By Tim Morris
Nothing like putting the pressure on yourself.
“When I woke up in the morning I said, ‘This is the day to do it,’ ” Columbia University runner Rob Napolitano said.
So he called his parents and high school coach Rob DeFilippis and told them to get up to the Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex in Staten Island that night, Feb. 12. Napolitano was going to run the mile in under four minutes at the Fastrack National Invite.
The graduate of Red Bank Catholic High School knew he was ready. He had run 4:00.64 last year. On Jan. 30 of this year at a meet at Penn State University, he ran 1,200 meters in 2:54 on Columbia’s Distance Medley Relay team and came back the next day with a 1:50 mark in the 800.
“I ran well and my times were indicative of my fitness,” he said.
With his parents and scholastic coach looking on, Napolitano did not disappoint, achieving one of the universal athletic milestones — running the mile in under four minutes. He clocked 3:58.98 in finishing second to Cornell University’s James Gowan (3:58.24).
“The plan was to run the first 400 in :58 and get that out of the way and then run 60-second quarters the rest of the way,” he said.
Napolitano knew that it takes more than fitness to run under four minutes. Everything has to fall in place, and it did for Napolitano thanks to Gowan.
Sticking to his game plan, Napolitano found himself leading the race through three-quarters of a mile, which he’s not accustomed to.
“I was hurting,” he said.
With 250 meters to go, Gowan took over the lead and suddenly, the pain went away.
“That helped,” he said. “I had someone to chase. I was able to refocus. It was a race and as a competitor, I wanted to win the race.”
With the focus on winning the race, Napolitano forgot about the hurt and went after the Cornell runner. He lost that battle but won the bigger one of breaking four minutes.
“The moment after was more special with family and Rob there,” the runner said. “It was overwhelming.
“It was a long time coming. Something I always wanted.”
The ex-Caseys’ standout understands the significance of his achievement and is very humbled by it.
“It’s definitely an honor,” Napolitano said. “When I look at the list of U.S. runners who have run under four minutes, I see the best of the best (Jim Ryun, Marty Liguori, Steve Scott). I don’t hold myself in that regard, but it’s an honor to be part of the club.”
He’s also a member of a far more exclusive club: Shore Conference runners who have broken four minutes. The list was zero until just three years ago when Manalapan High School graduate Robby Andrews did it at the Penn Relays (3:57.32). And now, within a week, the list has grown to three. First, it was Colts Neck High School graduate Craig Forys running 3:58.02 at the Armory Invitational Feb. 6, followed by Napolitano Feb. 12.
“Andrews was a legend and an inspiration to me,” he said. “Look what Forys has done (nationally ranked steeplechaser). I’m in great company.”