Roger Bannister, First Sub-4-Minute Miler

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In 1954, at age 25, Roger Bannister ran the mile in 3:59.4 to become the first human to run a mile in less than four minutes. This time is very fast when you consider that he raced in track shoes that were heavy and stiff, with spikes that were heavier than the total weight of modern track shoes, and he ran on very slow cinder tracks instead of the super-fast artificial tracks of today. Because he was a full-time medical student who had a heavy academic schedule, he was able to train for only a single 30-minute workout each day. Other runners at that time were training twice a day for as many as three hours a day. Bannister averaged 28 miles per week, compared to more than 60 miles per week by most other runners at that time. The training method that allowed him to become the first man to run under four minutes for the mile is now used by most mile racers, and now more than 2000 runners have run sub-four-minute miles. On January 27, 2023, eight University of Washington runners ran under four minutes in the same race and on February 11, 2023, on the Boston University track, 52 runners ran sub-4-minute miles at the same track meet.

A New Training Method
Bannister was one of the favorites to win the 1952 Olympic 1500 meter race (mile equivalent), but he finished in a disappointing fourth place. The surprise winner was the relatively unknown Josey Barthel of Luxembourg, in 3:45.1, who put on an incredible sprint at the end. The first seven runners all broke the previous Olympic record. In that race, Bannister set the British record of 3:46.3 (the same pace as a 4:01.7 mile).

After his “failure” at the 1952 Olympics, Bannister set out to become the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes, a feat many people at that time believed to be impossible. He started a training program similar to that used by Josey Barthel, of running very fast intervals two days a week and slower recovery workouts on the other five days. In 1954, Barthel came to Harvard and convinced only one other runner, marathon runner Nick Costes, to base his training on short workouts of very fast intervals. They would run two quarter mile repeats each in 55 seconds, a half mile in under two minutes, and three quarter mile in 3:10 and then go home. Costes joined Barthel for interval workouts twice a week. Nick Costes was a previously-mediocre local runner who had never won major races or competed at a high level. I used to watch Costes killing himself to finish behind Barthel while running his intervals as fast as he could possibly run. The Harvard track team didn’t pay much attention to this new training method, and ran their intervals much slower. Costes surprised everyone by making the 1956 U.S. Olympic marathon team and finishing as the top American in the Olympic marathon. He also won the 1955 AAU marathon and finished third in the Boston Marathon. Meanwhile I trained with and ran slow intervals with Lou Castagnola who finished fourth in the 1967 Boston Marathon in 2:17:17.

Road to a World Record
Bannister was born in Harrow, England, into a working-class family. He liked to run everywhere instead of walking, and at ages 12, 13, and 14, he won his school’s cross-country runs without any formal training. At the age of 16, he decided to become a runner. He knew that his parents could not afford tuition at an elite university, so he studied very hard and won a scholarship to Oxford University.

When he first showed up at Oxford in 1946, he had never run on a track or worn spiked running shoes. His early training there was one workout a week and a seven-and-a-half-mile cross-country race. On this ridiculously meager training schedule, he ran a mile at age 18 in an exceptional 4:24.6. In 1948, he lowered his mile time to 4:17.2. At age 20, he ran 4:14:2. He was now using interval training under the watchful eyes of coach Franz Stampfl and he improved all the time. In 1950, he finished a relatively slow 4:13 mile with an impressive last quarter mile in 57.5 seconds. He came in third in the 800 meters (about a half mile) at the European Championships. In 1952, he ran a 4:10.6 mile and was selected for the British Olympic team.

In 1953, Bannister ran a 4:03:6 mile. On June 5, 1953, American Wes Santee ran 4:02.4 and that fall, Australian John Landy ran 4:02.0. Then on May 6, 1954, paced by future Commonwealth Games gold medalist Chris Chataway and future Olympic Games gold medalist Chris Brasher, Bannister became the first person to run a sub-4-minute mile with a time of 3:59.4. The race was broadcast live over BBC Radio and the commentator was 1924 Olympic 100-meters champion Harold Abrahams, of Chariots of Fire fame. As Bannister crossed the line, Abrahams yelled “Three . . .” and the rest of his words were drowned out by the cheering crowd. The record lasted for only 46 days, when Australian John Landy ran a 3:57.9 mile, but Bannister is the name that is remembered because he did it first.

The Mile of the Century
On August 7, 1954, at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, B.C., the only two men who had run sub-four-minute miles competed head-to-head. Landy led for most of the race, and at the start of third lap he led by 10 yards. At the last turn on the track, Landy turned his head to look over his left shoulder at Bannister as Bannister scooted by him on the right to win in 3:58.8. Landy’s time was 3:59.6. A larger-than-life bronze sculpture of the two men at this moment was created by Vancouver sculptor Jack Harman (with Landry looking to the left, and Bannister passing on the right).

Bannister quit racing to become a doctor before he could come anywhere near his spectacular genetic potential to be an Olympic champion. He went on to become one of the world’s leading neurologists and published more than 80 papers over more than 40 years of medical research. He continued to run and would take his four children for morning jogs in London’s Kensington Gardens, started an orienteering club, and was a regular sailor. At age 46, he had to stop running because of an ankle broken in a car accident. In 2012, he carried the Olympic flame at the Olympic celebration in the Oxford University track stadium named after him. As a neurologist, he treated many hundreds of patients with Parkinson’s disease. At age 81, he himself was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. At age 84 he was unable to walk and had to use a wheelchair, and at age 88, on March 3, 2018 he died from the many complications of the disease.

Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease is thought to be caused by a protein, called alpha-synuclein, that destroys the nerves throughout the body, particularly those in the brain that produce dopamine, a chemical that controls movement and posture (Trends in Neuroscience, Jan 2017;40(1):4-14). The disease often starts in the gastrointestinal tract, is progressive and has no known cure. A cure may be possible if a drug to destroy alpha-synuclein stops progression of the disease. Today, the common medical treatments include:
• Drugs: dopamine and dopamine-stimulating drugs to help control muscle function.
• Deep brain stimulation: surgeons implant into the brain electrodes connected to a generator in the chest that sends electrical pulses to the brain to help patients control their muscles so they shake less and have more purposeful muscle movement. This procedure has side effects such as clots and strokes, and does not slow progression of symptoms, so it is only offered to people with advanced Parkinson’s disease.
• Diet: A major complication associated with Parkinson’s disease is constipation, so all patients with this disease should restrict refined carbohydrates such as foods made from flour and sugar-added foods. They should drink lots of fluids and eat a diet loaded with fiber (fruits, vegetables, whole unground grains, beans, seeds and nuts).
• Exercise: Studies show that a regular exercise program can help people afflicted with Parkinson’s disease control their muscles (Neurology, July 19, 2011;77(3):288-94). In one study, after a half-hour ride on the back of a tandem bicycle, people who were unable to write because their hands shook, were able to write clearly for several hours. Psychological and physical improvement have been reported after activities such as walking, swimming, gardening, dancing or water aerobics.

Other famous people affected by Parkinson’s disease include Muhammad Ali, Salvador Dalí, Michael J. Fox, Reverend Billy Graham, Jean Shepard, Pope John Paul II, Robin Williams, Vincent Price, Erich Segal, Linda Ronstadt, Maurice White, John Walker and Mao Zedong

Sir Roger Gilbert Bannister
March 23, 1929 – March 3, 2018