The year was 1954 – a different time. Queen Elizabeth II was just a year into her reign, post-war sugar rationing had not long come to an end, little more than 25% of families had a television and the human body was stubbornly refusing to run a mile in less than four minutes. Until a 25-year-old junior doctor named Roger Bannister returned to the Oxford University track at Iffley Road to record the first ever sub four minute mile.
Since the formation of the IAAF in 1913 and the first ratified world record of 4 minutes 14.4 seconds, mile times had gradually fallen towards the magical four minute mark. Brit Sydney Wooderson’s 1937 record (a time of 4 minutes and 6.4 seconds) was the benchmark as most of the globe entered the Second World War.
With competitions suspended in warring nations, it was left to the neutral Swedes to pick up the “mile record” baton. During the war years two Swedes, Gunder Hagg and Arne Andersson, exchanged records with Hagg emerging victorious with his 1945 record of 4 minute and 1.4 seconds.
Peace fell, but the mile record didn’t.
Years passed and yet no-one was able to move beyond Haag’s record. Such was the lack of progress, questions began to be raised whether the human body was capable of running a mile in under four minutes, or whether it was a physical impossibility.
Step forward Roger Bannister, who had different ideas.
Bannister had started his running career at the age of 17 and despite limited experience showed great potential, running a mile in 4:24.6 in 1947. A swift time by anyone’s standards and even more impressive given his training at the time involved just three half-hour training sessions a week.
His early promised developed Bannister into an Olympian, setting a British record for in the 1952 Olympic 1500m final but finishing agonisingly out of the medals in fourth. This disappointment would be the inspiration that fired Bannister up towards a new goal: to become the first person to run a sub-4 minute mile.
Bannister was not the only man hunting this elusive record. In 1953, American Wes Santee, Australian John Landy and Bannister himself all ran miles in under 4:03. The pressure was rising.
On the morning of 6th May 1954 Bannister left the hospital in London where he was practising as a junior doctor to catch a train to Oxford to compete in a meet between the British AAA and Bannister’s own university, Oxford. This meet had been identified as his best opportunity to grab the record.
Even in the minutes leading up to the 6pm race start time there were doubts as to whether the attempt would even begin due to the high winds pushing across the track. Fortunately, the winds dropped, allowing Bannister and his pace-making team of Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway to begin as scheduled.
Brasher set the early pace, taking Bannister through the first lap in 58 seconds and the half mile point in 1:58. Chataway took over the pacing duties to lead Bannister through the bell in 3:01, leaving less than 59 seconds for the final lap. With just over half a lap to go Bannister kicked for home and collapsed across the finish line having left absolutely everything on the Iffley Road track.
The crowd eagerly awaited the result, to be announced by none other than Norris McWhirter, who went on to co-found (with his twin brother) the Guinness Book of Records:
“Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event nine, the one mile: first, number forty one, R. G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which—subject to ratification—will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire and World Record. The time was three…”
And that was all the crowd needed to hear. Three really was the magic number!
The barrier had been broken and the floodgates opened. After years of no advancement, Bannister’s record stood just 46 days before Landy eclipsed it with a 3:57.9. Bannister had shown it was possible and athletes around the world now believed. Three people, including Bannister’s pacer Chris Chataway, broke the barrier in 1955 with a further 5 dipping under 4 minutes in 1956 and another 7 joining the ranks in 1957.
Prior to Bannister’s success the world record mile time had stood untouched for 9 years. His record was broken 4 times in the eight years that followed, and in that time 30 athletes recorded time under the elusive 4 minute barrier.
The records continued to tumble with the first sub 3:50 mile being recorded by Kiwi John Walker in 1975. The most dramatic exchanging of records would come as the 70’s turned into the 80’s with British rivals Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett securing 5 new records in just over a two year period. In August 1981 they set three new records between them within 10 days.
Four years later another Brit, Steve Cram, would take the record with a 3:46.32, nearly a second quicker than the record set by Sebastian Coe in 1981. Cram would hang on to the world record for 8 years before Noureddine Morceli of Algeria became the first person to run a mile in under 3:45. The current world record has stood at 3:43.13 since 1999, set by Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj.
The mile world record has never rested unbroken for a longer time than now. Have we reached the limit of human physiology or is this just the new barrier to be broken? Perhaps all we need to do is believe!
Inspired by the anniversary of this amazing feat, #RunYourMile challenges you to run a mile as quickly as you can to explore the challenge of this iconic distance. To find more information about #RunYourMile click through to https://runningdanw.wordpress.com/2016/05/03/runyourmile/