Breaking The 4-Minute-Mile Barrier

Sixty years ago on May 6, Roger Bannister broke one of the most iconic world records in sport

The mile is not much raced at the highest levels these metric times. It is not an Olympic event, yet it retains an iconic status. It is the only non-metric distance recognized for a world record by the sport's governing body, the IAAF, and it remains the benchmark against which runners measure their pace.  

Sixty years ago, on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister, a long-legged English medical student, became the first person to run himself into the record books by coverning the distance in under four minutes. It remains one of the most fabled moments of record-breaking in any sport.

See also: Tantalizing evidence of four-minute miles being run in the 18th century.

Bannister recorded a time of 3:59.4 seconds racing for the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA), British track and field's governing body, in an annual meet against his alma mater, Oxford University. A sub-four-minute mile had proved so elusive for so long that some people argued it was physically impossible.

Two Swedish runners, Gunder Hägg and Arne Andersson, swapped the world record six times between 1942 and 1945 but Hägg's 4:01.3 had then stood for nine years despite repeated assaults on it. Bannister's world record would last just 46 days before his great Australian rival Jon Landry ran 3:58.0. Later that year, the two men would race each other in "The Mile of the Century." Bannister edged the first race in which two men ran sub-fours.

The world record would be cut to 3:54.5 by the end of the decade. Today, more than one thousand milers have broken the four-minute mark. Many have done it hundreds of times; New Zealander John Walker was the first. 

Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco holds the current world record of 3:43.13 set in 1999, the longest period it has been in possession of one man since th IAAF started keeping records. El Guerrouj ran splits of 55.6 seconds, 56.0, 56.3, and 55.2. Bannister's splits of 57.5 seconds, 60.7, 62.3, and 58.9 would be considered wildly erratic today.

The famous black and white picture of Bannister about to break the tape at Oxford University's Iffley Road cinder track on an overcast Thursday late afternoon captures a different age in the sport. Not a sponsor's logo to be seen, for a start. And hand-held stopwatches seem primitve by the standards of today's digital timing accurate to 1/100th of a second. (The stopwatch used to time Bannister's run sold at a charity auction in 2011 for the equivalent of $160,000).

Track and field was still an amateur affair, then, but not an unprofessional one. Bannister might not have undergone the dietary, physiological and psychological preparation of modern elite runners — he travelled from London to Oxford by train on the moring of the race and lunched on ham salad with friends — but he studied running like the medical scientist he was. His graduate work was on the physiology of exercise, and he would have a distinguished career as a neurologist after retiring from running.

His training regime seems deceptively amateurish by modern standards, too — daily half-hour runs in a local park. But the training regime he developed based on the ideas of his coach, the Austrian Franz Stampfl, a pioneer proponent of interval training,  was a low-mileage mix of daily hard intervals that emphasized specificity and quality over quantity.

See also: High Intensity Interval Training: Top Training Trend or Fitness Fad?

Bannister also sought to gain every technological advantage. He ran in custom made shoes that, at 4oz, were a third lighter than regular racing spikes. The day before the race he honed the spikes themselves with a grindstone in one of the laboratories of St. Mary's Hospital Medical School where he was studying. This was to minimize the amount of cinder that stuck to them to reduce weight and drag. Enough to save that critical 0.6 of a second? Could well be.

He also used pacemakers in a carefully prepared race plan, as he had done a year earlier in a successful attempt on the U.K. mile record in May and an unsuccessful one on the world record in June. The "rabbits" were two of his Oxbridge friends and running partners, Chis Brasher and Chris Chataway. 

Pacemaking is commonplace in middle-distance running today when attempts to break records are made at high-profile meets, but in the 1950s the British athletics establishment regarded the practice as tantamount to race-fixing. The AAAs refused to ratify Bannister's 4:02.0 in the June 1953 race as a new U.K. record because Brasher had jogged from the start and let Bannister lap him to stay fresh to pace Bannister through his final lap and a half. 

The trio were well aware that Landy was closing in on breaking the four-minute barrier, as was an American, Wes Santee. The Oxford meet in May 1954 was their next opportunity to get there first, but the decision to go for it was taken only at the last minute, after blustery crosswinds dropped. The stiffness of the flag atop the tower of St. Stephen's church was their guide. But the wind was still gusting sufficiently for Bannister to be nearly struck when taking his track suit off before the start of the race by a pole that blew over.

As someone who had the honor of running on those same Iffley Road cinders some years later (and somewhat slower), I can attest the winds at Iffley Road can be wicked. They seem to come straight off the Russian steppes, pick up speed across the heathlands of northern Europe and whistle straight down the back straight. And forget the windbreak of trees tight on the first curve that you might have seen in the 2005 movie of the race. That was filmed in Toronto.

A synthetic surface replaced the cinders in 1989 at the Iffley Road track, which now fittingly bears Bannister's name. In 1948, when student president of the university's athletic club, Bannister had set in motion the replacement of the university's old bumpy three-laps-to-a-mile grass track with a six-lane 440-yard cinder track that opened in 1950 — and which four years later he would make an indelible part of sporting history.