Monday, September 27, 2010

Great Running Feats… The 4-Minute Mile

Great Running Feats… The 4-Minute Mile

By Jim Israel, PPTC Member

The ‘Dream Mile’ – I certainly remember the moment: opening the New York Times sports section one May morning, this nine-year-old observes a photograph of Roger Bannister for the first time: an utterly exhausted man being propped up by other runners immediately after he had broken the 4-minute mile barrier. The feat, considered impossible by many [It was believed then that the ‘mental’ barrier to a sub-4-minute time was too much to overcome.] shocked the world.

Back then, though, this writer was intrigued by another aspect of the story: Roger Bannister was a physician, just like my father. I wondered as I read the article: my dad, and all his colleagues, it seemed, worked insane hours; patient care was the absolute priority above everything else in their lives.  If Bannister was indeed a doctor, how on earth did he manage to accomplish that feat?

In fact, Roger Bannister did run that sub-4-minute mile despite an unwavering dedication to medicine. Just examine his daily schedule: a 24-year-old intern at a London hospital, Dr. Bannister was in charge of a 40-patient ward, taking patient histories, writing up notes during lectures, initiating and completing independent-study experiments on the potential of human physiognomy, serving as secretary of the Medical Society, maintaining a social life that included nights out with friends drinking and debating art and politics, and even acting in an Oscar Wilde play.

Training? At lunch, he took the Underground two stops to a quarter-mile track, changed into his running gear, and basically ran fartleks for 35 minutes: short sprints, interspersed with longer runs. All jammed into barely a half-an-hour, and then back to the hospital. No time even for warm-ups.

And, for the longest stretch, he did all this by himself. No coach, not even a stopwatch, it’s claimed.

Much like the contest going on then between Russia and the US to launch a satellite into space, Roger Bannister was competing in a global contest with two other milers to break four minutes:  Wes Santee, running for the University of Kansas, and John Landy, an Australian, who was to become one of the great milers of all time. All three, fully cognizant of each other, were aiming for immortality. The urgency to break the mile record was not lost on any of the three.

Dr. Bannister had competed in the Helsinki Olympics of 1952, finishing a devastating fourth in the 1500-meter event. Ridiculed in the press – he was the favorite – Dr. Bannister began training in earnest, running longer distances on cricket fields near his family’s home on weekends. His fitness improved dramatically, and his times in successive mile races began to improve.

On May 2 1953, Dr. Bannister ran a 4:03:06, his best time by over 4 seconds, and a new British record. The British press, elated, began to view Bannister as the man who could break the record. Edmund Hilary’s expedition to climb Mount Everest occurred at this time as well. Sir Hilary’s Everest ascent and Bannister’s efforts to break the mile barrier, the press concluded, were proof the British Empire was not going to fade away just yet.

And, after that race, Roger Bannister finally hired a coach; he was Franz Stampfl, who emigrated from Austria prior to World War II and was, in fact, detained by the British during the war because of his Germanic origins. At an initial get-acquainted meeting, Mr. Stampfl recommended that Mr. Bannister step up his training. Bannister protested, insisting his hospital schedule was too arduous; Mr. Stampfl, a man of few words, replied, “Do both.”

With increases in quarter-mile sprints and overall mileage along with inspirational talks by his coach, Bannister quickly improved his times. In late 1953, he ran a 4:02 mile; he and Stampfl sensed that the time had come to take up the challenge once and for all.

The venue was selected: at an Oxford University track meet, on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister was going to attempt to break four minutes for a mile. Astounding as it seems, Dr. Bannister worked at the hospital that morning, and took an afternoon train to Oxford for a 6 pm start. 1,200, mostly students, were on hand to watch. There were two ‘rabbits’ – runners who participated for the sole purpose of assuring that  Bannister maintain pre-determined quarter-mile times – in the race, each one focusing on specific laps.

First lap: Bannister in 57.5, with him and his rabbits already well ahead of the field.

Half-mile [2 laps]: 1:58

Three laps: 3:00:04… The small crowd now stood, clapping, voices raised into an uproar.

At 1,500 meters, his face drained of color and contorted by effort, Bannister had a time of 3:43, a world record time. Fifty yards from the finish, he was exhausted completely, but forced himself on. At the finish, his legs buckled as he collapsed.

The time was announced over a loudspeaker:  “Number Forty-One, R.G. Bannister, of the Amateur Athletic Association…with a time that is a new meet and track record.

“The time is THREE….” As soon as ‘three’ is pronounced, nothing else is heard. The cheering was too loud and raucous.  Sir Roger Bannister, who, in this writer’s opinion, should be lauded as a magnificent example of the amateur athlete and a man who refused to compromise on a full and meaningful life, had run a 3:59:04 mile. Now 81 and still practicing medicine, he became an immortal on that cool May evening 56 years ago.

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