May 062014

Bannister Record

On this date in 1954 Roger Bannister became the first person to run the mile in under four minutes. The four minute mile had been an elusive goal for many years. It’s one of those feats in track running that is compelling because it is so nice and round. In the pre-metric days of running in Britain, a standard outdoor track was 440 yards around (¼ of a mile). So four times around was one mile, meaning that to run a four minute mile, you must complete each lap in one minute, or average running at 15 mph. Let me put that in perspective. The vast majority of people cannot attain a top speed of running at 15 mph even for a short burst. A few people can run one lap in a minute or less. When I was a young runner in England in the late 1960’s (around 18 years old), my personal best for the 440 yards was 56.4 seconds, and that was sufficient for me to be selected to run at the county level. Bannister ran his last lap of the mile in 1954 slightly slower than that, but he had run three laps already!

Bannister was born in Harrow near London. He went to Vaughan Primary school in Harrow before going on to be educated at City of Bath Boys’ School, University College School, London, followed by medical training at Oxford University (Exeter College and Merton College), and at St Mary’s Hospital in London. Medical work in Bannister’s day was a 7 year program – 4 years of undergraduate science (anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, etc.), followed by 3 years of clinical training, leading to a bachelor’s degree in medicine (M.B.). The title “doctor” was, therefore, a courtesy because medical doctors did not hold doctorates. (Conforming to the usual British eccentricity, those doctors who were specialists and held doctorates in medicine used the title “Mr”). I think it is absolutely vital to understand in this context that Bannister was a true amateur. He trained as a world class runner whilst maintaining a full course load as a medical student. That is the Oxford tradition. I’ll spare you my long rant on what we called then “shamateurs.”

Bannister started his running career at Oxford in the autumn of 1946 at the age of 17. He had never worn running spikes previously or run on a track. His training was light, even compared to the standards of the day, but he showed promise in running a mile in 1947 in 4:24.6 on only three weekly half-hour training sessions. He was selected as an Olympic “possible” in 1948 but declined as he felt he was not ready to compete at that level. However, he was further inspired to become a great miler by watching the 1948 Olympics. He set his training goals on the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.

In 1949, he improved in the 880 yards (½ mile) to 1:52.7 and won several mile races in 4:11. Then, after a period of six weeks with no training, he came in third at White City in 4:14.2. He improved steadily in 1950. His mile on 1 July was a relatively slow 4:13, but he ran the last lap in an impressive 57.5. Then, he ran the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) 880 in 1:52.1, losing to Arthur Wint, and then ran 1:50.7 for the 800 m at the European Championships on 26 August, placing third. Chastened by this lack of success, Bannister started to train harder and more seriously. His increased attention to training paid quick dividends, as he won a mile race in 4:09.9 on 30 December.

In 1951 at the Penn Relays, Bannister broke away from the pack with a 56.7 final lap, finishing in 4:08.3. Then, in his biggest test to date, he won a mile race on 14 July in 4:07.8 at the AAA Championships at White City before 47,000 people. The time set a meeting record and he defeated defending champion Bill Nankeville in the process. Bannister suffered defeat, however, when Yugoslavia’s Andrija Otenhajmer, aware of Bannister’s final-lap kick, led a 1500 m race in Belgrade 25 August at near-record pace, forcing Bannister to close the gap by the final lap and leaving him without power for a final kick. Otenhajmer won in 3:47.0, though Bannister set a personal best finishing second in 3:48.4.

Bannister avoided racing after the 1951 season until late in the spring of 1952, saving his energy for Helsinki and the Olympics. He ran an 880 on 28 May in 1:53.00, then a 4:10.6 mile time-trial on 7 June, proclaiming himself satisfied with the results. At the AAA championships, he skipped the mile and won the 880 in 1:51.5. Then, 10 days before the Olympic final, he ran a ¾ mile time trial in 2:52.9, which gave him confidence that he was ready for the Olympics, considering the time to be the equivalent of a four-minute mile.

His confidence soon dissipated as it was announced there would be semifinals for the 1500 m (equal to 0.932 miles) at the Olympics, and he knew that this favored runners who had much deeper training regimens than he did. When he ran his semifinal, Bannister finished fifth and thereby qualified for the final, but he felt “blown and unhappy.” The 1500 m final on 26 July would prove to be one of the more dramatic in Olympic history. The race was not decided until the final meters, Josy Barthel of Luxembourg prevailing in an Olympic-record 3:45.28 (3:45.1 by official hand-timing) with the next seven runners all under the old record. Bannister finished fourth, out of the medals, but set a British record of 3:46.30.

After his relative failure at the 1952 Olympics, Bannister spent two months deciding whether to give up running. He set himself on a new goal: to be the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. Accordingly, he intensified his training and did hard intervals. On 2 May 1953, he made an attempt on the British record at Oxford. Paced by Chris Chataway, Bannister ran 4:03.6, shattering the record which had stood since 1945. Afterwards Bannister said, “this race made me realize that the four-minute mile was not out of reach.”

The historic event took place on 6 May 1954 during a meeting between a British AAA team and Oxford University at Iffley Road Track in Oxford. It was watched by about 3,000 spectators. With winds up to 25 miles per hour (40 km/h) prior to the event, Bannister had said twice that he favored not running, to conserve his energy and efforts to break the 4-minute barrier; he would try again at another meeting. However, the winds dropped just before the race was scheduled to begin, and Bannister did run. Bannister’s pace-setters were future Commonwealth Games gold medalist Chris Chataway and future Olympic Games gold medalist Chris Brasher. The race was broadcast live by BBC Radio and commented on by 1924 Olympic 100 meters champion Harold Abrahams, of Chariots of Fire fame.

Bannister had begun his day at a hospital in London, where he sharpened his racing spikes and rubbed graphite on them so they would not pick up too much cinder ash. He took a mid-morning train from Paddington Station to Oxford, nervous about the rainy, windy conditions that afternoon. Being a dual-meeting format, there were 7 men entered in the Mile: Alan Gordon, George Dole and Nigel Miller from Oxford University and four British AAA runners – Bannister, his two pacemakers Brasher and Chataway and Tom Hulatt. Nigel Miller arrived as a spectator and he only realized that he was due to run when he read the programme. Efforts to borrow a running kit failed and he could not take part, thus reducing the field to 6.

The race went off as scheduled at 6 pm, and Brasher and Bannister went immediately to the lead. Brasher, wearing #44, led both the first lap in 58 seconds and the half-mile in 1:58, with Bannister (#41) tucked in behind, and Chataway (#42) a stride behind Bannister. Chataway moved to the front after the second lap and maintained the pace with a 3:01 split at the bell. Chataway continued to lead around the front turn until Bannister began his finishing kick with about 275 yards to go (just over a half-lap), running the last lap in just under 59 seconds.

The stadium announcer for the race was Norris McWhirter, who went on to co-publish and co-edit the Guinness Book of Records with his twin brother, Ross. He excited the crowd by delaying the actual announcement of the time Bannister ran as long as possible with a wordy preamble:

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 . . .

The roar of the crowd drowned out the rest of the announcement. Bannister’s time was 3 min 59.4 sec.

Here is a clip of the BBC recording of the event:

Bannister finished out the 1954 season and then retired from athletics to concentrate on his work as a junior doctor and to pursue a career in neurology. Although it is less well known, Bannister was a world renowned neurologist, and the knighthood he received in 1975 was as much for his efforts in this arena as for the four minute mile. When he retired as a neurologist he was elected master of my old Oxford college, Pembroke (which was always strong in medicine), and I had the good fortune to meet him at a celebratory dinner held for him by old members of the college in 1985 in New York City. He impressed me greatly with his humility. At the time he was still recovering from a car accident that had left him with difficulty in walking. I asked him how he felt about being lame given that he was one of the most famous runners in the world, and he replied, “I am just grateful to be alive.” When Bannister was elected master of Pembroke the humorists of the Junior Common Room (undergraduates) had it noted in their official meeting records that they objected to Bannister’s election, and would have preferred Geoffrey Boycott (famous cricketer) on the grounds that “it had taken Boycott a lifetime to earn a knighthood, whereas Bannister earned his in a little less than four minutes.”


Bannister’s training methods, inspired by his medical training, were innovative for his day, but very light by modern standards. Furthermore, he does not appear to have paid much attention to nutrition. In those days the classic athlete’s diet was rich in proteins and low in carbohydrates. Nowadays nutrition is a critical factor in overall training. Middle and long distance runners emphasize complex carbohydrates because they maximize stores of glycogen which are the source of fuel for training and competing. Standard ratios are 40% carbohydrates, 30% fat, and 30% proteins, but many go as high as 60% carbohydrates with 20% protein and 20% fat.

Kenyan distance runners, who are world renowned, use ugali as their carbohydrate staple. Ugali is simply white cornmeal cooked in boiling water to form a dough roughly the consistency of thick mashed potatoes. Here is a video on how to cook it.

You eat ugali with either a meat stew or steamed greens, using the first two fingers of your right hand to scoop up a wad which you then dip in the stew or vegetables. Ugali is rather bland by itself and is a bit of an acquired taste for Westerners. I don’t find it particularly palatable plain, but it works well for me with a nice, spicy Kenyan stew.