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Roger Bannister, first man to run mile in under four minutes, dies at 88

Roger Bannister, first man to run mile in under four minutes, dies at 88
Roger Bannister nears the tape at the end of his record-breaking mile run at Iffley Road, Oxford. (Norman Potter / Getty Images)

Roger Bannister, knight of the realm, distinguished neurologist and medical researcher, college president, noted author, sometime TV commentator and, oh yes, the first man to run the mile in less than four minutes, died Saturday in Oxford, England, his family said in a statement. He was 88.

Despite his many other accomplishments, the world has always remembered him for what he did more than 60 years ago on a cinder track in the early evening of what had been a blustery, rainy day in Oxford. On that May 6, 1954, Bannister, then a gangly 25-year-old runner noted for his strong finishing kick, ran a mile race in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.

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It was the athletic equivalent of landing on the moon.

The four-minute mile was one of those mystical sports goals, so desirable because it seemed so unreachable. Runners — and scientists — had argued strenuously for years about the possibility of such a feat. Could a human withstand the strain such exertion would put on a body? Would he be fit for any kind of life afterward? Would he even survive such an effort?

By the 1950s, though, it had begun to seem that the “barrier” was more mental than physical. Milers were getting tantalizingly close to the magic number and Bannister, disappointed after a poor showing in the shorter “metric mile,” the 1,500-meter run in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, knowing that, with graduation from medical school imminent, his competitive running days would soon be over, decided to go out with a bang.

“There was a real urgency to break the record in 1954,” Bannister told USA Today in 1994. “It was clear that [Australian] John Landy or [American] Wes Santee would break it soon if I didn't get there first.”

The record was 4:01.4 set by Sweden's Gunder Haegg in 1945 but Landy, Santee and Bannister all had been running about 4:02.

So Bannister, in his methodical, scientific way, plotted a course to sports history. His med school studies and hospital duties in London left him with limited training time — usually half an hour at lunchtime — but he figured he could increase his lung capacity with intense sprint workouts, then run the crucial race in 440-yard increments of a minute each, rather than as a single long event.

He also figured he would need help in setting a proper pace and enlisted two of his Olympian friends, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, to help him. They met weekends to train and work out a race strategy, sometimes under the guidance of Franz Stampfl, a freelance coach from Austria.

The race selected for the attempt was nothing special — the mile event in a dual track meet between Oxford University, where Bannister had spent his undergraduate years, and the British Amateur Athletic Assn., for which he then was running. And the conditions were hardly optimum. It was raining that day when Bannister arrived at the hospital for morning rounds, and the wind was blowing at 20 mph.

He completed his hospital duties, then caught a midday train for the short ride to Oxford. Stampfl happened to be on the same train and he and Bannister discussed the possibility of a 4-minute mile in such conditions. Stampfl encouraged the young runner to go for it.

“He made the point that, ‘If you don't take this opportunity, you may never forgive yourself,'” Bannister recalled in a 1999 Sports Illustrated story.

At that, though, Bannister chose to postpone his decision until 5 p.m., an hour before the start of the race. A shower ended just about that time and the wind slackened, Bannister noticing that a flag on a nearby church steeple was hanging limp. The attempt was on.

“It's amazing that one can be indecisive up to the point of decision,” Bannister told The Times in 1994. “When I noticed that the wind had settled the flag, I talked to myself and realized that I must do it.”

The plan was for Brasher to set the pace for the first 2½ laps over the quarter-mile track, ideally running the half-mile in less than two minutes, then for Chataway to take the lead on the third lap and hit the three-quarter mark at about three minutes, then for Bannister to move into the lead with three-quarters of a lap to go and count on his strong finishing kick.

A false start, which almost never happens in distance races, irked Bannister.

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“I felt angry, that precious moments during the lull in the wind might be slipping by,” he wrote in his book, “The Four Minute Mile.”

After the restart, though, the six-runner race unfolded as planned. Brasher took the lead, Bannister tucking in behind him, and finished the first lap in 57.5 seconds.

“ ... I was so full of running and so impatient that I couldn't believe [Brasher] was going fast enough,” Bannister later recalled. “So we went around the first bend and somewhere down the back, I began yelling to him, ‘Faster! Faster!' and luckily he kept his cool for he knew what a first lap should be.”

Brasher maintained the pace, finishing the second lap in 1:58 flat, and the crowd of about 1,000 began to stir.

Chataway passed both Bannister and Brasher on the third lap.

“I now was trying to run right behind Chataway, as I did with Brasher,” Bannister said. “I was running with the maximum smoothness and economy and at any time I could go by Chataway. But I must stay with the plan.”

Chataway reached the three-quarter mark in 3:00.5, Bannister right behind him, and the crowd began to sense that this might be a special race on a special day.

“I knew then that everything had gone as planned,” Bannister said. “I followed [Chataway] around, gradually getting impatient to overtake him, but I realized to overtake him on a bend would mean I would have to run an extra three or four yards by running wide and I would never forgive myself if I lost the four-minute mile by a yard or so.

“So I kept behind him, then leaped past him at the beginning of the back straight, for I had to run almost 300 yards on my own. I was wondering as my legs got tired if they would give my brain a false message and I might think I was running faster when, in fact, I was running slower. As I got around the bend, for the first time I was feeling fatigue and concern.

“And then there's a moment when time seems to slow up and the finishing line, instead of getting nearer ... it almost seems to recede. I was very, very tired, indeed, and I more or less flung myself at the tape. And then, feeling faint, I really had no knowledge for a few seconds as to what was happening.”

The crowd knew, though, and drowned out the public-address announcement when it got to “ ... in the time of 3 minutes ... ”

In an era of handheld stopwatches, all four official timers caught Bannister in 3:59.4 — after he'd run the last leg in 58.7 seconds. When surveyors were called in an hour later to certify the length of the track, they concluded that four laps around came to a mile and one-half inch.

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And, as many had been saying, once the barrier was broken, the floodgates would open. Six weeks later, in Turku, Finland, home of the famous 1920s runner Paavo Nurmi, Landy ran a 3:57.9 mile. Then six weeks after that, in the Commonwealth Games at Vancouver, Canada, Bannister, in his last race, overhauled Landy on the last lap of “The Mile of the Century,” and won, both runners breaking the four-minute mark.

The four-minute mile is commonplace today, as Bannister himself often predicted it would be, but he was wrong about one thing. In his predictions, he frequently said that by 2000, milers would be clocking 3:30. No one has yet come close to that, Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco having set the record of 3:43.13 in 1999.

There was little about Bannister in his early life to indicate that he would one day occupy a unique niche in sports history. Born Roger Gilbert Bannister on March 23, 1929, in Harrow, England, he later moved with his family to Bath, where, as a youngster, his customary mode of transportation was running.

Even so, in his early years at Oxford, he was relegated to the third squad on the track team — sort of a junior junior varsity — and was barely breaking five minutes in the mile. He finally broke through when, in a race where he was assigned to set the pace, instead of falling off after half a mile, he kept on running and won, beating the elite runners.

By 1952, he was running for the British national team and was seen as one of the empire's budding stars. His fourth-place finish in the 1,500 at Helsinki, however, drew scathing criticism in the English press — he ran out of steam in the final after having run a qualifying heat the day before — and as much as he loved running, he was more excited about becoming a doctor.

“I had always wanted to become a neurologist, which is one of the most demanding vocations in medicine,” he said of the specialty involving the nervous system and its relationship to the brain. “Where do you stop, after all, with the brain? How does it function? What are its limits? The work seems unending.”

And the first sub-four-minute mile?

“I was a person in the right place at the right time,” he said. “It was a stroke of luck whether it was Santee [who never did break four minutes], Landy or me who got there first.”

Bannister's career in neurology was exceptional. He wrote and edited textbooks that became standard in the field, and his research was recognized worldwide. He also wrote many newspaper articles, on running as well as medical subjects, and served as a commentator on major televised races. He was chairman of England's national Sports Council in the 1970s and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975. Late in his career, he was appointed president of Pembroke College, which he had attended in his early years at Oxford.

Bannister is survived by his wife Moyra, four grown children and grandchildren.

2:15 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 5:15 a.m.

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