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Bannister, 85, Reflects 60 Years After Breaking the 4-Minute Mile



Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile on May 6, 1954. “It just didn’t seem to be capable of being broken,” he said. CreditAssociated Press

OXFORD, England — Roger Bannister is busy reliving the four minutes that endure as a transcendent moment in sports history.

On a wet, blustery spring day, May 6, 1954, Bannister, then 25 and a lanky English medical student, became the first runner to break the four-minute barrier in the mile, a feat that many had thought was impossible.

Paced by two other runners, Bannister completed four laps around a cinder track here in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds, a milestone that captured the world’s fascination and still resonates.

“It was a target,” Bannister, now 85, said at his Oxford home, a short distance from the Iffley Road track where he made history. “University athletes had been trying for years, and it just didn’t seem to be capable of being broken. There was this magic about four symmetrical laps of one minute each.

“It was just something which caught the public’s imagination. I think it still remains something that is of interest and intrigue.”

Bannister’s record lasted only 46 days, and he considers his victory over his Australian rival John Landy a few months later as his greatest running exploit.

Yet, as the 60th anniversary attests, Bannister’s 3:59.4 remains part of track and field lore, a symbol of boundary-breaking endurance that stands the test of time.

It is only a slice of Bannister’s life story. He retired from running at the end of 1954 and pursued a long career in neurology that he considers more significant than anything he accomplished on the track.

“Medicine, without a doubt,” Bannister said when asked about his proudest achievement. “I wouldn’t claim to have made any great discoveries, but at any rate I satisfactorily inched forward in our knowledge of a particular aspect of medicine. I’m far more content with that than I am about any of the running I did earlier.”

Knighted in 1975, Bannister is slowing down as the years pass. He is coping with the effects of Parkinson’s disease, a neurological ailment that falls under his medical specialty.

“I know quite a bit about it, which is both helpful and unhelpful,” Bannister said, sitting in his living room lined with photos and mementos of his running and medical career. “But I’m 85 and something has to happen.”

Bannister’s right ankle was shattered in a car accident in 1975, and he has been unable to run since then. Now, he walks with crutches inside his home and uses a wheelchair outdoors.

Hundreds of athletes have run the mile in less than four minutes since Bannister did it, and the world record has been broken 18 times since then. The current mark of 3:43.13 was set by Morocco’s Hicham el-Guerrouj in 1999.

The next barrier in the sport? Bannister believes the two-hour mark in the marathon will be broken in the next few years. The fastest time is 2:03.23, by Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang in Berlin in 2013.

“It involves a 2 percent improvement,” Bannister said. “It has to be run on a day with the right temperature and on a course which isn’t too hilly, preferably a course which is a single line with the wind at your back all the way. It’ll be done.”

Bannister and his wife of 58 years, Moyra, will mark Tuesday’s anniversary at Oxford University with family and friends: a lunch at Exeter College, where Bannister enrolled in 1946, and a ceremony at Vincent’s Club, an elite 150-year-old sports club.

Missing will be Bannister’s pace runners, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway. Brasher, who founded the London Marathon, died in 2003 at 74. Chataway died last January at 82.

“I miss them very much,” Bannister said. “We used to meet on the anniversary on May 6 with our wives, and sometimes with children, and have a kind of party and reflect.”

Bannister has published an autobiography, “Twin Tracks.” The book, which grew out of letters to his 14 grandchildren, traces his family’s origins in Lancashire in northwest England, his growing up in the London borough of Harrow, and his athletic, medical and academic life.

Bannister went to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics in Finland as a favorite in the 1,500 meters — the shorter metric mile run in the Olympics — but struggled with the addition of an extra day of heats and finished fourth.

Retirement plans were put aside, and Bannister decided to run for two more years and chase the four-minute mile. The Swedish runner Gunder Hagg’s record of 4:01.4 had stood since 1945. Landy and Wes Santee of the United States had each run 4:02 and were competing with Bannister to be the first under 4:00.

Bannister recalled: “At one point, Landy said: ‘It’s like a brick wall. I’m not going to attempt it again.’ I, as a medical student, knew there wasn’t a brick wall. If you could run it in 4 minutes and 2.2 seconds, then you would find somebody else somewhere who trained a little better, had better conditions on the day, was able to use the pace judgment better, and they could do it. That was the frame of mind in which I approached it.”