Boys #2BOB BORNKESSEL, Shawnee Mission North, 400H 49.8 (1968)
IAAF Score: 1,140 points
From the beginning of this ranking, some of the performances are so off the charts that it's difficult to adequately illustrate just how ridiculously great they really are. Bob Bornkessel's 49.8 400H record is one such performance.
It was produced by an environment and a system that may never be replicated and that requires some explanation.
Because the 1968 Olympics were being held at an altitude of over 7300 feet in Mexico City, the Olympic selection process was done in phases that year. There was an Olympic Trials training camp at Echo Summit near Lake Tahoe, Nevada. The altitude at Echo Summit was slightly higher than Mexico City. The plan was to allow athletes to train and compete for an extended time while adapting to the altitude before holding the selection races. There was a "semi-final" Olympic Trials, then a "final" Olympic Trials held to select the U.S team.
Bob Bornkessel, only a high schooler, made the cut for the Echo Summit training camp.
What may have been lost to history is that Bornkessel ran multiple races during this time that would've been at the very top of the Kansas high school all-time list. According to The History of the United States Olympic Trials - Track & Field by Richard Hymans, Bornkessel ran the following:
June 29, 1968: Heat 2 - 51.5 (6th); Run-off - 51.0 (2nd). (No reason is given for the run-off, which had seven competitors.)
Week of Sept. 2, 1968: 49.8 (exact date not given)
Sept. 9, 1968: Heat 2 - 53.6 (5th). In his race description, Hymans states that "...Bornkessel, who had set a High School record of 49.8 a week earlier, but who fell at the last hurdle when heading for a 50.0 clocking." Because the top three from each heat advanced to the final, Bornkessel did not make the Olympic Trials final.
In the final, the top three who qualified for the Olympic team would run 48.93 (a World Record), 49.27, and 49.36.
On the Kansas all-time list, Doug Hedricks (Shawnee Mission East) is #2 at 51.25, and Jared Huske (Highland Park) is #3 at 52.29. Bornkessel's two times on the same day on June 29, 1968 would be #2 and #4 on the current all-time list. His 53.6 while falling over the last hurdle would be #6 on the current Kansas all-time list.
In a 2002 written interview with Ken Stone, Bornkessel talks about his experience at Echo Summit and why it produced the spectacular performances. Best just to let you read it in Bornkessel's own words:
"The environment in 1968 was unique. Altitude,...six meets in a row against the best hurdlers in the world, working out daily with these athletes, and working out under the best coaches in the U.S. for six weeks. I have told many people that competitively, `You do what you have to.'"
"What I 'had to do' at the Olympic Trials was to beat 10 of the best 17 400 meter runners in the world. That year the Olympic Committee sent the top 10 athletes in each event to Lake Tahoe to train and adapt to high altitude."
"Each weekend we had meets. Consider having national class track meets for six straight weeks. It did wonders for our times, but in the end (at the Olympics) it hurt the three that made the team. They peaked at the Trials. The three who made the team all tied or broke the world record. My time was eight-tenths off the old record and was 10th among our the group. After all, how many high school kids have had a chance to compete with the national champion and world record holder for six consecutive weeks, work out with the best in their event, and see how hard they train?"
"In a way, I am surprised it lasted so long. The race went through huge change during the Edwin Moses years. In '68, everyone used a 15-step pattern. Even the taller runners. Now almost all use a 13. Basically, now the brakes are off! Also, it used to be that a good differential (difference between the 400m time and 400m hurdle time) was 3 seconds. That means that a great high school 400 meter runner who also can hurdle should be able to run 49 or better. I was lucky that my natural stride length was perfect -- my differential was 1.8 when I ran 49.8."
For good measure, Bornkessel is reported to have run a 1:55 880 at the since-discontinued Kansas State High School Indoor Track & Field Championships during the winter prior to his spectacular summer 400H performances.
Bornkessel would go on to the University of Kansas. He competed in multiple NCAA championships, becoming an All-American in the 1969 indoor mile relay, and also win conference titles at the 440yH and mile relay indoors. Bornkessel is listed at #4 on the KU all-time list at 400H with a time of 50.4, though Bornkessel states that he ran 49.7 at KU.
In that 2002 written interview with Ken Stone, Bornkessel reflects on the difficulty of improving his jaw-dropping performances from that summer of 1968 while he was at KU. Again in his own words:
I did run a 49.7 (KU gives him credit only for 50.4 at 1972 NCAA championships, with KU record of 49.5 set by Nolan Cromwell in 1975) and held the KU record for a while. I could think of all kinds of excuses (college life is much different than living at home with your parents), but the main reason was conditioning. I probably never achieved the conditioning I had in the summer of '68.
Bob Bornkessel still resides in the Kansas City area. He works at KU Medical Center and can sometimes be found volunteering at the Overland Park Arboretum.