May 8, 2008

Four Minutes

I am a couple of days late with this post, mostly due to workload and getting ready for surgery. But on May 6th, back in 1954, something very special to all of us runners happened. Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile in recorded history. The 25-year-old native of Harrow on the Hill, England, completed the distance in 3:59.4 at Oxford.

A hundred years ago or so, doctors actually wondered whether the human body could even run at such a speed without the heart and lungs simply bursting. Over time, though, as runners drew tantalyzingly closer to four minutes, it seemed to become more a psychological barrier than a physical one. In 1945, a Swede named Gundar Haegg lowered the record to 4:01:4. It seemed as if now the barrier would fall -- especially since the war was over and those other than Swedes could concentrate on running. But no. Nobody could even approach Haegg's mark. Four minutes seemed more elusive than ever.

The Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford wrote about Bannister:

Roger Bannister was a medical student at Oxford. Really, not much of an athlete. Just the right sort of lungs and legs. He was, however, quite brilliant -- would become an esteemed neurologist. The four-minute mile was something of an afterthought to him, which he sought only after he was beaten in the 1,500 meters at the 1952 Olympics. He knew he had to give up running when his medical studies ended in 1954, so there would be no more Olympics. Well, let's try for the four minutes.

The amazing thing is how quaint it all was. Never mind steroids today. Runners are professionals, full-time, devoting their lives and bodies to their work. They are cosseted machines. Bannister didn't even have a coach. He'd work out lunch hours at a park in London -- had to pay three pence to get onto the track. He figured out the strategy for the race himself, getting two other runners to pace him.

The day he had set for the challenge -- Tuesday, May 6th, 1954 -- turned up raw and cool. He went to work in the hospital in the morning, the same as always, doing rounds, all on his feet. He took the underground to catch a train to Oxford. He stood up much of the way. He ate a big, hot English lunch, and only decided to go all out minutes before the race when he saw a flag on a church steeple dip. The wind was down! All right, let's give it a go! Then, despite the wet track, Bannister ran a perfect race: 3:59:4 seconds.

In a way, it wasn't just a barrier of time that fell that day 50 years ago. Bannister was about the last of his breed -- the athlete on the side. Just as inventions are no longer made in garages, so human beings don't break records in their spare time anymore. No, thank heaven, athletes are paid for their labors like everyone else who is good at what they do. But somehow, at least back then, before Sputnik went up and the British Empire went away, it seemed right that the final, great challenge fell to one young man, who did it all by himself, the same as his forefathers. In a way, Roger Bannister was the last hero in sport. All that have followed, however great, have only been celebrities, stars and superstars.

In the movie "Four Minutes" there is a scene that shows Bannister and his teammates approaching that day's race. Earlier in the movie they mentioned a few months earlier that when Edmund Hillary had successfully climbed Mt Everest, his report back to home was simply "Well, we knocked the bastard off". Everest was the only other "impossible" feat other than 4 minutes it was thought. So as they are contemplating whether or not to go for the record, and how bad the conditions are, Bannister simply said, "Let's go knock the bastard off".

Later after the race, Bannister said "I knew I was very close. I did collapse at the end. If you don't keep on running, keep your blood circulating,.. the muscles stop pumping the blood back, and you get dizzy. I did lose my sight for a bit because I was crowded in. Everybody rushed on to the track."

That wasn't to be Bannisters last great effort though, after he set the sub 4-minute mark, an Australian named John Landy ran a 3:58 to set the new world record. This set up the meeting of the worlds only 2 men who ever ran under 4 minutes to meet in Vancouver in the Commonwealth games.

Landy led most of the race, opening a lead of as much as 15 meters. Bannister said "It was a frightening thing to do, to let him go like that, but I thought the pace was too fast." On the last lap, Bannister was gaining bit by bit with Landy holding him off. As Landy looked over his left shoulder to see where Bannister was, he passed Landy on the right. Landy knew he was finished then. He later said "I had hoped the fast pace would make him crack. When you get a man in that situation and he doesn't crack, you do."

"There is no fuss and fanfare about Bannister. When he was asked to explain that first four-minute mile—and the art of record breaking—he answered with original directness: 'It's the ability to take more out of yourself than you've got.'"

Text by Gerald Holland


  1. Whooohooo. I just read a fascinating article on the Ali-Frasier fight. I detest boxing but the article made me want to read more.

  2. Brilliant post. I love the image of the gifted amateur. It's very heartening.

  3. that's amazing. Really, and well writ. I, however, can only do a 4 minute mile if you move the decimal place over to the right so the 4.84 mile becomes the 48.4 minute(s) mile for me!! THEN I can compete an' run wid' da big dawgs!!

  4. I am trying to reach the 12 minute mile mark....

  5. Interesting... I'm sure you'll see this topic again very soon. So what's the current world record on the mile, or is everything metric now?

  6. one of the great moments in sports history......

    bannister went on to become a doctor. the current record for the mile (the only non-metric distance still raced for world records) is 3:43.1

  7. If I remember correctly, Bannister spoke at my high school when I was 15. I didn't attend the speech, though. Typical.

    I've been stuck on a 7 minute mile for about 4 years now.