Sir Roger Bannister passed away last week at the age of 88. On May 6, 1954, he became the first human to be recorded running a mile in under four minutes, a feat many, if not most, considered at the time to be physically impossible. We asked Neal Bascomb, author of The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It, to reflect on the triumph the context of Bannister's life and a century full of barrier-breaking. In addition to The Perfect Mile, Neal Bascomb is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of The Winter Fortress, Hunting Eichmann, The Nazi Hunters, and Red Mutiny, among others. His new book, The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War, will be published in September. He lives in Seattle.
The first to break the four-minute mile. Four laps of the track in under four minutes. Such an achievement looks to pale against being the first to climb Everest, reach the North Pole, or sail non-stop around the world alone, three other feats performed in the twentieth century. But, there was a time when attempting to run 5,280 feet in less than four minutes was considered tantamount to an early leap into the grave. The heart couldn’t take it. The legs. The lungs. It was simply impossible, beyond the limits of human speed.
In summer 1952, after failing to seize sure-gold at the Helsinki Olympics, 23-year old British miler Roger Bannister aimed to break the barrier. For decades the best middle-distance runners had tried and failed. They had come to within two seconds, but that was as close as they were able to get. Bannister believed he could attain that perfect balance between speed and stamina to shatter the four-minute mile. He was not alone in his endeavor. Wes Santee, the son of a Kansas ranch hand and the “Dizzy Dean of the Cinders” also sought the record by dint of his natural ability. So too John Landy, an Australian who trained harder than any miler in the world.
Over the next eighteen months, the three battled to be the first. They logged hour after hour, week after week, mile after mile, on the track to build up their endurance and quickness, all to shave off a second, maybe two, over the course of the four-lap race—the time it takes to snap one’s fingers and register the sound. As they attacked the barrier, the stories of their efforts splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world, alongside headlines about the Korean War, Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, and Edmund Hillary’s climb toward the world’s rooftop. Though they had yet to crack four-minutes, they outshone any records by other sports greats at the time like Ben Hogan, Rocky Marciano, Willie Mays, Bill Tilden, and Native Dancer.
By New Year 1954, many considered their efforts to be in vain, the four-minute mile was impossible. In dark moments, the three runners thought the same. Yet, above all, Bannister persisted. He recruited a coach; he performed physiological tests on himself to prove the barrier was only myth; he enlisted the support of friends to push him harder than he even had during training; and, he rediscovered why he loved to run in the first place.
Finally, on May 6, 1954, on the cinder track at Iffley Road, Oxford, Bannister breasted the tape after four soul-crushing laps around the track with a time of 3:59.4. The barrier was broken.
It was a remarkable effort, a pioneering one, but equally significant was the manner in which Bannister achieved his triumph. Throughout this period, the British miler was studying full-time to become a doctor. Between rounds at St. Mary’s Hospital, London, he hurried over to a local track to do his training. He took no sabbatical from medical school; he could not afford to, nor did he desire to do so. He was an amateur athlete. He took no money, nor had any sponsors. He shirked reporters and sought neither glory, nor fame. The reward was in the effort.
Once he broke the mile barrier and then faced off against Landy (who had bested his time only weeks later) in one of the greatest contests in track and field history, Bannister retired from the sport. There was no comeback planned; he became what he always intended to be: a doctor, and a fine one at that.
This week Roger Bannister died at 88 years old. He should be remembered for one of the finest barrier-breaking achievements of the 20th century. More important, he should be revered for how he did it.
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