Sir Roger Bannister was one of those human beings whose self-imposed training regimes began in childhood, except he would argue against ‘imposition’, as he has said in the past that for him it was easier to run than to walk. He won his school’s cross-country event three years in a row, aged twelve, thirteen and fourteen. Bannister went up to Oxford University as an undergraduate in 1946 and recalls training in Paddington Park, near to the hospital where he was training.
Bannister was a member of Oxford University’s Third Track team when, in a Mile event against Cambridge University, he was acting as pacemaker for members of the Oxford First team and completed the race instead of dropping out at an agreed point, winning in 4:30.8.
A year later, in June 1948, Bannister competed in two major events, the Kinniard Cup and the Amateur Athletic Association Race, recording Mile times of 4:18 and 4:17 respectively. He was also able to witness events at London’s 1948 Olympics and determined to be at the Helsinki version in 1952.
A year later, in the autumn and winter 1949-50, Bannister travelled abroad and entered Mile races in the USA, recording times of 4:11.9 and 4:11.1, in one event completing a final lap in 57.5 seconds.
1951 brought the Penn Relays, which Bannister won in a time of 4:08.3. At the time he was confident that he could reduce that to 4:05, but nobody accepted that it was possible for a human being to break four minutes.
He won the British Mile Championships in the same year and was eliminated in the semi-finals of the 1500m at the Helsinki Olympics the following year, described by Bannister as ‘A huge knock to my pride’ and ‘Shattering to my friends and family and to the Great British public’.
The focus of Bannister’s training post-Helsinki was on concentrated speed work with his friend Chris Chataway and in the summer of 1953, Bannister ran a Mile in 4:02, using Chris Brasher and Don Macmillan as pacemakers, not accepted as a British record at the time, as this type of ‘assistance’ wasn’t permitted.
Bannister spent the winter and spring of 1953-54 training hard on his medical pursuits and less so on his running. A rumour was doing the rounds of the running world that John Landy, the Australian middle-distance runner, would be attempting the four-minute mile before the summer. Landy had been eliminated in the same semi-final heat as Bannister in Helsinki and in December 1952 had run a Mile in 4:2.1.
Bannister decided to attempt the four-minute-mile record in his first race of 1954, on May 6th, at the Iffley Road track in Oxford, on the basis of his criteria, ‘a good track, absence of wind, warm weather and even-paced running’.
Bannister travelled by train from his job at Paddington in London, accompanied by rain and wind which he described as ‘fierce’. On the train, Bannister’s conversation with the man who also coached Chris Brasher, Franz Stampfl - ‘I could not have wished for a better companion’ - Bannister said later, regarding the poor weather and Bannister’s concerns about this, have gone down in legend, but it resulted in helping Bannister decide to run the race.
Bannister summarised the plan of the team with, ‘Our plan was for Chris Brasher to take Chris Chataway and me to ‘base camp’ at the half-mile, so that Chris C could then launch me into the attack itself on the last lap. This made both Chris B’s pace judgment and Chris C’s strength and speed over the three-quarter mile equally crucial for success.’
Bannister referred to the four-minute mile as ‘An Everest’, a barrier that seemed to defy all attempts to break it’.
The ‘gale force’ wind at Iffley Road convinced Bannister that he would need ‘To run the equivalent of a 3.56-minute mile in calm weather’, his chances, on arrival at the track as ‘Increasingly dismal’, he believed, given the position of the drapery on the flagpole of the nearby church.
The decision was taken to postpone the decision to run or not until five o’clock, given an improving forecast later.
Bannister, Brasher and Chataway returned to the track at 4.30pm. At 5.15pm there was gusty rain and with half an hour to go before the scheduled start, Bannister was continuing to keep his two partners waiting. He decided to run.
A false start provoked ‘anger’ in Bannister, who feared that the brief lull in the wind would end. having set off, Bannister described his legs ‘As if propelled by some unknown force’, yet believing that the three of them were ‘Going so slowly’. Brasher ignored Bannister’s shouts to increase the pace and from the sidelines coach Stampfl’s shouts of ‘Relax’ were audible to the three of them above the crowds. Bannister described himself as ‘Relaxing so much that my mind seemed almost detached from my body. There was no feeling of strain. I barely noticed the half-mile, passed in 1.58 minutes. At three-quarters of a mile my effort was still barely perceptible; the time was 3.07 minutes’.
He passed Chris Chataway with around three hundred yards to go, his mind ‘Taking over’, ‘Racing well ahead of my body’ and drawing him ‘Compellingly forward’ as time ‘Seemed to stand still’.
As he approached the finishing line Bannister described it as ‘Seeming almost to recede’, and leaping at it ‘Like a man taking his last desperate spring to save himself from a chasm that threatens to engulf him’.
The stopwatches, and the announcement by Norris McWhirter, confirmed that R. G. Bannister of Exeter and Merton Colleges, had completed the course in a time which, subject to ratification, ‘Is a new Track Record, British Native Record, British All-Comers Record, European Record, Commonwealth Record and World Record’ and confirmed later as 3:59.4.
Capture a piece of Roger Bannister's legacy with this iconic print from VintageSports.com
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