Jon Davis breaks four-minute mile after injury


Darren Miller

Jon Davis runs during a meet on Nov. 9, 2017. After suffering from a foot injury and illness during the 2018 indoor season, Davis bounced back to become the No. 1-ranking mile runner in the nation.

By Meghan Rest, Assistant Sports Editor

Just over 500 Americans have broken four minutes in the mile, most entering this elite club by less than a second.

Illinois’ Jon Davis has done it twice.

It’s impossible to tell from the redshirt-sophomore’s lackadaisical demeanor, but Davis is an unstoppable force on the track and one of the fastest athletes in the NCAA.

After clocking 3:58.06 at Iowa last weekend, Davis not only shattered his previous personal record in the mile (3:58.46 at the Illini Classic last year) but proved to overcome some of the biggest setbacks he’s ever suffered in his career.

For Davis, the 2018 indoor season turned into gradual, but considerable, injury. After the series of indoor meets last year, including the Illini Open where Davis logged his first sub-four-minute mile and became the 498th American to do so, growing pain in his foot became unbearable.  

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Every week, his foot got worse.

After racing against the splitting pain at the NCAA Championship meet where he placed 15th in the 3,000-meter run, Davis began to accept the fate of his impending spring season, a fate solidified after a series of tests revealed a stress fracture in his left foot.

Davis was forced to redshirt outdoor track after accomplishing a feat most NCAA runners never achieve.

“I had thought about it for several weeks by that point,” Davis said. “So I kinda already accepted that it’d be something debilitating for a few months.”

After staying off his foot and following a strict cross-training plan for several months, Davis was ready to return to running. But after a workout in early August, he realized something else was wrong.

A medical examination confirmed he was suffering from mononucleosis and a bacterial infection, which would tack on months to his recovery time.

“I wasn’t ever too worried. I was lucky to have things happen to me that happens to plenty of other runners who’ve come back,” Davis said. “Ya know, people come back from worse.”

And now after almost a year away from competitive running, Davis isn’t just smashing records.

“On the flip side of that, taking a few months off and letting my body recover, I was kind of able to train all fall and prepare for the indoor season, and I think it’s definitely paying off,” Davis said.  “I didn’t really get injured too often in high school at all, so really just having a stress fracture, having that in the spring and then mono in the fall, it’s definitely made me fall in love with running again.”

That love has carried Davis through injury and illness to a No. 1 ranking in the mile nationally.

Between his two school records (3:58.46 indoor mile and 7:49.92 3,000-meter) and two All-American accolades, breaking four minutes in the mile is just another puzzle piece attached to Davis’ goal of earning a Big Ten title or even a national one.

You’d have to go back to Davis’ eighth-grade season of track and field to understand his patience with the sport and why a kid from Illinois and South Dakota can make a 3:58.06 mile look effortless, or as he claims, “a lot easier” than the first time he did it.

“In eighth grade, I think I ran like 4:43, and I thought by senior year I could run under four if I dropped 15 seconds (each year),” Davis said. “I don’t know if it was out of cockiness, but I just felt like it would happen one day if I worked hard enough. It’s just really good to see that actually happen.”

According to Davis, his seventh-grade football coach was responsible for getting him into running.

At the time, he was living in Mitchell, South Dakota, a place with a large, well-funded running program. But after moving to Oakwood, Illinois, about 20 minutes east of Champaign-Urbana, he continued perfecting his craft even though Oakwood High School was home to a smaller ensemble of runners.

“I was able to make things work there as well,” Davis said. “If you put in the work with minimal resources, I think you can get things done no matter what.”

For Davis, there aren’t any superstitions or race day rituals that keep him grounded. Instead, the nine-time IHSA state champion says he downs a few cups of coffee and listens to his favorite heavy metal band, “After The Burial,” before the gun goes off.

He likes to keep things simple.

Not even a No. 1 ranking in the mile can disrupt Davis’ razor-sharp focus on the remainder of the season.

“It’s a little bit too early to place any weight on the rankings right now,” Davis said. “At this point in the season, I have the leeway to really go out and test my fitness. So just taking it from the gun and run, then, who comes with me comes with me.”

But with the reigning 1500-meter outdoor NCAA champion competing in the Big Ten conference, Davis knows his battles on the track are far from over. As the season progresses, he said he’ll be more in tune to who he’s racing against.  

“Later on this season, the competition will get a little more (stiff) and people have different strengths, and you have to be aware of those strengths,” Davis said.

After a year filled with ups and downs, Davis is bracing for the end of the indoor track season. During the upcoming weekend, the team will travel to Lincoln, Nebraska, for the Big Ten Indoor Championships — the same meet during which Davis took home second place in the 3,000-meter run last year.

This year, Davis has his sights set on a Big Ten event title, another personal record and perhaps his best season with Illinois to date. But the decorated sophomore isn’t running for anyone besides himself and his team.

“I can kind of tell when people themselves are runners around campus,” Davis said. “I don’t know if it’s kind of an innate thing, but when I do, sometimes I’ll maybe lock eyes with someone a little longer while I walk into class, but I don’t think people really recognize me, and that’s totally fine. I think I’m just kind of in this personally to see how fast I can go.”


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