Virtue & Mischief: He broke the 4-minute barrier


When I was a teenager, stretching into my young adulthood, I loved to run long distances. Once I found a certain rhythm of stride and of breathing, I felt as though I could run forever. I spent many hours galloping over the hills and dales of West Lafayette, Indiana between the ages of 14-22, and more hours doing the same in State College, Pennsylvania after that. I was never particularly fast, but I was steady and I loved it. Sadly, father time is undefeated and my body eventually cried “Uncle!” some years ago. Owing to those miles of pounding the pavement, and other miles running up and down basketball and tennis courts, I have developed a painful case of chronic calcaneal bursitis in my right heel region and I’m simply unable to run without a profound limp and the sensation of a hot knife stabbing the lower portion of my right Achilles tendon.

In any event, when I was first becoming enamored of running and the romantic notion of the “loneliness of the long distance runner,” I read everything I could about marathoners and milers. I was fascinated by the Finnish runners Paavo Nurmi (a marathoner) and Lasse Viren, who won both the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races in back-to-back Olympics (1972 and 1976). Miraculously, after winning the 5,000 meters in 1976 he ran the Marathon 18 hours later and finished 5th—a feat that has never been accomplished before and likely never will again. American Jim Ryun, the first prep school star to run a sub 4-minute mile, was a hero and I was devastated when he failed to win a gold medal in either the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games.

Alas, one man who popularized (ahem, relatively speaking) long distance running, and of whom I was dimly aware when I was a jogging teen, was the Briton Roger Bannister. Bannister died this weekend at the age of 88 years, with little fanfare but much admiration. A friend sent me the Associated Press’s article commemorating Bannister’s passing, and I learned a great deal in reading it. Perhaps the greatest takeaway was that Sir Roger was a gentleman whose life and achievements transcended—by leaps and bounds—what he did on the cinders of oval tracks across the globe.

First, what I knew: Roger Bannister was the first man to run a sub 4-minute mile. He did this in 1954, when such a feat was regarded by most experts of human endurance and potential as impossible as, say, landing on the moon. It was a wet, gray, and windy English day in May—I knew that, too. He was paced by two friends who ran the first portion of the “race” with him on Oxford’s Iffley Road Track, with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of spectators watching expectantly. In its story recounting Bannister’s exploits and life, the AP described the scene this way:

“Bannister churned around the cinder track four times. His long arms and legs pumping, his lungs gasping for air, he put on a furious kick over the final 300 yards and nearly collapsed as he crossed the finish line. The announcer read out the time: ‘3…’ The rest was drowned out by the roar of the crowd. The 3 was all that mattered.”

The “3” mattered because it signaled that Bannister had broken the 4 minute barrier. His record, to be precise, was 3:59.4, and it stood for only 46 days. That much I knew.

What I didn’t know: Roger Bannister, the inspiration to so many long distance runners who followed, didn’t start running seriously until he was 16 or 17 years old. He attended Oxford on an academic scholarship and impressed his coach fairly quickly, but was tabbed only as a “possible” for the 1948 British Olympic team. He decided to focus his efforts on preparing for the 1952 games in Helsinki, but by then was a full-time medical student and had to juggle his academic/career pursuits with his training—something unthinkable in today’s athletic environment. He finished a disappointing 4th in 1952, an outcome that shocked many but which also galvanized him to keep running. He later admitted that if he’d won the gold medal in 1952, he would have retired, thus leaving the sub 4 minute barrier to be shattered by someone else.

Some other things I didn’t know: the official time-keeper that blustery May day in Oxford was Harold Abrahams, the 100 Meter champion at the 1924 Olympics and one of the two central real life characters in the movie “Chariots of Fire.” Moreover, I wasn’t aware that more people have ascended Mount Everest than have run the mile in less than 4 minutes; that Bannister was featured as Sports Illustrated’s first ever “Sportsman of the Year”; that he enjoyed an illustrious and lengthy career as a neurologist (and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his medical work in 1975); that he developed the first test for anabolic steroids; that he lived all his adult years in a modest home just minutes away from the track which he himself help construct when he was an undergraduate and where he set the iconic world record; and—most importantly—that he was married for 62 years, fathered two sons and two daughters, and was a proud and doting grandfather to 14 grandchildren.

Rest in peace, Sir Roger. Yours was a life very well lived.

By Tim Swensen

Virtue & Mischief

Timothy Swensen is the author of the column series Virtue and Mischief. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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