Running a mile in less than four minutes isn't uncommon for today's world-class track stars, but in the early 1950s, most track and field experts were positive it was humanly impossible to run a mile in less than four minutes.
Then, in 1954, not one, but two men separately broke the four-minute mile barrier. And a few months later, they would race against one another in Vancouver, British Columbia, in what was called by many, "The Mile of the Century."
Roger Bannister was the first known human to run a mile in less than four minutes. He did it at Oxford, England on May 6, 1954. Although many people believe he broke the four-minute mile during a track meet, that isn't so; it was a planned attempt at the record. During his quest for both the history and record books, two "rabbits," Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, carefully paced Bannister.
When asked to explain what it took to set such a record, Bannister answered,
"It's the ability to take more out of yourself than you've got to give."
Little did he know that he would soon have to do it again.
After Bannister ran a mile in 3:59.4 that day in May 1954, the experts were certain it would be a long time, if ever, before someone bested Bannister's time. They were wrong. Bannister was the fastest miler in the world for a scant 46 days.
In the track and field world, the secret was out that John Landy was also flirting with breaking the four-minute barrier. On June 22, 1954, Landy set a new mile record during a race in Turku, Finland. Where Bannister had squeezed under the four-minute barrier by merely six-tenths of a second, Landy pulverized it by two full seconds. He beat Bannister's time by one and four-tenths seconds - a huge amount in a sport where old records fall and new records set in times often separated by thousands of a second.
Ironically, Chris Chataway, one of Bannister's "rabbits," was Landy's competitor in the Turku race. Chataway nearly caught Landy on the last turn of the last lap of the race, but Landy heard him coming and, with a last bit of speed, managed to hold off Chataway's challenge. Thus, Chataway inadvertently made history of his own: participating in the first two record-setting sub-four-minute mile runs - and finishing second both times.
Bannister was in England when he got the news about Landy's record run: "I heard the announcement on the radio," he said. "For a few minutes, I was stunned." He had slowed his training schedule, but that quickly changed. He started training with new intensity since he and Landy would be racing one another in the Empire Games.
Even those who took little interest in track and field competition were suddenly excited about the one-mile race at the Empire Games. As Bannister later said, "There had never been a race like this." It was the first time two sub-four minute milers would compete head-to-head. Both men were in top condition, and each thought he could win.
There were eight runners in the "Mile of the Century," but there were really only two in the minds of spectators. By virtue of his record time in Turku,
Landy was the odd on favourite of the experts. Both runners were at the peak of their training, and fans anticipated either Landy or Bannister setting a new record. Few imagined both men would make history at the finish line.
When the starter's gun sounded, Landy initially ran second and Bannister was right behind him. Less than halfway through the first lap, however, Landy took the lead and Bannister ran in second place.
Bannister's pre-race strategy was simple: let Landy run in front and set the pace. Bannister thought that he could keep pace with Landy and then catch him near the end of the race. "I didn't underestimate John Landy," Bannister said later, "he was the greatest miler in the world. But if my mental approach was correct, I could beat him."
Bannister's strategy worked well with Landy's race plan, which was to run a fast pace, stay in front of Bannister and wear him down. Landy's first lap was 58.2 seconds, Bannister, on the other hand, was a full second slower.
By the time they were midway through the second lap, Landy and Bannister had separated themselves from the rest of the runners. It was strictly a two-man race, just as everyone expected it would be. What wasn't expected, at least by Bannister, was the pace Landy was setting. Bannister's pre-race strategy was to let him set the pace, but Landy's pace was quicker than Bannister could handle, and suddenly Bannister was 15 yards behind Landy.
Bannister later said that he nearly "lost contact" with Landy, at that point.
Bannister knew he had to make up those 45 feet during the next lap, or he had no chance of winning the race. He focused his attention and energy on closing the gap on Landy. "I quickened my stride and won back a yard, then each succeeding yard," Bannister said of that effort. "And how I wished I'd never let him establish such a lead."
As the two runners started the last lap, the fans were on their feet and the roar of the crowd was deafening. Bannister had finally caught the Australian, but it didn't last. On the back straight, Landy picked up the pace, and Bannister wondered not only how Landy could do that, but also if he was going to be able to catch Landy again.
As they pounded into the last turn, Bannister was a short distance behind
Landy. Then with an untapped reserve of energy, instinctive timing and a bit of luck, he slipped by Landy. The crowd was ecstatic.
Because of the crowd noise, ("The most enthusiastic crowd I'd ever see," said Bannister) Landy couldn't hear him coming. And just as Bannister made his surge to pass, Landy glanced over his left shoulder to see how close Bannister might be. "The very moment that he looked around, he was unprotected against me and so lost a valuable fraction of a second in his response to my challenge," Bannister recalled. "In two strides, I was past him."
That moment of doubt by Landy, and the incredibly fortunate timing of Bannister made it impossible for Landy to make up those lost strides in the 70 yards to the finish line. Bannister broke the tape at the finish line with a time of 3:58.8. Landy trailed him by a few yards and finished in 3:59.6.
Even though a new world's record for the mile wasn't set that day, track and field fans weren't disappointed. Two other new records were created. It was the first time in history that two runners finished a one-mile race in less than four minutes. It was also the second time each of them had officially broken the four-minute mile barrier. Landy was over a second off his record mark, but Bannister improved his previous best by nearly a second.
Most runners, who have set world records, especially when they are just 25 years old, continue to race and try to better their records. Not Bannister. At the end of 1954, he quit racing to pursue his medical studies. He ultimately became a neurologist, and director of the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in England. In 1975, he was knighted.
John Landy went on to a career in agricultural research and conservation. In 2001, he was appointed governor of the State of Victoria in Australia.
The "Mile of the Century" was an incredible event and an amazing accomplishment for both Bannister and Landy. Each had run the mile in less than four minutes - twice. It was even more incredible when, less than three months earlier, experts believed the four-minute mile was impossible.
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