Select Page



     Although the Marathon has become the most popular running event during the past twenty years, for many years track enthusiasts considered the mile run the event that fascinated them most.  Today high school distance runners do not run the mile, but instead they run 1600 meters, which is approximately thirty yards more than the mile.

     But, the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the world body of track and field, recognizes today only records in metric distances, except for the mile.  It is still in the record books.  The mile, that part of the old British measurement system, still remains for track enthusiasts the last lone surviving vestige in the wholesale sellout to the metric system.  Please, do not remove the mile run.  It has too much history to be shoved aside.

     The mile requires the sprinting ability of a 400 meters runner plus a portion of the endurance necessary to complete a marathon.  Judgement of pace, knowing when to speed up and when to slow down and reserve strength, becomes crucial.  It often becomes a race of wits.  One competitor puis his intelligence and determination as well as his or her speed and stamina against another at all stages of the event.   

     Twenty-nine years ago this spring I was a high school sophmore running the mile and was not winning any ribbons and certainly not setting any records.  It was for me painfully difficult work, but still I read and dreamed of what a Wichita, Kansas high school/college student named Jim Ryan had done setting records in both the 880 yard run and the mile.  America felt proud.  Then there was his main competitor, Kipchoge Keino from Kenya, Africa, who beat him in the 1500 meters run at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

     Eventually, I stumbled across the story of Roger Bannister.  In 1913 a guy named John Paul Jones set the first official mile record at 4:14.4, and throughout the next forty years exemplary runners like Glenn Cunningham and Gunder Haegg of Sweden steadily approached but never quite broke through the four minute mile.  In fact, Gunder Haegg set the record in 1945 at 4:01.4, and there it stayed for the next nine years until Roger Bannister broke it.  It had become a psychological barrier.

      To run a sub four minute mile means that a runner must run four laps around a track layed out to include 440 yards at an average of less than sixty seconds for each lap.  Roger Bannister’s plan was to concentrate on his quarter mile times.  On May 6, 1954 in windy conditions at a meet at Oxford, England, Bannister electrified the world when he broke the record with a time of 3:59.4, the first person below four minutes.  With the help of two teammates who set the pace, his quarter mile times were 57.5, 60.7, 62.3, and 58.9.

      Amazingly enough, six weeks later on June 21, 1954 John Landy of Australia broke Bannister’s mark with a time of 3:58.  Then, the following August the two met at the British Commonwealth Games, and there Bannister beat Landy.  But both had times under four minutes.  With the barrier cracked others, such as Peter Snell, Steve Ovett, and Sebastian Coe, lowered the record even further.  Today the record is held by Noureddine Morceli of Algeria with a time of 3:44.39, a full fifteen seconds off Bannister’s time.

      And whatever happened to Roger Bannister?  He retired from competitive racing in 1955 to concentrate on his medical studies, eventually receiving his M.D. degree at Oxford in 1963.  Then, in January of 1975 Queen Elizabeth II knighted him, and so he became a very surprised Sir Roger Bannister.  And the last I heard about the American hero, Jim Ryan, was that he was now the head librarian at one of the Kansas universities.