Sports

A Rock Hill runner’s painful pursuit of a sub-4-minute mile

Barely touching the ground, Brandon Hudgins races toward the finish of the Sir Walter Miler in early August.
Barely touching the ground, Brandon Hudgins races toward the finish of the Sir Walter Miler in early August. Photo by James Snyder

It was about 9:20 on a Friday night in early August, and Brandon Hudgins was running again.

But he wasn’t alone, training in the cool mountain air of Boone, N.C., or sprinting the steamy streets of Rock Hill. He was racing at Meredith College in Raleigh, where his mother, Emily, attended school.

This wasn’t an ordinary race. Many of the spectators had been drinking and maybe a few were drunk. They stood on the track roaring on the runners, mere touching distance from them. It looked like they were closing in.

Hudgins was closing in on something too. With 200 meters to go, his close friend and coach James Snyder shouted, “You’re under, you’re under! Go get them!”

Four runners were in front of Hudgins. But he wasn’t chasing them. He was chasing something else.

Genesis of a dream

Since 1957, 449 American runners have run a mile in less than four minutes. Brandon Hudgins was 13 the first time a sub-four-minute mile tickled his consciousness. U.S. running phenom Alan Webb ran a 3:53 as a high school senior in 2001, an American record that influenced a generation of young runners, including one in Rock Hill.

“It was something I wanted to do,” Hudgins said last week. “I’ve always wanted to be really good at running and succeed at it, and one of the benchmarks for a competitive runner is a sub-four-minute mile.”

Hudgins already had running in his genes. His dad, Calvin, is the longtime track and field coach at Northwestern High School. Calvin is a Hall of Fame coach, but Brandon wasn’t an elite talent right away. He chugged away before bursting into the spotlight as a senior, winning an individual state title in the mile that helped the Trojans win a team state championship.

All the while, the sub-four-minute mile dream lingered in his head. And Alan Webb flitted in and out of his life periodically, further prodding him toward pursuit of the elite achievement.

The Hudgins family saw him at Spring Valley High School in Columbia during Webb’s junior year of high school, when he just missed a sub-four-minute mile, then saw him again in elite races at UNC–Charlotte and the Great American Cross Country Festival at Winthrop in 2001 – by which point he was easily running miles in 3:53, 3:55.

3:43 Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj set the current men’s mile run world record in 1999, running a 3:43 in Rome. Russia’s Svetlana Masterkova holds the women’s record with a 4:12.56, achieved in 1996.

Hudgins was a national top–50 prep runner following his senior year of high school, and he opted to run in college at Winthrop. He even ran against Webb in a meet at Furman University, finishing in 4:10. By his sophomore year, Hudgins was running times in the 1500 meters that would have converted to near sub-four-minute miles (a mile is 1600 meters). He was closing in.

Wegener’s

The sub-four-minute mile chase took a back seat in 2007.

Hudgins began to suffer a spate of internal health problems, and it took six months to determine the cause. During that span, he suffered a deviated septum, which required surgical repair; he nearly went deaf in his right ear, which required a giant hypodermic needle’s emergency insertion into his ear drum; and he temporarily suffered from Bell’s Palsy, which caused half of his face to go numb.

Well down the list of possible causes for his ailments was Wegener’s granulomatosis, also known as GPA. It’s a rare autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack its own blood vessels, prompting a litany of seemingly unrelated but equally terrifying consequences. There is no known cause for Wegener’s and no known cure. It’s not a hereditary illness. It can lead to kidney failure and is usually found in patients much older than Hudgins.

Sapped by the illness, Hudgins quit running. He endured chemotherapy, eight hours at a time, as doctors tried to subdue his misguided white blood cells. At one point, he was taking 1,000 milligrams of prednisone daily. He weaned himself off the powerful steroid, but the withdrawal was brutal. Calvin remembers carrying his 23–year old son down the hallway to put him in the bathtub.

“It was a humbling experience,” he said.

To this day, Calvin Hudgins instinctively tenses up when he sees Brandon’s name on caller I.D.

Every time he calls I’m literally afraid to ask him how he’s doing, even though I do.

Calvin Hudgins

“You’re just afraid it’s gonna come back. This is an old man’s disease and 25 years ago he probably wouldn’t have lived through it.”

Eye–opening

Gradually, the Wegener’s waned.

Hudgins graduated from Winthrop and, appearing to be in the clear from Wegener’s, relaunched his running career. He ran into Appalachian State University coach Michael Curcio at a meet and soon joined the Mountaineers program in Boone, N.C., in the winter of 2010. As a graduate student with two years of eligibility left, he helped the team to six indoor and outdoor conference championships and narrowly missed qualifying for the NCAA championships as a senior.

In Boone, he met Snyder, who was a graduate assistant coach at the time and later became a roommate and close friend. Hudgins was everything a budding coach could ask for.

“Never afraid to work his tail off,” said Snyder, now an assistant track and field coach at Temple University in Philadelphia. “The last couple of years, the odds have been stacked against him, but he’s somebody that’s put his head down and grinded through it.

“He’ll not take no for an answer, and I mean that in a positive way.”

After graduating from Appalachian with a master’s degree in exercise physiology, Hudgins headed out to Colorado. He was offered the chance to help set the training pace for a couple of female professional marathoners. Less than 24 hours after learning about the opportunity, Hudgins had packed his gear and hit the road.

He spent the next six weeks in something akin to a distance runner’s Shangri–La.

Watching the professionals work and training at high altitude was “kind of eye–opening for him as far as what you need to do to make that next step,” said Snyder. “Up until that point, he was kind of a lower–mileage guy. He grew to more of a longer distance runner in Boone, but I think Colorado really opened his eyes to what elite–level training was like.”

Hudgins’ desire to run professionally, nearly snuffed by Wegener’s, was reignited. And he still hadn’t bested four minutes.

Rollercoaster

Hudgins’ describes his experience with Wegener’s as a “roller coaster.”

Even as he was putting his bout with the illness further and further into the rearview mirror, a relapse was welling up inside his blood vessels.

During a meet his last year at Appalachian, Hudgins told Snyder it felt like somebody was standing on his chest.

When his parents took him to Charleston to see his doctor, there were no evident signs on his charts that a relapse was imminent. Yet it happened.

Fretting over the possibility of Wegener’s returning again, Hudgins began to suffer anxiety attacks. His parents drove to Boone to pick him up after one particularly severe episode. They picked him up in front of his house – didn’t even get out of the car – and drove immediately to the Wegener’s specialist in Charleston.

“You’re not gonna die,” the doctor told Hudgins. “I know that’s what you’re thinking.”

“We didn’t know that’s what he was thinking,” said Calvin. “He literally did not say a word the entire ride home” from Boone.

Wegener’s helped spawn another issue for Hudgins. He was given what he called “bottomless pill prescriptions” to deal with the pain and swelling from vasculitis, the inflammation of blood vessels. Hudgins freely admits there were several different stretches during which he became reliant on pain pills to cope with pain, anxiety and depression.

“It’s very easy to slip into numbing stuff out with those,” he said. “Not knowing, too, that I was also dealing with a lot of anxiety issues, and not understanding that.”

When Hudgins is running and training and focused, escaping is not on his mind.

“Being as stubborn as I am, I’ve never let it get out of control,” he said. “Having seen friends that have been in rehab, it’s something I have to keep a check on because I could get into that mindset easily when stuff is not going well.”

All hope is gone

There are other sources of anxiety as well. Even while running after a professional career, Hudgins has had to support himself financially, which means working 40 hours a week at the posh Westglow Spa and Resort in Blowing Rock, N.C.

There were multiple days in the last month when Hudgins got off work late and missed his 11 p.m. training run. That adds up to eight to 10 miles of training he missed, miles that sponsored pros – untethered to a daily job – easily tick off.

But there are no excuses from Hudgins, and no hoping that things get better or easier. Only the firm belief that hard work is the only thing that will get him to where he wants to be. Hudgins has a tattoo across his chest: Two roses sandwich the phrase, “All hope is gone.” It’s not sarcastic, but rather pragmatic.

“It’s kind of how I’ve looked at my life, because there have obviously been a lot of points in my life where I’ve hoped and wanted, and realized that all the hoping and wanting doesn’t necessarily affect the outcome,” Hudgins said.

Some people find comfort in hope. I’m not somebody that does.

Brandon Hudgins

But even in the absence of hope, Hudgins hasn’t given up the pursuit.

“He’s just a tough S.O.B., man,” Snyder said. “There is no other way to put it.”

Just a feeling

Throughout all of the health problems – whether Wegener’s-related or the sports hernia suffered late in 2014 – the dream of running a sub-four-minute mile persisted. The Alan Webb encounters – almost a cosmic sign – continued, and Hudgins was further bolstered by a 4:01 mile he ran in a race at Furman in 2014.

In late July, Hudgins ran a 4:02 at a road race in Pittsburgh. This was a serious development because roads are less consistent surfaces than the tracks most races are held on. The Sir Walter Miler was scheduled for the following week in Raleigh. A flat track in a town where he had many friends and supporters; maybe this was his best shot?

“I knew then I was ready,” Hudgins said.

Friends and family knew it too, because a number of them showed up at the track at Meredith College, including his parents and Snyder. The coach left Philly before lunch, slogged through D.C. traffic, and arrived at Meredith College in Raleigh 40 minutes before Hudgins’ race started.

“I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I’d gotten stuck in traffic,” Snyder said.

The Sir Walter Miler

The Sir Walter Miler was the perfect kind of funky race for Hudgins. The event attracted a large crowd of non-traditional track and field fans, in part because it was short – only a couple of races – and also because it was supported by a brewery across the street. There was a different vibe, and with the confidence gleaned from several positive races in the lead-up, Hudgins felt loose and relaxed.

The race began and he stayed with the lead pack, a change from his normal style of starting near the back and kicking his way forward. For all the anxiety and self-doubt that hounded Hudgins the last few years, “He looked like a confident runner,” said his dad. “I think the crowd helped a lot. It’s hard to let a crowd down.”

An elite mile doesn’t take long; it’s essentially a long distance sprint. Hudgins entered the last lap at 3:01, but he ran what’s called a negative split in the final 400 meters, a faster lap than his average pace.

Snyder, rushing around the infield, caught sight of Hudgins with 1300 meters left, then 900 and finally 200, which is about three-fourths of the way through the race.

“That’s where things start to get hot and heavy,” he said. “He was just tucked into the group, kind of rolling along. I was just letting him know, ‘Hey, stay relaxed, stay calm, you’re doing what you came here to do.’”

Holding it together when it gets hot and heavy late, that’s always kind of the magic in racing.

James Snyder, close friend and Brandon Hudgins’ unofficial coach

As Hudgins flew down the straightaway, almost leaping through the air, Snyder shouted to his friend, “You’re under, you’re under!”

One more minute

Incredibly, five runners cranked out sub-four-minute miles that night. Everyone thought that Hudgins was in that group, but it wasn’t clear right away. A one-minute delay felt like light-years as the timekeepers hurriedly sorted out the finishers.

“I got kind of scared because I’ve been right there a ton of times and not broken it,” said Hudgins. “I’ve run between 4:03 and 4:01 a gazillion times. I’ve been close so there was definitely a little bit of fear there.”

“It took about a minute to correct so he was just kind of waiting there,” said Pat Price, one of the organizers of the Sir Walter Miler.

Finally, the time: 3.59.67.

“He had to sweat a little bit,” said Price, chuckling. “I was happy to be the one that got to tell him.”

There were plenty of tears in the immediate aftermath, especially from Emily Hudgins.

“I think she’s still probably crying,” Brandon said with a laugh. “My mom will tear up at commercials.”

Mom wasn’t the only source of waterworks. Calvin cried too, and the weight of the accomplishment and the flashing bits of memory flooding Hudgins caught up with him during a post–race interview when he broke down.

“It made all of those really dark nights of racing, and not knowing whether I wanted to run again and a lot of runs by yourself, in the cold snow up here where you’re questioning whether or not it’s worth it, those fleeting moments after the race of joy…” he trailed off.

Hudgins quit racing three times in the previous six years, throwing his gear away twice.

But after the Sir Walter Miler, “There’s no longer that fear of racing,” he said. “I’ve broken it and now I can worry about racing again and trying to win these races, instead of really having to focus on running a sub-four-minute mile.”

As Calvin said, without Wegener’s, Hudgins could have broken the four–minute barrier years ago.

“But it wouldn’t be near the story it is now,” he added.

3Brandon Hudgins became the third South Carolinian to run a sub-four-minute mile. The other two also have local connections; Hartsville native Terrance Herrington ran at Clemson and helped coach Fort Mill’s distance runners last season, and Matt Elliott, a friend of Hudgins’ who ran in college at Winthrop and is still running professionally.

The endless pursuit

Which leads to the next part of Hudgins’ tale, the one that isn’t written yet.

Next year, 2016, is a big year in the running community, an Olympic year. Hudgins’ overarching goal is to be in Brazil competing for the United States as one of the three qualifiers in the mile run. But that would be akin to not only reaching the NFL, and playing in the Super Bowl, but winning Super Bowl MVP.

The more immediate and achievable goal is reaching the Olympic Trials next summer. Between 24 and 30 runners will compete, and Hudgins has a decent shot of scraping into that group.

“I know I have that talent,” he said, “but it’s making sure that I do the things over the next nine to 10 months to ensure that I’m there.”

Being a sponsored professional would help. Not having to worry about customer service at Westglow would allow Hudgins to eat, sleep, run, like he did during six mystical weeks in Colorado back in 2012. That lifestyle has been difficult to corral, though, especially as the outdoor running season comes to a close and sponsor money is largely dried up for the year.

Hudgins has had sniffs from shoe companies since the sub-four-minute mile, but no bites.

“That sub-four-minute mile changed everything, but it changed nothing at all,” said Hudgins.

Don’t expect that to slow down the skinny, tattooed 28–year–old who cuts his own hair. The first thing he said to Snyder after running the sub-four-minute mile in Raleigh was, “I know I could have run faster if I went for it in the last 400.”

“Just classic Hudgins,” said Snyder. “That’s the magic of our sport, I think that’s what makes it unique from football, basketball. In our sport, you can always be faster. The endless pursuit.”

Rare company

Visit this link to see a list of all 449 American runners that have broken the four–minute barrier in the mile run.

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