Impossible Mile: The Roger Bannister Legacy

People said running a mile in under four minutes couldn’t be done. It was impossible. Some even feared that attempting such a feat could prove fatal.

A few men had come close over the years. In 1863, one man ran a downhill mile in 4:02. Though it didn’t count as a record, it was the closest official time to four minutes and remained so until 1944. That year and the following, two men ran the distance on a track in a little over 4 minutes and one second.

But neither could break the barrier. Then came Roger Bannister.

“In Oxford, I had been told, a man without a sport is like a ship without a sail…Of all sports, running seemed to me the only one for which I had any aptitude.” – Roger Bannister

Roger was a medical school student who also ran track. But, he was competitive and believed in the importance of pushing oneself. “The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win,” he would say.

His talent and hard work had already led to great results. Roger had been a champion runner for years, representing the British in the 1952 Olympics, in which he finished in fourth place in the 1,500-meter race. Like the two record holders, Roger had come close to the four-minute barrier but had not been able to break it. But Roger believed that running a sub-four-minute mile was possible, and after changing his workout regiment, set his sights on doing so.

The fateful day was May 6, 1954. For Roger, it began as usual with work in the hospital. Then, he made his way to the track. Despite unfavorable weather conditions, with rain and a significant wind blowing across the track, Roger embarked on his historic run, assisted by Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, two friends and fellow athletes who would serve as pacemakers.

As Chris B. led the first part of the race, Roger was concerned they were not running fast enough. “Faster!” he shouted, his body brimming with pent-up energy from rest and preparation. But Chris B. didn’t change the pace and Roger’s worries began to ease when the time of 57.5 seconds was shouted after the first quarter mile. They were ahead of pace. Chris C. took over midway, maintaining the pace and setting the stage for Roger to unleash his final sprint.

Roger crossed the finish line, his body giving in to the sheer exhaustion of his efforts. The announcer’s voice broke through the silence, confirming what seemed like a dream: 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. He had done it.

Roger wrote about the moment,

“I felt suddenly and gloriously free of the burden of athletic ambition that I had been carrying for years. No words could be invented for such supreme happiness, eclipsing all other feelings. I thought at that moment I could never again reach such a climax of single-mindedness. I felt bewildered and overpowered. I knew it would be some time before I caught up with myself.”

Just a couple of months later, two more athletes ran a sub-four-minute mile. As of June 2022, 1,755 have achieved the feat, with the current world record in the distance set at 3:43.13.

Roger’s running career ended when he retired at the end of 1954. He then dedicated himself to his work as a neurologist and raising a family. In 2018, he passed away at the age of 88.

Notes

Click here to read a story of another champion runner, Thomas Longboat.

The Impossible Mile: Roger Bannister’s Legacy Sources