idea for me, even if it’s building a mile.”
After the chat, Brady called Barton with an idea — contacting race director Dave Milner at the Music City Distance Carnival. Two weeks later, Barton was at Vanderbilt, wearing bib No. 2 on a singlet shirt advertising his trip sponsor — Get Away Today, owned by a neighbor friend.
Bib No. 1 went to Ireland’s Shane Healy, a 50-year-old former 3:59 miler who took fourth in the 800 at the world masters indoor championships in late March in Toruń, Poland.
Milner crowd-funded Healy’s ticket from Europe — only days ahead of the meet — and even found a rabbit for the race, pace-setter Jay Stephenson.
Barton had never met Healy. But five minutes after the Irishman entered the stadium, “we were old friends,” he said. “It was just a really cool connection.”
Despite not recalling ever warming up with anyone else (“It’s just my time to go zone out and zone in” with visual imagery and inspirational music), Barton said Healy insisted: “So we’re going to warm up together, right?”
“I thought: Uhhh. Icky. ‘Yeah, we will,’” Barton recalls, saying Healy appeared “flipping nervous” (after arriving only 48 hours earlier and not getting much sleep) and asking questions like: “What’s your 800 [time] been this spring?”
Barton said he and Healy plotted pace before the race, and “the way it turned out helped me a lot.” Healy wanted a half-mile split of 2:10. Barton wanted 2:11.
Stephenson took the lead from the start but realized he wasn’t running quite fast enough, Barton said, shifting gears about 750 meters into the race. Healy followed, but Barton held back.
“They came back to me within 300 meters,” Barton said. Stephenson dropped out after 1100 meters.
Hearing the bell with a lap to go, Barton still trailed Healy.
“I thought I’d go after the last turn — the classic turn and burn,” Barton said. But then he thought: “This man just ran like a 2:01 800 meters three weeks ago. He’s got better leg speed than I do. I better not wait.”
Despite feeling a “little rough” — even wondering if he could reach the finish line — he said he made a “bold move at 250 and redoubled at 200 and then at the top of the turn.”
Coach Hislop, watching the race live on Flotrack after driving two hours from his cabin to Ogden to view it on a computer, was giddy.
Barton said Hislop was yelling at his computer on the last lap: “Not yet, not yet, Brad. Not yet.” And halfway down the backstretch, he says: “Go! Now!”
Hislop told Barton: “You must have heard me because you went right then.”
Barton recalls pumping his arms short, quick, fast. “And I turned the corner (and thought): I’ve still got some juice. And I just bolted to the finish line. The best way to describe it was: I felt young, I felt this lightning bolt of youth right then.”
He had run “negative” splits — the second half (about 2:07) faster than the first (2:13 for 880) — and sprinted the last quarter-mile in a scorching 61.9 seconds. Better than any practice run this spring.
“It was just the coolest feeling,” he said.
Healy finished in 4:22.96 — also breaking Shaheed’s 18-year-old record.
“Shane was very gracious afterwards,” Barton said. “He was postmorteming the thing. It was 3:30 in the morning for him.”
In a postrace interview, Healy turned to Barton. Referring to the newly minted record, he said: “Enjoy it while you have it.” Healy also said: “You need a little adventure in your life.”
Further adventures await Barton, including another masters mile race Sunday at the Portland Track Festival.
Entrants are expected to include Sean Wade, who in 2016, at 50, set five world age-group records in 56 days.
Also on Barton’s mind: a shot at the M50 world record for 1500 meters of 3:58.26 by Britain’s David Heath.
“David Heath’s record wasn’t even on my radar — it’s so fast,” Barton said. “But … not that far now. I’m within a couple seconds of that.”
Another masters record-setter — 1992 Olympian John Trautmann — may even help Barton find a 3,000-meter steeplechase, where the M50 world record is 9:38.8 by Norway’s Nils Undersåker in 1989. (Five years ago, Barton set the M45 world record of 9:06.68 in that event.)
“It would be really cool to retire his M50 record at 53 (after getting the M45 record at 48). I think it’s doable,” he said. “It’s robust, but Coach thinks if I can hurdle, ‘you’re strong enough to run a 9:30 in the steeple.’ … Now I assume he’s going to change his number. I think it will be closer to (9:25).”
Barton recites an invocation once given at a USA Track & Field Hall of Fame banquet.
“Thank you, God, for the injuries that you give us, and for what they teach us,” he recalls on the phone, almost crying.
“That’s hard to even say without getting a little [choked up] because I’ve learned a lot,” Barton said. “Dealing with the discouragement and the huge doubt … these past three years. ‘Why am I doing this? It just isn’t to be.’
“But I’ve learned a lot about myself. Grit. Tenacity. And here we are.”