Roger Bannister Breaks the 4-minute-mile Barrier

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On May 6, 1954, a British medical student named Roger Bannister ran a mile around a track in less than 4 minutes. It was one of the 20th Century's defining athletic achievements.

Runners had been running consistently faster as generations went by and athletes got more serious and focused and disciplined. The one-mile race was considered one of the marquee distances. The four-minute time was considered an untouchable barrier. It also became a target.

Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile in less than 4 minutes, was a talented runner who brought to his athletic pursuit a scientific approach honed in his medical student training.

Bannister had enjoyed running since he was a boy. He was also very fast. At school, he enjoyed success in cross country, winning the school meet three straight years, when he was 12–14. He kept running, even when attending Oxford University to study medicine.

The first hint that he had special talent came when in 1947, when he was running as the pacer for the Oxford team in a one-mile race against arch-rival Cambridge. He didn't stop running, though, as pacers are meant to do but kept running and won the race, by 20 yards. His time was 4:18.7. He soon was entering other races, in the U.K. and in other countries. In 1949, he won a couple of races in the U.S., finishing in 4:11. The following year, he ran a final-lap time of 57.5, suggesting that he could go under 4 minutes if he could hold that pace for four laps around a track. (The fact that the 57.5 came in the last lap, after he had already run three, was amazing to those who saw it and read about it afterward.)

In 1951, in the U.S. for the Penn Relays, Bannister won going away with a time 4:08.3. Again, his last lap was his fastest, a 56.7. After a fourth-place finish in the 1500 meters at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Bannister renewed his drive to break 4 minutes. He did this, of course, in between his studies. He was still in medical school, and each year was more demanding than the last. In late 1953 and early 1954, he was so busy at school that he found little time for running. Hearing that the Australian runner John Landy had announced his intention to break 4 minutes, Bannister redoubled his efforts.

Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier on May 6, 1954, on the Iffley Road track in Oxford. Bannister at the time was running for the Amateur Athletic Association, and it was a carefully choreographed assault, with pacemakers Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway leading the way. The weather wasn't ideal: A 15mph crosswind made things a bit difficult in the early going. But Bannister followed his two pacers around the track for all four laps, at a very high speed, and then took the lead himself with 200 yards to go. When he broke the tape, the clock read 3:59.4.

Bannister was instantly famous and will forever be known as the first man to break the 4-minute barrier. His race was called the "Miracle Mile." It was the lead story in Sports Illustrated. Landy and others soon broke 4 minutes as well, and the tile for the one-mile race has continued to be lowered in the years since.

Meanwhile, Bannister completed his medical training and became a neurologist, a profession he still holds. He wrote a book about his running, called The Four Minute Mile. He was knighted in 1975.

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