About 58 years ago, on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister of England broke the four-minute barrier for a Mile race for the first time in history. I read The Perfect Mile that detailed how the stage for this athletics breakthrough was set up among Bannister, John Landy of Australia and Wes Santee of the United States. In his memoir, The Fout-Minute Mile, Roger Bannister himself tells how such great milestone was achieved. This is not his training log or a ‘how to run a strong Mile race’ text book. In fact, he does not say much about his training in the book, other than he never spent more than half an hour a day in training. This is a book where, I believe, he attempted to answer why he ran.
Bannister wrote this book in 1955, one year after he ran 3:59.4. He was a medical student at Oxford during most of his running career, and he is also a very good writer. A little on the dry side but eloquent, scholastic, and philosophical at times.
Needless to say, the best and the most electrifying part of this book is when he tells the story of May 6 and the race. But a few sentences in Conclusion stick with me, and I quote him here, because it is very good:
We run, not because we think it is doing us good, but because we enjoy it and cannot help ourselves. It also does us good because it helps us to do other things better. It gives a man or woman the chance to bring out power that might otherwise remain locked away inside. The urge to struggle lies latent in everyone.
Now, I am not a medical student or a doctor, but I’d like to think this is true and want to think that running makes one a better person.
Before you go, here is a period footage of Bannister running 3:59.4 on May 6, 1954 at Iffley Road track in Oxford . Enjoy!
A historic milestone was reached between the times when two Swedes (Gunder Hägg and Arne Andersson) kept renewing each other’s Mile world records and when the British dominated the Mile world records and races. 4-minute Mile was getting ever so close to conquer, but the barrier was so monumental that Hägg’s world record of 4:01.04 had not been broken for nine years, which is the longest gap between any two world records to-date since IAAF era started. Neal Bascomb’s The Perfect Mile took me back to the exciting time: The early 1950s, when many industrialized countries were starting to experience post-war modernism, though sports science and technologies were still in its infant stage.
Roger Bannister from the Great Britain, John Landy of Australia, and Wes Santee of the United States were the selected milers to take on this enormous challenge and the candidates to break the 4-minute barrier. Bascome introduced me to each miler in great detail, whom I had never heard of. Though I admire his talent and dedication of Bannister, I was hoping Landy would be the one to break the 4-minute barrier, because he was the front runner and the one who did not have the luxury of training in facilities or environments (physical and athletic) that both Bannister and Santee had. Landy did break Bannister’s 3:59.4 and set the world record of 3:58 a month and a half later. He was a little late to be the first miler to break the barrier. Landy seems to resemble Sebastian Coe’s running style, while Bannister is more like Steve Ovett, from what I read.
One thing I am surprised about these athletes is that all three dropped the competitive running to pursue their interests and passions soon after the barrier was broken. It seems to me it is such a waste of athletic talents; who knows they could have been much more celebrated athletes if they continued their racing. Today, the Mile record of 3:43.13 is held by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, which was established in July, 1999 in Rome.