The Story of NY's First Sub-4 Miler Brian Kivlan

If you have attended or participated in the Manhattan College Cross Country Invitational, you might recognize the name Brian Kivlan. The "Brian Kivlan '69 Freshman Girls 'A' " race goes off around 9:30 for its mile and a quarter loop around Van Cortlandt Park. Some years Kivlan is there to watch and catch up with old faces from his alma mater and the high school team he coached for 42 years at Trinity. If you are from outside the tightknit world of Manhattan College running alumni, however, you might not link his name to any particular athletic achievement.

Like many parochial schools, Bishop Dubois at 152nd St and Amsterdam was on the wane in the early '60s. Kivlan went out for track his freshman year, but his coach had him for a sprinter. Kivlan didn't like the short stuff, so he took up cycling. A born roamer, he started riding a ten-speed Schwinn all over. At 16 he left his house in Riverdale to pedal the 100 miles to Bear Mountain and back. He was almost back when his dad had to fetch him after he blew a tire in Westchester. Cycling was all he did athletically until his senior year.

In 1964 a new coach, Tom Dempsey, arrived at Bishop Dubois, and Kivlan's friends urged him to give running another try. A Notre Dame miler who ran 4:21.6 at Archbishop Stepinac in 1958, Dempsey surely noticed Kivlan's endurance, but training in those days, even in cross country, was almost entirely anaerobic. No hill work, no thresholds, no long runs. Pace charts were not a thing. Neither was the running watch. Running shoes were a foot-ruining pair of flats. The scientific approach to training had not arrived yet. Frank Shorter's running boom would not begin until the mid-70s. Roger Bannister's first sub-four mile was barely a decade old, and training had not changed much since. If you wanted to race fast, you trained fast. And training fast was about all you did.

Kivlan closed his first season of cross country with a second-place finish in 13:30 over two and a half miles at the CHSAA championships. Power Memorial took first, Bishop Dubois a distant 14th. Kivlan's performance belied his attitude toward cross country. As he recently remembered in an interview from quarantine in his Manhattan apartment, "Anything over a mile was boring for me."

Indoors were held at the Armory and the Garden in those days, both wooden tracks riddled with splinters. Kivlan kept dropping time on training that was almost all track-based. By outdoor he was running in the low 4:20's on Downing Stadium's cinder track (more familiar as Icahn today.) In the Catholic champ's mile, he ran his high school PR in 4:19.9 edging out Xaverian's Joe Quigley by a hair and setting the "schoolboy meet record."

Spectators were cheering for Kivlan at this point, and at least a few schools were eyeing this first-year talent. West Point offered Kivlan a spot, but he didn't think the military would suit him. He really didn't know what would suit him for college, but he knew he wanted to run but he knew he wanted to run, and with his dad passing the previous year, Kivlan decided to stay close to his mother and two younger brothers in Riverdale.

Manhattan College had shared the Van Cortlandt track many times with Bishop Dubois. Coach Jim McHugh took note when a slight runner ran workouts like 3 x 800 in under 2:05, a challenge most of his Jaspers could not meet. Kivlan doesn't remember any conversations between Dempsey and McHugh, but in August of 1965 Kivlan walked on to the well-respected Manhattan squad.

In the late '60s not even a traditional Catholic university was immune to the free-wheeling rebellion of the times. As his new teammates sized up the 17-year-old neighborhood kid with barely a year of training on his legs, they did so with eyes often bloodshot from the night before.

Living at home, Kivlan was not a partier and enjoyed a good relationship with his coach. "McHugh knew he could rely on me. He was a gentlemen's gentleman," he said.

Rely on him he did as more time fell away from his mile. In February of '66 Kivlan ran 4:14.2 on the Garden's boards through the usual clouds of cigarette and cigar smoke. As a sophomore he dropped a 4:05 at Penn Relays in the DMR, albeit in better air and, for the first time, on a synthetic surface.

But Kivlan had an inkling he was spending too much time on the track. It had given him great footspeed, enough to keep up with the best quarter milers on the Jaspers squad, but his endurance was lagging. The last quarter of 1500 and mile races were becoming a slog. He just couldn't summon the mental energy that would result in the withering kick his competitors seemed to turn on at will. He asked McHugh if he could ramp up his mileage. McHugh agreed.

The increase was moderate by today's standards, but Kivlan responded well to more volume. He started logging 50 miles a week on average, peaking around 60 in the spring of '68. Threshold work in particular---60-minute tempos over the hills of the north Bronx at 5:50 pace---became a staple workout. Volume topped intensity that spring, and Kivlan showed a new competitive confidence.

His shorter marks showcased his track work. The Jaspers ran the SMR at Penn Relays in an IC4A meet record of 3:24.6 of which Kivlan contributed 1:50.9. The next week Kivlan ran 1:49.8 in the 880 at the Quantico Relays. Still, his mile times were inconsistent. In May he ran 4:05.0 in a Jaspers-Cadets meet at West Point and 4:05.3 at Quantico but only put down 4:11.9 at a dual with Central Connecticut and a worrying 4:18 at the Metropolitan Intercollegiate meet on Randall's Island.

In borrowed kangaroo leather Adidas Tokyo 64's, he toed the line for the mile final at the IC4A Championships at the University of Pennsylvania's Franklin Field on June 1, 1968. The day before he had qualified running 4:12. (The mile and 1500 were multi-round events on consecutive days at championship meets until the '70s.) He had also spent three hours walking around Philadelphia.

There was a lot riding on his performance. Finishing in the top three would advance him to the NC and AAU Championships in California and from there, possibly, the Olympic Trials, but a slow time would likely end his season. The Fordham and Villanova men were sharply favored. Dave Patrick of Villanova and had run 3:59.3 indoors and 3:58.9 at Quantico.

The race unspools blurrily after half a century. Kivlan goes through 440 in 59.4, the half in 2:01.0 and three quarters in 3:01.1, where he was only in sixth place. The final 300 comes into view: Kivlan finds another gear, gaps open and he reels in one runner after another. He passes Patrick's teammate Frank Murphy off the final turn and charges through the line in second in 3:57.4. Dave Patrick was the victor that day, running the fastest mile ever east of the Mississippi, 3:56.8, but only Kivlan walked off Franklin Field the first New Yorker to break the four-minute barrier.

In what many track historians view as the golden age of middle distance running, it's ironic Kivlan's first wasn't noted in the press. The Times only reported the "psychological boost" Kivlan felt from the race and noted that three other athletes went under four.

AAU's in Sacramento loomed, but first came the 1500 at the National Collegiate championships on June 15 on Berkeley's clay track. The best American collegians were entered: Jerry Ritchey, Sam Bair, Charlie Messenger, Dave Wilborn and Dave Patrick. Jim Ryun was out with mono that spring. Kivlan's target was Patrick.

He ran 3:40.3, achingly close to Wilborn and Patrick, who won with a meet record of 3:39.9. Had he waited a bit longer to kick, he thought, he could have taken home the national title. Though disappointed, Kivlan took comfort in having run 3:57.4 and a 3:57.9 equivalent 14 days apart.

Five days later it was 100 degrees in the Central Valley. The soon-to-be-obsolete AAU was the stepping stone to the first round of the Olympic Trials in Los Angeles. With the games set for 7,349' in Mexico City in October, there would be two rounds of trials, one at sea level and one high in the Sierra Nevada at South Lake Tahoe. Kivlan had prepared for the heat, in a way, by sitting on his roof in the Bronx in the full sun before his runs following IC's. He ran 3:44.0 in Sacramento, good enough for bronze behind John Mason and Roscoe Divine.

At the Coliseum Relays in LA, there were two rounds of the 1500 from which the top ten would advance tothree more rounds at Tahoe in September. Kivlan finished 10thin the finals,decidedly tired after two months of nonstop racing. It was June 30th, and Tahoe was 10 weeks out.

By the middle of July, Olympic track and field hopefuls converged in South Lake Tahoe for a summer of altitude training. The Forest Service had reserved a plot of land at Echo Pass for a state-of-the-art 400 meter tartan track where there were no stands and ponderosa pines covered the infield. There was food and lodging compliments of the Olympic Committee and a two dollar a day stipend.

It was the first and last time an Olympic cohort undertook altitude training en masse. The physiology of exertion in 5% less atmospheric oxygen was poorly understood, but runners quickly learned was how difficult it was to train at elevation when coming from sea level. Beyond searing lungs there were the rocks, sand and switchbacks of Tahoe's hiking trails where most runners did their training. Whenever he could, Kivlan got a ride from Gerry Lindgren to train on the roads.

The 1500 trials began on September 14 with Kivlan (second from right) qualifying comfortably in the prelims. The next day, in the first heat of the semi-finals, Jim Ryun, Dave Patrick, Marty Liquori, Tom Von Ruden and Roscoe Divine, went out at 10k pace and all came back between 3:53 and 3:54. Kivlan could run that in his sleep, even at altitude.

The second heat went out faster, or at least it felt like it, but again, in those days there was no clock, no rabbit and only shouted splits to know the pace. The top four in each heat advanced to the final. Kivlan came in fifth. In the final, even Jim Ryun ran nine seconds slower than Kivlan had at Berkeley.

Kivlan returned to the Bronx for his senior year. Injuries began to accumulate on a race schedule that was relentless as ever. Achilles. Calf. Callouses so irritating he had to shave them down. He made all-American in cross country, ran Wannamaker at Millrose and capped his college career with a 4:02 at outdoor NC's.

There was no bridge from collegiate to professional running in the '60s. "When runners left college, many just stopped," Kivlan explained. Life took over. If you had a degree, you entered the working world and took your seat in society, even if you had what today would be a promising middle-distance career ahead of you.

Kivlan went to graduate school at Teachers College in '69 and by '71 began coaching cross country, track and soccer at Trinity where he would stay for 42 years.

There's one footnote to the summer of '68. Between Los Angeles and Tahoe, Kivlan traveled to Eugene at the end of August for the Pre-Olympic Exhibition Meet. There he met a former Olympic pentathlete and doctoral student driving around the West recruiting the best runners he could find for the first "maximal oxygen uptake" test. Jack Daniels and Kivlan hit it off. Daniels tested him at Hayward Field and again at Tahoe. Kivlan had a VO2 max of 77.4, the second highest of the eight 1500 runners Daniels tested.

They drove back to Tahoe from Eugene in Daniels' Volvo. Yes,that Volvo, the one Daniels used to pace runners around tracks with the long tube attached to the athlete's face and a bag of oxygen at its terminus looking disturbingly like some apparatus from our current times.

The Olympic Committee had tapped Daniels as their "altitude consultant" leading up to the Games. Daniels shared his thoughts on our national preparation in a recent phone conversation from his home in Cortlandt, NY.

"We should have been racing for three summers at altitude prior to Mexico City," he said. Daniels knew the Kenyans, who were just starting to become international competitors, lived year round at altitude in conditions far rougher than Tahoe's, and they were beginning to show their multi-decade domination of distance events.

The Americans who did well at the Mexico City Games did not do so by following a science-backed regimen of training. They did well due to that mercurial constellation of biological and training variables that adds up to athletic success. Importantly, Daniels, and the 26 runners he eventually tested that summer, were opening a window of scientific inquiry into that constellation, one that has opened exponentially further in the years since.

In 1993 Daniels retested all 26 runners in Flagstaff. Mid-career and middle-aged, many of them had stopped running or gained weight, but Kivlan, who took seven years off after college before he took up running and cycling again--dropping a 4:13 at age 40--measured a VO2 max of 72.9, the third highest of the group and the smallest drop in capacity since '68.