Keith Strudler: The Four Minute Mile

Mar 7, 2018

Virtually every college distance runner wishes two things. One, that coach doesn’t call an early morning Sunday practice. And two, that you had just a little more leg speed so you could run the mile. See, if you’re a 5000 or 10,000 meter runner, down deep you knew that meant you couldn’t turn it over quick enough to do something shorter. So you just kept going longer and longer until you kind of outlasted people. That’s my story at least, a former mediocre college 10K guy. The same goes for a friend who’s now an ultra-marathoner, who saw the marathon as just a bit too speedy.

The mile is, for distance runners, the sexiest event in spikes. It’s the long ball of track and field. Equal parts endurance and speed, it demands both natural talent and highly determined training. No one fakes their way to a good mile time. And, of course, the mile has perhaps the greatest barrier in the history of all sports – with all due respect to the 100 miles per hour fast ball and the 100-point basketball game. It’s the four minute mile. The line between fast and immortal. If you had anyone on your college track team nearing the four minute mile, it wasn’t simply a sport anymore – it was a quest. And if he made it, he wasn’t just a teammate – he was a legend. It was once seemingly an unbreakable barricade, something only achieved by cars and bicycles. That, of course, changed in 1954, when British medical student Roger Bannister ran four laps of the Oxford cinder track in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds, forever changing the perception of human possibilities. It’s kind of like landing on the moon. Once someone does it, you know we can.

Bannister died Sunday at the age of 88, after a seemingly rich family life and long medical career. His sub-four minute mile record didn’t last very long – broken only weeks later, in fact – and the current mark is 3:43, set in 1999. It’s lasted so long not simply because of how fast it is, but also because today’s distance runners almost exclusively compete in the 1500 meter event, often called the metric mile, yet over 100 meters short of an actual mile. There’s other reasons, but regardless of the current mark, it’s Bannister’s original sub four that resonates deepest with most everyone in the sport. And it’s breaking that same barrier – with much better training and equipment and on and on – that’s what still drives any emerging elite miler. If you’re a sub four minute miler, you’re somebody – in the track world, at least.

Bannister’s passing wasn’t the only track and field story in the news this week. Another British mile legend Sebastian Coe, who since 2015 has been the head of the IAAF – the international governing body for all of track and field – has been criticized for not acting more aggressively on Russian state sponsored doping in his sport. To that critique, Coe has replied that he doesn’t really use computers and email that much. So there’s that. And along those lines and also in the news, it seems that Russia’s national track federation could be permanently banned from international competition if they don’t finally comply with two year old anti-doping requirements, of which I’m guessing they have no interest in doing. So while the timing may be coincidental or serendipitous, it seems the passing of one of track and field’s legends comes as the sport faces even more strain on its diminishing credibility.

Perhaps what this reminds us is that sports’ great appeal is also its greatest frailty. What made Roger Bannister so remarkable is that he went faster than we imagined possible, and certainly faster than his competition. That’s why Bannister’s most lasting career regret was a fourth place finish in the 1952 Olympic Games, because he couldn’t match his competitors that day. That’s why he competed, and that that’s why we watch – to the extent that people do still watch track or swimming or any other stopwatch sport. We want to see humans pushed to the edge of humanity and see the great beyond. This is also why track and field has a seeming incestuous relationship with performance enhancing drugs, a pockmark on more winning and record breaking performances than we’d like to know. That, among other reasons, is why the Russians and pretty much every elite athletics nation at some point has dabbled in the unseemly art of artificial speed. And it’s why for every Roger Bannister moment, there’s a Ben Johnson or Alberto Salazar Distance Project. And much, much, much more.

That’s simply the nature of the sport, where idolatry and disgust are separated by a very fine line – or perhaps a drug test. Which makes the memory of Roger Bannister that much sweeter, innocent even. And why ever distance runner, including myself, wishes they were a miler just like him. 

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

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