Thom Hunt then and now: From his days as a distance phenom at San Diego's Patrick Henry High to today. (Photo credits (l-r): Bill Leung; courtesy of Thom Hunt; Charlie Mack via Newspapers.com.)
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SAN DIEGO -- A quarter-mile remained in the race, but Patrick Henry High's Thom Hunt knew he would set the high school indoor mile record.
Competing in the Jack-in-the-Box Invitational in 1976, Hunt was placed in the Invitational Mile along side the likes of New Zealand's Rod Dixon and Tanzania's Filbert Bayi, who just the summer before had broken Jim Ryun's outdoor mile world record, running 3:51.0.
Although Hunt finished seventh, all six runners ahead of him broke four minutes, led by Dixon's upset win in 3:56.8.
The crowd roared as Dixon held off Bayi and then built to a crescendo once again as Hunt clocked a 4:02.7 to obliterate the prep record of 4:06.6 set previously by Vince Carter of Scotch Plains Fanwood (NJ) four years earlier.
Hunt's record lasted 25 years until Alan Webb of Reston South Lakes (Va.) ran 3:59.86 in 2001.
Just a little over a week ago, Hobbs Kessler of Ann Arbor Skyline (Mich.) lowered the record to 3:57.66, at the American Track League meet in Fayetteville, Arkansas, finishing third. That result pushed Hunt's indoor mile standard down to No. 8 all-time and removed him from atop the list of all-time indoor mile performances by a 17-year-old.
"That door (a sub-4 minute mile indoors) was already kicked down," said Hunt, 62, of the 3:57.66 that lowered the four-year-old mark of 3:57.81 by Drew Hunter of Purcellville Loudoun Valley (Va.). "It's not a barrier any more.
"Not to take anything away from the record, but I'd bet it was run on an oversized (200 meter), all-weather track."
In fact, it was a 200-meter, Mondo surfaced track. Hunt still has the fastest time ever run over a 160-yard, board track that was extremely springy and featured high-banked curves.
Now some 45 years later, Hunt's marks from the mid-70s still rank in six categories, indoors and outdoors, in U.S. high school history. (See list below)
In 1976, only three high school runners -- Jim Ryun (1965), Tim Danielson (1966) and Marty Liquori (1967) -- had broken four minutes as preps, all outdoors. Now 11 outdoor runners and three indoors have accomplished the feat.
"Things are so different now, and not just the tracks," said Hunt. "To start with, I didn't have that kind of speed (Kessler ran a 1:52.92 800 last Saturday). Running is very scientific now -- we mostly ran just for fun. But that night I knew I had a chance for the indoor record if everything fell into place.
"My greatest fear was that Bayi would go out too fast and I'd get left behind. He was notoriously fast at the start, going out in 53 or 54 seconds when he ran 3:51.0. Instead, it was an even 56-second first lap and although I was way behind, I was right on pace at 61 seconds.
"I wanted a 2:03 half-mile and it was 2:02 and when we went through three-quarters at 3:02, I knew I had the record. Remember, I didn't have blazing speed like Steve Scott; my best 400 was 53 seconds. But I knew I could run 60 seconds the last quarter."
Hunt said the capacity house, known for its thunderous cheering, swept him along the final lap.
"I could hear people yelling and screaming for me and after the race I took a victory lap, high-fiving everyone. Rod Dixon, who became a friend of mine, surely didn't mind because he was on the other side of the track getting high-fives. The place was going nuts."
Hunt ran a total of four times indoors and then immediately went back to the roads, making the World Junior Cross Country 8K Championships in Chapstow, Wales.
It was an all-star year for the U.S. as Laguna Beach's Eric Hulst won, Hunt finished second, Alberto Salazar was fifth and Crescenta Valley's Don Moses was eighth. Hunt returned the next year to capture the title, clocking a time of 23:15 in Dusseldorf, West Germany.
Hunt didn't slow down a step, running invitational meets as well as often tripling in dual meets (880, mile, 2-mile).
But at the San Diego Section championships, while winning the mile, he felt exhausted at the finish. Coming back in the 2-mile, he failed to qualify for the State Meet even though at the Arcadia Invitational he had run 8:45.2, a meet record that lasted for decades and is still the all-time San Diego Section best.
Hunt barely qualified for the final in the mile at the State Meet in Berkeley, finishing seventh out of 10, running 4:23.2.
"They said I had mononucleosis," recalled Hunt, "but I think I just had raced too much. By State I had nothing left in the tank. My body broke down, so I ran with heart."
Hunt not only finished 13th in the NCAA Cross Country championships that fall for the University of Arizona, a week later he joined a group of San Diego runners who formed the Jamul Toads that would go on to capture the 1976 AAU National Championship.
"Actually, I was part of the team in name only," said Hunt, somewhat sheepishly. "I had finished 13th in the NCAAs and I know they were counting on me. Luckily, the team was really deep because I was done. It was probably the only cross country team I was on where I wasn't a (top five) scorer. The next year I came back and ran well, but the rest of the team didn't."
Hunt would go on to win a Pac-10 title for 1500 meters, broke 4 minutes in the mile twice, and was poised to try to make the 1984 Olympic team in Los Angeles in the steeplechase, the event he picked up in college, when a month before the Games, he suffered a stress fracture in his foot.
"In my heart I was on that team," said Hunt. "Looking back, I just pushed too hard. Had I continued to train normally, who knows. But it was good that it was a stress fracture because it was a no-brainer that I was done."
One of his highlights was a third place in the 1979 NCAA championships in Madison, Wis. In a blizzard.
Hunt, who is a photography teacher at Patrick Henry High (SD), went on to coach the Patriots (1999-2007), San Diego Mesa Community College (2008-2016) and currently is the cross country coach at Cuyamaca College in East San Diego.
He is also the San Diego USA Cross Country chairman but he still manages to enjoy quality time with his wife and three children as well as play drums in a band.
Coaching at Cuyamaca College is challenging, he said.
"Most people don't even know where Cuyamaca College is," said Hunt with a chuckle. "At least when I was at Mesa, it was centrally located so you could get runners from all over. We get mostly East County kids who decide they want to stay close to home or don't get any college offers.
"Our women finished second by two points to Mt. SAC in the 2017 State Meet. You'd think (finishing second) would help attract runners, but it didn't and last year (2019) we barely had a team. I'm only part-time, so it's difficult to do what a full-time coach can do, so we do the best we can.
"It's still fun."
THOM HUNT ALL-TIMECheck where Hunt's marks from 1975-76 rank in prep track and field history based on Jack Shepard's High School Track 2021 record book.
3000m - 8:12.7 (25th all-time U.S.)
2-Mile - 8:45.2 (21st)
10K - 29:46.0 (14th)
Mile - 4:02.7 (8th best performance, No. 7 performer)
1500m - 3:46.6c (10th, No. 8 performer adding Kessler's conversion)
2-Mile - 4:52.4c (24th)
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Steve Brand is a regular contributor to MileSplitCA and serves as the San Diego Section editor.