If I could choose one physical accomplishment, without a doubt, I would run a sub-four-minute mile. Growing up in a running family, the four-minute mile was--and remains--the zenith of cool for me. I never got anywhere close to breaking four minutes, but I have witnessed a few at various track meets and get goosebumps each time.
To get a better idea of how fast one must run to break four minutes, consider this exercise: Go to your local track, run one straightaway of the track in under fifteen seconds. If you can accomplish that, then keep running, and repeat it fifteen more times without stopping. You will have circled the track four times in slightly under four minutes and accomplished a feat once thought impossible and achieved by no more than a few hundred runners in human history.
For the first half of the twentieth century, many physicians believed the human heart would burst before allowing a human to complete a sub-four-minute mile. Then came 1954. Australia’s John Landy came close to breaking 4:00 a couple of times early in the year and America’s Wes Santee declared that he assuredly would break 4:00. Roger Bannister, a twenty-five year-old Oxford medical student, grew increasingly nervous throughout the spring of 1954 that Landy or Santee would become the first to run under four minutes. The afternoon of May 6th, Bannister stepped onto the Iffley Road track in Oxford and achieved greatness. His time: 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. Forty-six days later, John Landy ran 3:58. Santee got close, but never broke 4:00. His fastest time came in early 1955 when he ran 4:00.5.
Neal Bascomb’s The Perfect Mile is an outstanding book that encapsulates the efforts of all three men as they strove to be the first. Bascomb’s account conveys the pressure each man felt as they reached for an individual result that captivated the collective.
Another extraordinary book about the race to break 4:00 is Roger Bannister’s The Four-Minute Mile. Written just weeks after Bannister ran his 3:59.4, The Four-Minute Mile provides a unique peak inside Bannister’s time at Oxford both as a student and as a rapidly developing miler.