Englishman Roger Bannister made history as the first to clock under four minutes in the mile run, turning in a 3:59.4 on May 6 of 1954 wearing
heavy leather shoes on a blustery, damp day At age 88, he passed away peacefully on Sunday
By Arnie Leshin
Roger Bannister’s passing away on Sunday certainly brought back memories, not for everyone, but reserved for those growing up in the 1950s.
I was running distances in high school. And I remember head coach Ed Rekovich looking down at my feet and telling me to get running shoes, except that back than you could get away with running in sneakers, any sneakers.
There was no Nike, no Puma, no New Balance, no adidas. You could choose your sneakers from Converse, US Keds, and whatever else was on the market in those days. But running shoes? So I checked with the rest of the team and they laughed as they looked down at their sneakers.
These were the years of the ‘unattainable’ 4-minute mile, and with our season winding down, this was not in my thoughts. It was talked about, but that was it, for these were the times of black and white television with just the basic channels, not much on the radio as you lost your patience trying to get a clear station, and newspapers that didn’t go searching for things like the 4-minute mile.
So when 25-year-old Englishman Roger Bannister ran a historic mile time of 3:59.4 on May 6 of 1954, the news was relayed across the Atlantic, but no one cared about his shoes, only the event itself.
Well, if coach Rekovich’s thoughts where about running shoes, he should have checked out what Bannister wore on that day at Iffly Field in Oxford, England. Not only that, but on this early afternoon, it was blustery and damp and windy, conditions that weren’t meant for running.
But after deciding at not running the race because of this, the medical student wore what he wore while training on limited scientific knowledge, leather shoes in which the spikes alone probably weighed more than the tissue-thin shoes today on tracks at which speedway riders would turn up their noses.
“He was wearing those while running on 28 training miles a week,” said fellow Englishman Sebastian Coe, who went on to set the world record in the mile three different times, “and we just didn’t have much of a choice when it came to running shoes.”
No matter, the tall and lanky Bannister with a long, forceful stride and a blond head that usually bobbed above his competitors in a race. He knew of the task of finally getting under four minutes, but never set his mind to it as he teamed with friends to run against Oxford University.
About 1,200 people showed up at Oxford’s unprepossessing Iffley Road track to watch, and a record is what they saw. It made the next day’s front pages of the London newspapers and two days later, the United States papers also placed it on their front pages.
Bannister had reached one of man’s hitherto unattainable goals. He had broken through a mystical barrier and creating a seminal moment in sports history.
Paced by friends Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher, and powered by an explosive kick, his signature, it was said he had no way of knowing his time, only the crowd yelling, as he crossed the finish line wearing No. 41 and looking like he had done something special.
And he did, his name became synonymous with the likes of Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones and Jesse Owens. Then, astonishingly, at least from the vantage point of the 21st century, and at the height of his athletic career, he retired from competitive running later that year to concentrate on medicine.
“I am working my usual shift at St. Mary’s Hospital,” he said, “but I’m getting into more advanced medical terms and shall not have sufficient time to put up a first-class performance.”
He added that running was fun, but that medicine was his profession.
I remember discussing his feat in my high school class. These were the days when not everyone knew what was happening around the globe, but I did enough studying to be able to relate this happening to my classmates.
I was a junior on the track team and still wearing my US Keds. But after what Bannister accomplished, I was running better and informed coach Rekovitch that my sneakers were just fine. Heck, I was running sub 5-minute miles and finished 8th in the borough of Queens championships.
At the Public School Athletic League city championships, I stopped once to tie my shoelaces, and took off to place 24th in a personal-best 4:47, and finish second for my school. The next season, I switched to Converse and improved even more with personal-best mile times at the borough and city championships.
And the way I studied Bannister’s run that day, I was able to learn more. I learned that he stood at the starting line and spoke of maybe a record run.
Brasher set the early pace, Bannister ran the first quarter mile in 57.5 seconds, and the first half mile in 1:58. Then Chataway took the lead, and after three quarters, the time was 3:00.7, and with 300 yards to go, Bannister passed him.
Later, Bannister said: “Those last few seconds seemed never-ending. The faint line of the finishing tape stood ahead as a haven of peace, after the struggle.”
He crossed the tape without slackening his speed, which was impressive and with him realizing that there was no one close to him, just kept racing and leapt at the tape, and then the arms of the world were waiting to receive him.
His record-setting feat would be surpassed many times. Runners in the next decade would be faster, stronger, better equipped, better trained, but their later success did not dim the significant of Bannister historic run.
He liked to point out that his wife, Morya Jacobsson, who he met on the day before the record race, never understood what the racing business was all about. For a time, he said, she thought I had run four miles in one minute.
He died peacefully in Oxford Sunday at the age of 88.