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Ultimate milestone

50 years later, Bannister's 3:59.4 is time-honored

More than 2,000 men have run a mile in less than four minutes. Today is the proper time to honor the man who did it first.

On May 6, 1954, a 25-year-old medical student, committed runner, and full-time English gentleman named Roger Bannister ran a mile at Oxford University's Iffley Road Track in the time of 3:59.4. A very strong argument can be made that this was the most important sporting achievement of the 20th century.

That's because the four-minute mile was regarded as something more than a sports record to be broken. It was viewed by society as a significant barrier that perhaps could not, and, more amazingly, should not be broken. Some people honestly believed that were a man to run a mile in less than four minutes the result upon breaking the tape would be instant death.

In his 1935 article entitled "The Ultimate of Human Effort," famed British track coach Brutus Hamilton had listed the "perfect records beyond which man could never go" for a number of track and field events. He declared that the fastest mile possible would be 4:01.6. By the spring of 1954, Gunder Haegg's world record of 4:01.4 was nine years old, and Hamilton was still insisting no one could run any faster.

"Whether we liked it or not, the four-minute mile had become rather like an Everest -- a challenge to the human spirit," observed Bannister in his newly-reissued autobiography, "The Four-Minute Mile." "It was a barrier that defied all attempts to break it -- an irksome reminder that man's striving might be in vain. The Scandanavians, with their almost excessive reverence for the magic of sport, called it the `Dream Mile.' "

"The four-minute mile: This was the barrier, both physical and psychological, that begged to be broken." So writes Neal Bascomb in his brilliant book "The Perfect Mile," which, along with Leigh Montville's comprehensive biography of Ted Williams, is the must-read sports book of the year. Bascomb peels back the layers of a vastly different world to reveal an international, three-continent race featuring three driven men who each strongly believed he was the one fate had ordained to crash through that four-minute barrier.

From Australia came John Landy, a shy 24-year-old who had first made a name for himself as a pupil of an eccentric coach named Percy Cerutty, and who had then become infatuated with the training methods of legendary Czech runner Emil Zatopek during the 1952 Olympics. Landy, who had made the Australian team in Helsinki as a second-tier runner who had to pay his own way, had gone back to his homeland inspired by the feats, and training methods, of the man who had won the 5,000, 10,000, and (in his first such race ever), the marathon. Training in secret, Landy expanded on Zatopek's grueling training regimen with a sub-four-minute mile in mind.

From the United States came 22-year-old Wes Santee, a cocky kid from Kansas with perhaps the greatest natural running talent any American had ever possessed, and that included fellow Kansan Glenn Cunningham, the most famous and decorated of all American runners. Santee was the son of a physically and verbally abusive ranch hand who had himself dropped out of school in the second grade and believed in the value of neither education nor athletics. But his undeniable running ability got him to the University of Kansas, where coach Bill Easton would make full use of his running skill in order to win meets, sacrificing some of Santee's potential as a miler in so doing. An even bigger obstacle to success for the frustrated runner was the entity known as the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the bullying and sanctimonious governing body of American track and field.

And then there was Roger Bannister. He had begun running competitively in 1946 when he arrived in Oxford. He could not have been more classically English in his view that a life should have proper balance, that a man could be a scholar, an athlete, and, when the occasion called for it, a man about town. Running mattered a great deal to him, but his studies as a medical student would always come first. But there should also be time for music, theater, a nice meal, a glass of wine, and, of course, romance.

By May of 1954 all three were closing in on the four-minute mile. They kept abreast of each other's exploits as best they could in an era when news traveled in terms of days, not seconds. But Bannister was the only one with a self-imposed deadline. He was about to graduate from medical school, and 1954 would be his last year as a competitive runner. He targeted May 6 as a possible opportunity. He had trained well and he had friends Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway as coconspirators, the former to run the first two laps in 1:57 or 1:58 and the latter to do the third lap in precisely 60 seconds, leaving him to do the rest.

The issue, as always in England, was weather, not so much the temperature or precipitation, but wind. And indeed the wind was a major concern on that blustery day, so much so that Bannister didn't make a final decision on a very windy day until less than 45 minutes from the scheduled 6 p.m. start.

"As we lined up for the start, I glanced at the flag again," Bannister noted in his autobiography. "It fluttered more gently now, and the scene from Shaw's St. Joan flashed through my mind, how she, in a rather desperate moment, waited for the wind to change. Yes, the wind was dropping slightly. This was the moment when I made my decision. The attempt was on."

Chataway did his job. Brasher, likewise. The three-quarters time was 3 minutes 0.7 seconds. Could he run the final quarter in 59 seconds?

With 300 yards left, he made his move. "I felt that the moment of a lifetime had come," he wrote. "There was no pain, only a great unity of movement and aim. The world seemed to stand still, or did not exist."

How lucky we are that this exemplary man can express himself so well.

"I drove on, impelled by a combination of fear and pride . . . My body had long since exhausted all energy, but it went on running just the same . . . With 5 yards to go, the tape seemed almost to recede . . ."

Was Man about to enter into a new realm?

"Those last few seconds seemed never-ending . . . I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him . . . My effort was over and I collapsed almost unconscious with an arm on either side of me. It was only then that real pain overtook me. I felt like an exploding flashlight with no will to live."

But Roger Bannister was also sure he had made history: "I knew I had done it before I even heard the time."

He had just run a mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.

Hicham El Guerrouj holds the record now. The Moroccan ran a 3:43.13 mile July 7, 1999. Bannister's time seems almost quaint. Yet Hicham El Guerrouj will never know the satisfaction Roger Bannister felt around five minutes past six on the evening of May 6, 1954.

"We shared a place where no man has yet ventured -- secure for all time, however fast men might run miles in the future," he told us. "We had done it, where we wanted, how we wanted, in our first attempt of the year. In the wonderful joy my pain was forgotten and I wanted to prolong those precious moments of realization."

When he heard the news, John Landy said he wasn't surprised Bannister had done it. Wes Santee moaned that he would have already done it had he been treated properly by both his coach and the AAU. They could only speculate about how wonderful it must feel to be Roger Bannister, to be the person who had altered Man's concept of himself.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is 

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