On a windy evening in Oxford on May 6th 1954, Roger Bannister, proved himself as the most publicized British sports icon of the age after the second world war. He did not an Olympic title, he established just one individual world record (which he lost after barely six weeks) and he walked away from the running track at the top of his game when he was only 25. However on 6 May 1954, on the Iffley Road cinder track that he had helped to construct as an undergraduate a few years earlier, he ran a mile in under four minutes, a time which many in the public, the media and many athletes, too had considered not humanly possible.
Yet Bannister’s record on May 6th,almost never took place. For after working in a hospital that morning, he nearly decided not to travel to the Iffley Road track in Oxford due to high winds. However a chance meeting with his coach, Franz Stampfl, convinced him to give it a try. Stampfl told him: “If you pass it up today you may never forgive yourself for the rest of your life.” It was only 30 minutes before the race was due to start at 6pm that Bannister decided he would compete. “My pacemakers Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway were getting a little impatient,” he told me in 2014.
“They were saying: ‘Make up your mind!’ But it was I who had to do it. I was very concerned about the weather but when the wind dropped it proved just possible.”
Bannister’s race was more extraordinary given his minimal training. He did not attend his gynaecology lectures, enabling him to run for 45 minutes at lunchtime, and did only 35 miles a week.
What is also ignored is Bannister had felt “stale” a month before breaking the record and so he elected an unusual plan: a three-day break to go hiking. It was, he admitted, “bordering on the lunatic”. It gave Bannister a chance to relax from training and gave him a welcome distraction from the time record. His main training session included 10 repetitions of 400m with short rest periods between each lap – his intent was to do each one in around 60 seconds.
“I heard the lap times as they went by,” he says. “The first was 58. The half-mile 1.58. But the three‑quarters was three minutes and one second so I knew I had to produce a last lap of under 59.
“I was also unsure whether I should start my finish immediately or wait another 150 yards and overtake Chataway in the back straight. I decided I would stay a bit longer and then went. There was plenty of adrenaline then, I can assure you!”
When he crossed the finish line he collapsed, almost unconscious. He described feeling like “an exploded flashbulb” but he had the record. And it changed him. As he put it: “I suddenly and gloriously felt free from the burden of athletic ambition I had been carrying for years.” His sub-four mark lasted six weeks before the Australian John Landy broke it by more than a second. But later in 1954, when the pair met at the Empire Games in Vancouver, Bannister was triumphant after an epic contest – later called, with complete justification, the Miracle Mile – coming from 15 yards down with a surprise sprint off the last bend.
“I felt it was a piece of unfinished business to be able to reproduce the performance of my sub-four-minute mile in a race,” Bannister said. “And I ran the final lap in the last race I had in England beforehand in 53 seconds to persuade Landy that his best chance was to run me off my feet.
“However at the half-mile he looked as though he was doing it. He was 15 yards ahead and I thought either he’s going to break a world record in 3min 56sec or he’s going to have to slow. But I managed to catch him by the bell – and then I just managed to choose the right moment to take him by surprise.”
For having won the Empire Games and European Championships in 1954 he relinquished his track shoes when he was just 25 – at his absolute prime – to focus on medicine. Bannister admitted in 2014: “If I were to start running today I could not combine training with being a medical student.
“Most top athletes will train two-three hours a day, whereas I would run half an hour – very hard – five days a week.”
But while this gentleman athletes is gone – his legacy will endure for ever, namely: 3:59.4.
BANNISTER 4-MIN MILE ON KRNN, 5/6: The mile distance had never been run in under four minutes until Roger Bannister did so on this date in 1954. You are invited to join us on the running track for the music tracks on Crosscurrents, 5/6 at 8 am.
ROGER BANNISTER QUOTES:
Just because they say it’s impossible doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.
It is the brain, not the heart or lungs, that is the critical organ.
Sport, like all of life, is about taking your chances.