Roger Bannister (born 1929) was the first person ever to run a mile in under four minutes.
"I just ran anywhere and everywhere-never because it was an end in itself, but because it was easier for me to run than to walk," Roger Bannister said of his childhood, according to Cordner Nelson and Roberto Quercetani in The Milers. When he was 12, 13, and 14, he won his school's cross-country run three years in a row. At the age of 16, he decided to become a runner. However, when his studies in medicine began at Oxford University in the fall of 1946, he had never run on a track or worn spiked running shoes.
Bannister's only training that first winter at the university was a weekly workout and a seven-and-a-half-mile cross-country race. However, he was so immensely talented that even on this meager schedule, he ran a mile in 4:30.8 in March of 1947; by June of that year he had decreased his time to 4:24.6. In 1948, Bannister was selected as a "possible" runner for the Olympic team, but he felt that he was not yet ready to compete at the Olympic level.
"Restless and Anxious to Compete"
In June of 1948 Bannister ran in his first major race, the Kinniard Cup. He came in fourth with a time of 4:18.7. In the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) race he came in fifth with 4:17.2. That year, the Olympics were being held in London, and he watched them with great interest. When Bannister saw the athletes compete, he felt inspired to become a great runner like them. According to Cordner and Quercetani, he decided "New targets had to be set and more vigorous training programs prepared. I was restless and anxious to compete. There were four years to wait before my chance would come at Helsinki [Olympics] in 1952."
In June of 1949, Bannister ran the 880 in 1:52.7, and traveled to the United States to compete in the mile, which he won with times of 4:11.1 and 4:11.9. He took six weeks off from training, but came in third with a time of 4:14.2.
Bannister began using a new training method called Fartlek, in which runners alternate bursts of speed with steady running, and rapidly improved. On July 1 of 1950, he ran a mile in 4:13, but in the last lap his time was 57.5. This was the first sign of his impressive "kick"-a burst of speed in the last quarter of a race.
At the Penn Relays in April of 1951, he began slowly, trailing the other runners, but took the lead after two and a half laps, running the last lap in an amazing 56.7, with a total time of 4:08.3. He later said, according to Cordner and Quercetani, "I knew from my fast finish that I was now capable of a time near 4 minutes five seconds."
Bannister's philosophy of training was to train lightly and stay fresh. For the rest of that spring he felt over-trained and somewhat burned-out. Nevertheless, in July, he ran 4:07.8, a record for the AAA championships. After this, feeling utterly exhausted, he took training for five weeks, then raced again, but was beaten by a Yugoslavian runner.
1952 Olympic Games
Bannister ran in the 1500 meters at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. He shared a room with his friends from Oxford: Chris Chataway, Nick Stacey, and Alan Dick. He wrote in The Four Minute Mile that the room they shared must have been the messiest one in the whole Olympic Village, and that he and his friends spent most of their time simply lying on their unmade beds, reading, and talking. "It was not that we lacked the energy to make our beds or tidy the room," he wrote. "We simply existed in a state of complete suspension, in which nothing seemed important until our races were over. We were thinking all the time about the precious fractions of seconds that would make us champions or failures." In the semifinals of the 1500 meters, Bannister came in fifth, and was disappointed with his performance. He wrote, "The following night was one of the most unpleasant I have ever spent. My legs ached and I was unable to sleep. I felt I hated running." The next day, before the final, Bannister was pale and weak with anxiety. From the start, he ran "sensibly," and was in second place before the final curve. "This was the crucial moment," he wrote, "for which I had waited so long. But my legs were aching, and I had no strength left to force them faster." Sickened, he watched as others passed him, and came in fourth. Later, however, he was proud of his result and glad that he had learned that "the important thing was not the winning but the taking part-not the conquering but the fighting well."
Attempted to Break Four-Minute Barrier
Bannister spent two months after the Olympics deciding whether he wanted to keep running. He eventually decided to continue, but with a new goal: to run the mile in under four minutes. This feat had never been accomplished by any runner. He trained for half an hour a day, running intense speed workouts. Bannister realized that in order to meet his goal, he would have to make sure that he was keeping up a hard pace throughout the race. He arranged for another runner, Chris Chataway, to keep track of his timing and be his pacer. At a meet at Oxford, paced by Chataway, he ran the mile in 4:03.6, which made him certain that he could break the four-minute barrier. After a brief period of rest following an injury, he began running again. On June 27, 1953, paced by his friends Chris Brasher and Don Macmillan, he ran 4:02. Despite the fact that this time was faster than any British miler's, the authorities would not allow it into the record books because the use of pacers was frowned on: runners were expected to win without such aid. According to Nelson and Quercetani, Bannister later said, "My feeling as I look back is one of great relief that I did not run a four-minute mile under such artificial circumstances." Throughout 1953, however, he remained undefeated.
The Moment of a Lifetime
In 1954, Bannister decided to make another attempt to break the four-minute barrier. He trained more intensely, and reached a plateau at which, no matter how much he trained, he couldn't improve his time. Frustrated, he took time off and went mountain climbing with Chris Brasher for three days. When he came back, he beat his time by two seconds.
Bannister planned to make the sub-four-minute attempt on the Iffey Road track at Oxford during an AAA event on May 6. He rested for five days before the event. "I had reached my peak physically and psychologically," he later said, according to Nelson and Quercetani. "There would never be another day like it."
On May 6, he spent the morning at St. Mary's Hospital, where he worked as part of his medical studies, then took the train to Oxford. He was concerned about the weather: a strong wind had come up, and it could affect his time. At 5:15 in the evening, it began to rain lightly. By race time, the wind was about 15 miles per hour and Bannister decided to run. After 220 yards, he felt as if the race was effortless, as if he were flying.
When the bell rang, marking the last lap, Bannister's time was 3.07. The crowd was roaring and he knew he would have to run the last lap in 59 seconds. Chataway led, then Bannister sped past him at the beginning of the final straightaway, with only 300 yards to go. In his book First Four Minutes, quoted by David Levinson and Karen Christensen, he later wrote, "I felt that the moment of a lifetime had come. There was no pain, only a great utility of movement and aim. The world seemed to stand still or did not exist, the only reality was the next two hundred yards of track under my feet."
Although he was exhausted, Bannister kept running, forced on by an immense effort of will and aided by his years of training. When he was only five yards from completing the race, the tape marking the end of the race seemed to be moving farther away from him. He wrote, "My effort was all over and I collapsed almost unconscious. The stop-watches held the answer, the announcement came-'Result of the one mile time, 3 minutes'-the rest was lost in the roar of excitement." His time was 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.
Later Bannister wrote, according to Nelson and Quercetani, "I felt suddenly and gloriously free of the burden of athletic ambition that I had been carrying for years. No words could be invented for such supreme happiness, eclipsing all other feelings. I thought at that moment I could never again reach such a climax of single-mindedness."
"The Mile of the Century"
Track fans still talk about the "Bannister-Landy 1-Mile Duel," which was the number one choice for "Six Most Dramatic Events in Sports History," in the Book of Lists, according to David Levinson and Karen Christensen. The event was known as "The Mile of the Century" at the time, and took place at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Canada in 1954, where fans anxiously awaited the contest between the two best milers in the world. Bannister was the first person to break the four-minute mile. John Landy of Australia, was the only other runner to have completed a mile in under four minutes; he held the world record. Landy was in front from the start. Bannister was in third, then moved up to second. He had planned to run easily through the third lap, but became nervous when Landy stayed in front, so he began speeding up at the halfway point. Nelson and Quercetani wrote, "With great poise, he spread his effort evenly over the entire third lap. In the middle of the backstretch he had cut Landy's frightening lead in half. As they reached the bell he had closed the gap." When the bell rang to mark the last lap, Landy was in the lead, with Bannister right behind him. When Landy turned to see where his opponent was, Bannister passed him. He poured on his powerful "kick," and won the race in 3:58.8, against Landy's 3:59.6. The moment when Bannister passed Landy is commemorated by a statue of both men outside the Empire Stadium in Vancouver, marking the "Miracle Mile Games."
Bannister later wrote in Four Minute Mile, "[Running] 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. The more restricted our society and work become, the more necessary it will be to find some outlet for this craving for freedom. No one can say, 'You must not run faster than this, or jump higher than that.' The human spirit is indomitable."
Bannister, Roger, The Four-Minute Mile, Lyons Press, 1981.
Encyclopedia of World Sport, edited by David Levinson and Karen Christensen, ABC-CLIO, 1996.
Hanley, Reid M., Who's Who in Track and Field, Arlington House, 1973.
Nelson, Cordner and Roberto Quercetani, The Milers, Tafnews Press, 1985.