For more than a decade the world record for the mile had remained stuck at 4:01. Many thought it unbreakable, and dozens of medical journals reported that it was physiologically impossible for the human body to break through the barrier. Sixty years ago, however, a British medical student proved them wrong.
Roger Bannister wavered like the notoriously fickle English weather with every hard gust that blew across Oxford’s Iffley Road track on the evening of May 6, 1954. From the moment he had left his London flat that morning, the 25-year-old medical student had obsessed about the wind. With one eye on the changing skies and the other on history, Bannister boarded a train to Oxford after completing his rounds at St. Mary’s Hospital. Showers and sun bathed the rattling train as it carried Britain’s top middle-distance runner to his first track meet of the season and a chance at redemption.
The lanky Bannister had been favored to win the 1,500-meter race at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. Although the amateur broke an Olympic record in the finals, so did the runners who captured gold, silver and bronze directly in front of him. Stung by the disappointment of his fourth-place finish, Bannister sought national atonement by doing something no man had ever done—running a mile in less than 4 minutes.
Bannister’s medical training restricted his track time to 45 minutes daily, but it gave him a knowledge of physiology that no other runner who flirted with breaking the 4-minute barrier had. By measuring his oxygen consumption, Bannister discovered that running consistent lap times required less oxygen than running variable times, so he focused on running steady quarter-mile splits. Through intense interval training of running 10 laps with 2-minute breaks in between, Bannister had dropped his average quarter-mile splits from 63 seconds to 59 seconds, sufficient to break the elusive barrier.
Bannister identified four essential requirements for running a sub-4-minute mile: “a good track, absence of wind, warm weather and even-paced running.” He knew he would be on solid footing on the Oxford track where he had raced many times as a university undergraduate, and he had two excellent pacesetters in training partners Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway. The wind and weather, however, were variables outside his control.
Bannister arrived at the track late in the afternoon. Although back at his alma mater, he donned the uniform of the Amateur Athletic Association, which would be competing against Oxford University in the meet. Bannister grew dismayed as he looked at the wind-whipped English flag stretched out horizontally from a nearby church steeple. If the wind remained steady, it would slow him down by 1 second per lap, meaning he would in actuality have to run a 3:56 mile. Bannister continually waffled as to whether he should even attempt to race until his impatient pacemakers demanded an answer a half-hour before their race. Bannister looked up and saw the English flag slacken. Sensing a lull, he told them, “Right, we’ll go for it.”
At 6 p.m. Bannister toed the starting line with his fellow racers. His running spikes, which he had personally sharpened on a grindstone in a hospital laboratory earlier in the day, dug into the cinder track. As the starter raised his gun, the 1,500 spectators bundled in overcoats and scarves shuttered their mouths in silence and focused their eyes on the 6-foot-2-inch Brit. Bannister took a quick glance at the flag, which still fluttered gently.
The gun fired. Brasher, however, was called for a false start. Fretting that the wind could revive at any moment, Bannister prepared to begin again. The second start was clean. Brasher sprinted to the lead. Bannister glided effortlessly behind into his slipstream and noticed that his legs “seemed to meet no resistance at all, as if propelled by some unknown force.” Everything appeared to move in slow motion, including Brasher. “Faster!” Bannister commanded his pacemaker, who ignored the order and kept his steady gait as they completed the first lap of the quarter-mile oval in 57.5 seconds and reached the halfway point in 1:58.
Chataway now took to the lead, but the pace slowed. Bannister completed the third lap in 3:00.7 and needed to post a 59-second final lap to make history. With 300 yards to go, Bannister began his kick. “Impelled by a combination of fear and pride,” he breathed in the encouragement of the crowd. The soles of his running shoes kicked up the track’s ashes in their wake. As he approached the tape at the finishing line, it appeared to recede with every step he took. After several interminable seconds, he lunged at the thin wire and felt the pain explode inside his body. Bannister was confident he had broken the record, but only the stopwatches held the truth.
The track announcer added to the suspense with his long-winded declaration: “Result of event eight: one mile. First, R.G. Bannister of Exeter and Merton colleges, in a time which, subject to ratification, is a new track record, British record, European record, Commonwealth record and world record—Three minutes and …” The tidal wave of cheers drowned out the rest of Bannister’s boundary-busting time of 3:59.4.
By sixth-tenths of a second, Bannister had earned redemption, recalibrated expectations of what the human body is capable of achieving and delivered a patriotic salve for a country still recovering from the wounds of World War II. Bannister’s record would last just 46 days until Australian John Landy broke it in 3:57.9. Within months, Bannister retired from the track to pursue his true dream—becoming a neurologist. After receiving his medical degree, Bannister became director of two London hospitals and the creator of a doping test to detect anabolic steroids.
Queen Elizabeth II knighted Bannister in 1975, the same year in which injuries from an automobile accident left him unable to run again. Earlier this week, the 85-year-old former neurologist revealed to BBC Radio that for the last three years he himself has been suffering from a neurological disorder—Parkinson’s disease. He lives a short walk from the Iffley Road track that is now named in his honor. Since Bannister’s historic run 60 years ago, only 1,300 men have broken the 4-minute barrier. The current world record for the mile, held by Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj since 1999, is 3:43.