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The Legacy Of The Sub-Four-Minute Mile

  • By Sean McKeon
  • Published Mar. 27, 2009
  • Updated Jun. 9, 2009 at 1:58 PM UTC

It’s a feat that is almost as unlikely as it is impressive: running a mile in under four minutes. That’s 22 feet every second. On April 25 at 9 p.m. EST/8 p.m. CST, Hallmark Channel presents “Chasing a Dream,” the story of one young man who sets out to conquer this mythic benchmark not for personal glory, but to honor the memory of one who can no longer attempt the goal.

Nearly 55 years have passed since a great barrier in modern athletics was surmounted: the first sub-four-minute mile run by an Oxford University medical student named Roger Bannister (now “Sir” Roger Bannister since his knighting by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975).

It’s difficult to conceive just how emotional and gripping that Bannister’s moment turned out to be, having been surrounded by a towering fortress as psychological as it was physical. There were some who didn’t believe that human beings had the stamina to traverse a mile in under four minutes. But on May 6, 1954, the plucky amateur removed all doubt by recording a stunning time of 3:59.4, a feat that caused reverberations around the world.

That more than 17 seconds have been trimmed off of Bannister’s mile record in the intervening half-century doesn’t diminish its impact in the slightest. It remains an iconic moment in popular culture that has since been showcased in a pair of made-for-TV biopics: 1988’s “The Four Minute Mile” and ESPN’s “Four Minutes”in 1988.

A third telefilm arrives on April 25 at 9 p.m. EST/8 p.m. CST that doesn’t directly tell the tale of Bannister but pays significant homage to the ongoing fascination with the four-minute mile barrier. It’s a Hallmark Channel Original Movie entitled “Chasing a Dream,” and it stars Andrew Lawrence in the fictional story of a young man who takes on the sub-four-minute mile challenge as a way to honor the unfulfilled mission of his deceased best friend.

The movie, written by Bryce Zabel and Jackie Zabel, directed by David Burton Morris and also starring Treat Williams and Joanna Going, drives home the commitment, will and fortitude required to conquer The Big 4:00.

If the mile race itself has over the past few decades lost some of its allure in a world that fully embraces the metric system save for the United States, it still carries plenty of weight by simple virtue of its grand history. It’s also endlessly fascinating as perhaps the longest distance in track competition that is raced in something approaching a sprint at the world-class level.

The first recorded one-mile record given wide credence was the time of 4:28 by a professional racer named Charles Westhall in England in July 1852. The first American to hold the record was Thomas Conneff with his run of 4:17 4/5 in August 1893. Jules Ladoumegue of France finally took the mile standard below 4:10 in October 1831 with a 4:09.2.

By the time Bannister set out to bust four minutes, the record of 4:01.3 had been set nearly nine years before, by Gunder Hagg of Sweden in July 1945. He had already lowered his own personal time to 4:02 from the 4:30.8 he had logged for his first mile in March of ’47.

Bannister broke the record late in the afternoon on that fateful day, in a light rain and backed by a 15 mile-per-hour wind. He would recall later in his book, “The First Four Minutes” that – as he embarked on the final lap, “There was no pain, only a great utility of movement and aim. The world seemed to stand still or did not exist.  The only reality was the next two hundred yards of track under my feet.

Alas, Bannister’s mark would survive for a mere seven weeks before Australia’s John Landy turned in a scorching 3:57.9 mile on June 21 of ’54. The next sizeable leap downward in the mile record book was achieved by an American named Jim Ryun, who blazed to a 3:51.3 in July ’66 and, in June ’67, a 3:51.1.

The last of the mile barriers – at least for now – was the breaking of 3:50. And that finally came when New Zealander John Walker surged to a 3:49.4 in August 1975. The world mark would be lowered be another 2.5 seconds in the 1980s and finally to the current record of 3:43.13 achieved by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco in July 1999. It has now stood for nearly a full decade and is in no present danger of being eclipsed.

Meanwhile, the record for women in the mile has a far less protracted and storied history. It dates to 1921 and a time of 6:13.4 achieved by Elizabeth Atkinson of Great Britain. Interestingly, as Bannister was smashing four minutes in ’54, a fellow Brit named Diane Leather was breaking five minutes for the first time – and on nearly the same day: May 29, 1954.

No woman has yet broken four minutes for the mile. The current record stands at 4:12.56 by Svetlana Masterkova in August of ’96. The theory of why women can’t run as fast as men at the highest levels of competition are many and varied, from their abundance of fat in lieu of muscle mass to insufficient hip angles to lower heart and lung capacity. But the truth is no one really knows for sure.

Here is one thing that we do know: Four minutes remains ingrained on the imagination of track competitors and fans alike, a measure that transcends time itself. It’s a gauge of human performance that closely follows advances in equipment, athletic achievement and physical capacity, a litmus test for will and endurance.  And its apex in our psyche arrived in the joyful triumph of a fellow named Bannister.

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