Track & Field

The Greatest Milers of all time; No.5: Roger Bannister, the man who re-defined limits

“The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.”

-Roger Bannister

For his ability to break a barrier thought for so long to be unbreakable, for his ability to transcend the sport and re-write what was thought capable by the human body, and for running the race which has become one of the most iconic achievements in all of sporting history, Roger Bannister is the first entry in our upcoming series: the greatest milers of all time.

Unlike all of the other great milers in our list, Bannister was a late starter in athletics, beginning his running career at Oxford at the age of 17, where he attended medical school and trained sparingly due to time constraints. In 1947, he ran a mile in 4:24.6, training just three times a week. Selected as a possible Olympic athlete in 1948, Bannister turned it down, saying he didn’t feel ready to compete at that level. The following year, he won several mile races in 4:11 and the year after that, brought his personal best down to 4:09. In 1951, Bannister made a big breakthrough when smashing the field at the Penn Relays, winning in 4:08.3 with a 56.7 final lap.

In 1952, Bannister was one of the main contenders for the Olympic 1500m, but realised he was in trouble when it was announced there would be heats and semi-finals as he knew his training lacked the depth of conditioning that some of his rivals had. Bannister finished fourth in the final. That race may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise, though, as it forced the Briton to turn his attention to the four-minute mile, a feat long considered by athletic experts and physiology nerds to be impossible.

The hunt for sub-four

Roger Bannister receives an award at the IAAF Gala to mark the 50th anniversary of his four-minute mile in 2004. Image: PhotoRun

Roger Bannister receives an award at the IAAF Gala to mark the 50th anniversary of his four-minute mile in 2004. Image: PhotoRun

The race to the four-minute mile took place on different continents, with John Landy the main threat to Bannister in the chase. Landy ran 4:02 on three occasions in early 1954, and Bannister, aware that it was almost inevitable his Australian rival would get there soon, launched an all-out attack in the summer of 1954. His training was low on quantity due to time constraints, but high on quality.

“I trained for less than three-quarters of an hour, maybe five days a week,” he said. “I didn’t have time to do more. But it was all about quality, not quantity, so I didn’t waste time jogging, ever.”

It was May 6, 1954, with winds gusting at 25mph, when the limits of human achievement were re-written on a cinder track in Oxford.  With Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher put in as pacemakers, Bannister settled in and passed 400m in 58, 800m in 1:58 and took the bell at 3:01. With 300m to run, Bannister launched his finishing kick and drove with every ounce of his being for the line, collapsing in a heap afterwards in agony.

In the stadium, Norris McWhirter took to the microphone moments after Bannister finished and in an instant, the crowd grew silent as they listened for the crucial time.

“Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event nine, the one mile: first, number forty one, R. G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which—subject to ratification—will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire and World Record. The time was three…”

And then, to put it mildly, the crowd went absolutely bonkers. Watch Bannister’s record run below:

The race of the century

In 1954, Bannister squared off against his nemesis John Landy at the Empire Games. With a faster personal best at the time, Landy was considered the favourite, but Bannister proved he was not just a time trialler and unleashed his patented kick to destroy Landy in the closing 100m.

Bannister, of course, was much more than a miler. When he was given an award on the 50th anniversary of his four-minute mile, he was asked whether the race was the most important achievement of his life. Bannister quickly replied that it was his 40 years of work in neurology which had been more significant. Be that as it may, it is for his unforgettable feat over the mile that the world of sport will best remember Bannister, who is now 86 years old.

For an in-depth interview with the man himself, check out this ‘Sporting Heroes’ feature.



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Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy is a freelance journalist, a once-serious, now-retired athlete who writes for a number of international publications in the running industry. He previously worked for the Sunday Tribune, Irish Runner magazine and has written for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent, Irish Examiner and the Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Runner's World.
His banter levels are often poor, occasionally exceptional.

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