By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 1999
For years, the 4-minute mile was considered not merely unreachable but, according to physiologists of the time, dangerous to the health of any athlete who attempted to reach it.
For Roger Bannister, it was vindication.
When he crossed the finish line with a time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, he broke through a psychological barrier as well.
John Landy, considered one of the great milers of that era, never had gotten closer than within 1.5 seconds of the 4-minute barrier before. Within 46 days of Bannister's breakthrough, Landy surpassed the record with a 3:57.9 in Finland. Bannister and Landy raced later in the year in the "Mile of the Century" at Vancouver, a runoff to decide who was the faster miler. Bannister won in 3:58.8 to Landy's 3:59.6, the first time two men in one race had broken 4 minutes. By the end of 1957, 16 runners had logged sub-4-minute miles.
He is Sir Roger Bannister now, a neurosurgeon. On May6, 1954, he was a 6-foot-1, 25-year-old medical student at Oxford, running on the university's track at Iffley Road before a meager crowd of 1,000, most of them students.
And he was running with the 2-year-old memory of disappointment still burning within him.
He had expected -- and had been expected -- to win the 1,500 meters, the metric mile, at the 1952 Olympics. Even the Duke of Edinburgh had timed his visit to Helsinki in order to be there when the final was run.
But Bannister was jostled during the race, never got into contention and finished fourth. Only a remarkable performance down the road could erase the disappointment. He achieved it at Iffley.
In the weeks leading up to that attempt, Bannister approached the task scientifically, setting a fierce training schedule for himself with workouts conducted each day for one-half hour during his lunch break.
Among the goals achieved: seven straight half miles at an average 2:03; 10 straight quarter miles at an average 58.9; three-quarters of a mile in 2:59.8, and a half mile in 1:54.
The world record of 4:01.4, set in 1945 by Sweden's Gunder Haegg, didn't fall in an actual race. Bannister wasn't running against anyone, only against the clock, although he was chasing someone. He was paced by a pair of "rabbits," fellow Oxonian Chris Chataway and former Cambridge University steeplechaser Chris Brasher.
The run was all the more remarkable considering he was running, the New York Times said, in a 15 mph crosswind that gusted to 25 mph. Bannister stayed close to Brasher for the first two laps around the quarter-mile track, clocking 1:58.2. When Chataway rushed to the lead for the third lap, Bannister was on his heels. His three-quarter mile time was 3:00.5.
Bannister "bided his time until about 300 yards from the tape," the AP reported, "when he urged himself to a supreme effort. With a machine-like, seemingly effortless stride he drew away steadily from Chataway and, head thrown back slightly, he breasted the cool, stiff wind on the last turn to come driving down the homestretch to climax his spectacular performance."
He crossed the finish line and began sagging to the ground, drained of all his energy. "It was only then that real pain overtook me," he said. "I felt like an exploded flashlight with no will to live; I just went on existing in the most passive physical state without being unconscious."
The crowd that had urged him on fell silent. Two track officials held him up while spectators converged on him.
The time was announced. "Three ... " The rest was drowned out by the cheers. Bannister, his energy restored, ran to Brasher and Chataway and embraced them, then the trio trotted in a victory lap.