May 6, 1954: Roger Bannister runs a mile. He was born on March 23, 1929 in Harrow, England. Bannister was inspired by former runner Sydney Wooderson’s remarkable comeback in 1945. Wooderson’s record was broken during the war years and after the war, he came back and lost to the record breaker, but achieved a British record of 4.04.2 for the mile on September 9. Bannister began his running career at Oxford in 1946 at the age of 17. His training was light, even for the times, but in spite of it all, he managed to run a mile in 4.24.6 by 1947. He had been training three times a week for thirty minutes at a time. He was selected as a possible candidate for the 1948 Olympic team, but declined, feeling he wasn’t ready.
Although unready, he was inspired. He watched the 1948 Olympics avidly and set his training goals on the 1952 Olympics. His training methods increased and his times in mile runs as well as shorter distances decreased. His spring training was going well. He learned that he needed to compete in semifinals for the 1500 meter race (slightly less than a mile). In the semifinals, he came in fifth and so made the finals. The race was close with Josy Barthel taking the gold at 3.45.28. Bannister finished fourth but set a British record with a time of 3.46.30. Disappointed in the results, he set a new goal – to be the first person to run a sub-four-minute mile.
On this day, a meet between British AAA and Oxford University at Iffley Road Track in Oxford was held in front of about 3,000 spectators. Winds had been high with gusts up to 25 mph. Bannister was not going to run but shortly before the meet began, the winds stopped. Two friends, Chris Chataway (future Commonwealth Games gold medalist) and Chris Brasher (future Olympic gold medalist) were to provide pacing during the race. The race was broadcast live by BBC Radio. The one mile or 1,760 yards or 1,609.334 meters was run in 3.59.4 – the first time the barrier was broken. Today, it has become the standard for all male professional middle distance runners.
There are two other claims to the feat. One was James Parrott who may have managed the task in 1770 but the record was questioned much earlier and is not considered authentic by modern sporting bodies. Glenn Cunningham claimed to have beaten the time in a workout, but it was unsubstantiated and since it wasn’t in a meet, wouldn’t count as a record. Bannister’s record lasted only a short time. John Walker was the first to run the mile in under 3.50 and managed 135 sub-four-minute miles during his running career. Noureddine Morceli was the first to break 3.45 and Hicham El Guerrouj is the current record holder with a time of 3.43.13 for the mile he ran in Rome in 1999.
Doctors and scientists said that breaking the four-minute mile was impossible, that one would die in the attempt. Thus, when I got up from the track after collapsing at the finish line, I figured I was dead.
I couldn’t disappoint people. I did not want to fail and exhaust myself, because I was the kind of runner who trained so little that I couldn’t race again within another 10 days.
Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must move faster than the lion or it will not survive. Every morning a lion wakes up and it knows it must move faster than the slowest gazelle or it will starve. It doesn’t matter if you are the lion or the gazelle, when the sun comes up, you better be moving.
I found longer races boring. I found the mile just perfect. – all from Roger Bannister
Also on this day: “Oh, the humanity!” – In 1937 the Hindenburg burns while docking.
Chunnel – In 1994, the Channel Tunnel opened.
Francis Xavier – In 1542, Francis Xavier reached Old Goa.
Phoenix Park – In 1882, Lord Frederick Cavendish was murdered.
Rome is Sacked – In 1527, Rome was sacked.