It had been some time since anyone got close to Ken Popejoy’s North Carolina Outdoor Mile Record. In 2014, Ford Palmer took the title in 3:57.61, and in 2015, Robby Andrews ran 3:57.38. Close, but Popejoy’s 1973 record of 3:57.3 has remained intact. Will 2016 be the year the Stiner State Record Bonus (sponsored by Stiner Massage) gets paid out? We’ll find out in a few weeks at the 2016 Sir Walter Miler, but in the meantime, we caught up with THE Ken Popejoy to discuss the record and his career as a miler.
5 Questions with Ken Popejoy
1. Sir Walter Running: Your 3:57.3 from Martin Luther King Games in Durham on May 12, 1973 still stands as the North Carolina State Record. What do you recall from that day?
Ken Popejoy: Here are the exact notes in my training diary about the race, with parenthesis added today: ” Saturday, May 12th: 5th Annual Martin Luther King Games – 1 Mile Run – 3:57.3 (60/2:02/302.5/….closed in 54.8!) WOW. I don’t know how I did it. I felt as bad as I did at Drake (4:14, 4/21/73) but this time, I just didn’t give up after the confidence earned from last week’s Big 10 mile record run! Ran in 4th the whole way. Moved with 220 to go, passed (Bob) Wheeler (Duke) and (John) Hartnett (Villanova). Stayed behind (Reggie) McAfee until final straightaway, then kicked. Really didn’t think that I would win until I got even with Reg. Actually coasted last 30 yards with pumping arms and huge smile. Could have EASILY run sub 3:56! Warm down in Duke Gardens. Unbelievably beautiful campus!
Ken Popejoy: As you can see, I was attempting to salvage my last track season at Michigan State University after an almost career ending performance at Drake. That Monday, after Drake, my coach basically dismissed me from the team…I was setting a bad example of “senioritis.” I worked out on my own that week and basically cut my interval workouts from 4/week (!) to 2. I was able to get my legs under me and recover as those hard workouts were taking me, and my 117 pound frame, down. The next Saturday I set the Big Ten all time record in a Notre Dame dual meet, with second place finishing in 4:17. I continued to workout on my own, coach-less through the end of the season!
3. Sir Walter Running: Around this time, the University of North Carolina had a few stars in Tony Waldrop and Reggie McAfee, who was the first African American to break 4 in the mile. What do you recall about racing them?
Ken Popejoy: Luckily, Waldrop was a year or two younger than me, and primarily an 880 runner until the Spring of ’73, when he took second at NCAA’s (3:57.3). I was 5th in 3:58.5, but had horrible blisters from the black asphalt track in Baton Rouge, LA. The mile was run at 2:00 pm in 90+ heat! With 220 to go, I took the lead, but the blisters covering the metatarsal arch of both feet burst and the skin peeled right off. The finishing picture of the race shows me running on the side of my spikes down the homestretch. My feet were severely raw and became infected overnight and that was the end on my college career, cancelling the AAU and World University Games performances. As for Reggie, who was 3rd at NCAA’s in 3:57.8 (Winner was Dave Wottle in 3:57.0), he was very quiet and a tough gutty competitor. I had first met him at the Golden West meet our senior year in high school, where Steve Prefontaine won on 4:06, and I was 2nd in 4:09. We never talked much and he was very disappointed after the King Games mile, but I always knew that he would be in the mix in any race that we ran.
4. Sir Walter Running: Along with holding the North Carolina record, you were the first Michigan State runner to break 4 and won the NCAA indoor mile. What is your proudest moment as a runner?
Ken Popejoy: I was blessed to have a many great individual successes, and after the stinging disappointment of the ’73 NCAA and the end of my running season, I quit the sport to attend to my first year of law school (For the last 18+ years, I have been a Circuit Court Judge in Illinois). I got the bug back in ’75 and took 2nd at the AAU championships to make the U.S. travel team and finished the year ranked 9th in the world by Track & Field News. BUT truly the best moment was when our team won the ’70 Big Ten Cross Country Championship at home. We didn’t win a dual or an invite during the entire season, and lost our last dual, one week before the meet, to Indiana 22-37. So when I finished 4th and turned around in the finishing shoot to see my teammates finishing 7,8,11,12. Well, that was truly THE BEST feeling ever…NOT an individual accomplishment, but one of the most amazing team performances in Big Ten history!
5. Sir Walter Running: The mile is a tough event. What are a few things you would recommend to a young runner trying to make it as a miler?
Ken Popejoy: Definitely run a competitive cross country season (I was 20th and All American in the ’70 NCAA. 28:55 for 6 miles). That strength is essential. Also, the end of a race speed is “make or break” for success. All the way back to my high school days, I would run the mile run and come back in 10-15 minutes and run a leg on the mile relay; speed endurance as I would call it. That’s what you need at the end of a mile/1500m. I continued to do that throughout my college career running 47’s and was a member of two 2nd place Big Ten mile relay teams that ran 3:10.
Sir Walter Running: Do you pay attention to track today?
Ken Popejoy: I most certainly do. My mind and heart want to jump into every race that I see! (My father Charley was the 1934 Big Ten 2 Mile champ for Purdue and my son, Mike, qualified, competed and finished in this year’s Marathon Olympic Trials with a 64:56 Half Marathon qualifying run). As for the current state of mile racing , I love the aggressive paces for the first 3/4 that yield the faster finishing times. I was NEVER under 3:00 at the 3/4 for any of my sub-fours, with most being 3:02-3:05-6 as you can see from the Martin Luther King splits.
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