Sports

Sixty years ago, a Brit astounded the world by sprinting a mile in under four minutes

RTRWDZR.jpg

Sir Roger Bannister walks over the same finish line at the Iffley Road running track in Oxford that he crossed sixty years ago when he was the first man to run the sub-four-minute mile. Sir Roger was a 25-year-old Oxford University medical student when he recorded a time of 3 mins 59.4 secs for the mile on May 6, 1954.

Credit:

REUTERS/David Bebber

You ever run from a bully? Sir Roger Bannister did, as a boy in England.

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

"I had a particular fear of being trapped in a camp by bullies," he told the BBC. "And so I was quite fleet of foot."

I'll say. Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier in 1954. He just barely did it, clocking in a time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. His record only lasted a little more than a month. But that doesn't matter — it's not the second guy who walks on the moon that we remember.

May 6th, 2014 marks 60 years since Bannister's famous run and there's a new documentary about it, Bannister: Everest on the Track.

David Epstein is one of the experts in the film and wrote the "Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance." I wanted to know why Bannister's record still captures our imagination. 

Epstein says it has to do with everyone running the mile in gym class. We understand the distance. Most of us can run it in about eight minutes. So he thinks we're able to understand and be wowed by someone running twice as fast.

Four-minute miles are equivalent to running at 15 miles per hour, or 24 kilometers per hour. "Most people have gone 15 mph in a car and they can think of someone running alongside it," says Epstein. "It's this barrier that is obviously reachable, but still sort of magical for most normal people and it was once thought to be impossible."

It connects with our imagination. But Epstein says it's something more. He says the race, four laps around a track, unfolds as a four-act play.

The first lap is an initial burst. The second act settles into a pace. The third lap people start to position and strategize. And the fourth lap is all-out chaos that leaves people strewn about the track. "There's a natural drama to it," he says.

Epstein says many of the same attributes that allowed Bannister to break the 4-minute-mile mark are the same ones needed to do it today. But it's not a 10,000-hour type endeavor.

First, you need talent — a specific talent for endurance sports. You need to be able to profit from aerobic training. You need to develop a strong cardiovascular system. You need sprinting speed that allows you to run the last lap at the fastest, or second fastest time. And you need pain tolerance.

"Sir Roger Bannister, when he broke the barrier, he described his feeling of fatigue. He said he felt like he was an exploded light bulb," Epstein says.

No one runs that fast comfortably, Epstein adds.

The documentary shows how Bannister's triumph helped repair the psyche of post-war Britain. Epstein says it was something more than just running a mile. It was pushing the barrier of what the human body was capable of doing. Before Bannister broke the record, few thought it was possible. "Once he did, the flood gates opened," says Epstein.

Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj now owns the mile record at 3 minutes, 43.13 seconds. He set that record in 1999. And Epstein doesn't see anyone running it faster anytime soon.

Many of the recent records are due to changes in track surface technology and training techniques. He says we are not making big jumps anymore. And, based on current physiology, it's impossible for someone to run a mile in under 3 minutes.

But he still wonders, "Are we going any lower?"