Charlie Marquardt has the chance to make history tonight. A 21-year-old distance runner for Haverford College, Marquardt will race one mile around the 200-meter indoor track at the Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex in Staten Island. And, if everything goes right, he is going to do it in under four minutes. Hundreds of collegiate runners have broken the infamous four-minute mile barrier, but only one has done it in NCAA Division III—the group of colleges, including Haverford, that does not offer athletic scholarships. That was nineteen years ago.
After four-years of grueling workouts, early morning runs, and sixty-to-ninety-mile weeks, Marquardt is physically capable of breaking four minutes and becoming a legend in the eyes of his coaches, his team, and all of Division III. But a large part of how Marquardt has come this far is not his body, but his mind.
“At this point I just reduce it to a one or two step plan,” Marquardt said yesterday about racing. He had just finished breakfast after a three-mile morning run on the wooded trails surrounding Haverford’s campus in the suburbs of Philadelphia. A biology major, Marquardt was about to start reading for a class called Parasitic Mind Control. “There’ll be a pacer for the first 800 meters,” he said. “So then I’ll just get in a good position and close really fast for the last 400.”
Have a plan and execute it. That has been Marquardt’s approach to racing for the past two years. In that time, he earned four All-American certificates in cross-country, indoor and outdoor track, and ran the eighth-fastest 1,500-meter (a little under one mile) time in Division III history. Just last week, Marquardt ran the fourth-fastest indoor 3,000-meter (a little under two miles) time in Division III history, breaking a 25-year-old school record in the process. In a sport where fierce competition, weary muscles and frayed nerves injure or discourage athletes all the time, Marquardt has established himself as one of the best.
“He makes it look easy,” said Jossi Fritz-Mauer, Marquardt’s assistant coach and a former Haverford runner himself. “Of course that level of performance is never easy. He just makes it look automatic. That’s remarkable to me as a coach, and as a fan it’s really great to watch.”
At the 3,000-meter race last week, Marquardt accelerated smoothly over the last kilometer, after the pacer dropped off. He looked unstoppable as he lapped Division I runners from Columbia and UPenn, and he came into the final straightaway with the whole arena cheering him on. “I think I could have run a second or maybe more faster if I had someone to race with,” he wrote in his log afterwards.
As easy as he makes it look, Marquardt hasn’t always been that good. In his first track season, as a freshman at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, “I would fall off the back almost immediately,” Marquardt said. After practice, he would sit through an aching hour-long commute back home to Pasadena. “I was sore and miserable on the bus through downtown LA every day,” he said. The only thing that made him stick with running was his mother, Elizabeth Snyder, an Emmy award-winning soap opera writer. “My mom said if you don’t want to do this extracurricular you have to find another,” he said. “I didn’t like speech-and-debate and I had friends on track. I improved a little bit so I figured maybe I would make a varsity race.”
He sure did improve. After a year-and-a-half of hard work, Marquardt was on the varsity team that won the state cross-country meet, and that summer he began touring schools on the East Coast. Haverford, a small liberal arts college with less than 1,200 students, stood out to him mainly because of its head men’s cross-country and track coach, a former Villanova runner named Tom Donnelly. Donnelly had coached a world record-holder in the 1,500 meters and a three-time world champion in the same event during the 1980s and 1990s. But what struck Marquardt was how he coached the less talented guys on Haverford’s team. Guys who Marquardt was like during his freshman year of high school.
“I talked to the Brown coach, Lafayette, Lehigh, Penn,” Marquardt said. “Tom put so much attention and care into each athlete’s training, which was really appealing to me.”
The feeling was mutual. “He filled all the criteria I look for,” Donnelly said in an email. “Really nice kid, who likes the sport, a lot, and wants to be part of a close-knit team.”
Marquardt and his close-knit teammates call themselves goats, an unexplained tradition which goes back at least two decades. Another long-held tradition is reading each other’s diary-like running logs online and eating dinner together at a long rectangular table in the campus dining center after practice. (Other students have learned to avoid sitting at the often-noisy “track table.”) The clannish group has churned out countless high-caliber athletes over the years, including Karl Paranya, the first Division III runner to go sub-4 back in 1997.
“A lot of people at the Haverford program get to stand on the shoulders of people who went before them,” said Fritz-Mauer, the assistant coach. “Charlie did workouts with a national champion…you need to have that commitment around you where people are invested in what they’re doing. And with that, it’s no surprise Haverford would have five of the 10 fastest 1,500 meter runners of DIII history.”
The team helps, and, for Marquardt, so does chocolate milk. Marquardt said that he once read a book called The Science of Running, in which he learned that it’s best to avoid ice baths, compression socks, or most other recovery aids widely used by runners. “Over the years I’ve trained my body to recover better,” he said. “I just try to drink chocolate milk and go to bed early.”
But even with his coaches, his teammates, and a whole campus’ supply of chocolate milk behind him, Marquardt has sometimes failed to deliver. When he was a sophomore, Marquardt ran the second-fastest 1,500-meter Division III time that year, so he was expected to place in the top three in that event later, at the Division III national championships. But after a mistimed kick on a crowded last lap, Marquardt failed to even make the final. Later that fall, Marquardt won the Mideast Regional cross-country individual title, only to place 66th at the national championship a week later. But none of those setbacks got in his way.
“The best guys don’t get discouraged from ‘off’ workouts and races,” Donnelly wrote. “They put it in perspective, stay focused, and keep their eye on the goal(s) down the road…A lesser athlete would have made it an issue.”
If anyone has an eye on the goals, it’s Marquardt. Every year he prints out a new set of time goals and tapes them to the wall of his dorm room. He started doing that at the end of his senior year of high school, after he ran 4:17 in the 1,600 meters (9 meters short of a mile) and started thinking about going sub-four in college.
“I figured, ‘all right if I ran 4:17, why not run sub-4?’” he said. Marquardt then “did the math” and calculated the smaller goals he would have to hit in the mile every year; 4:09 freshman year, 4:05 sophomore year, 4:01.5 junior year. So far he has hit every goal within a second. Now the number on his wall reads “3:59.”
When Marquardt first set his goal, he was not sure he could do it. “I kinda just said it,” he recalled. “‘I don’t even know I can do this, but you’re not going to find out if you don’t try.’”
(Full disclosure: this reporter used to run with Marquardt as a goat at Haverford College)