In the middle of the previous century, the mile was a singular distance, a testing ground for the limits of human athletic ability.
The world in the early 1950s was emerging from the Second World War. After all that death, people were pursuing life, including the expansion of what the human body could achieve. In 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest. The next year, amid much speculation that man could not run a mile in under four minutes, Roger Bannister broke through at Oxford University. Six weeks later, a rival, Australian John Landy, ran one second faster.
The feats became prelude for a summer sensation. Vancouver, then a remote forestry town on Canada’s distant West Coast, was host to the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, and the Bannister-Landy showdown was dubbed the Miracle Mile. Sports Illustrated, in its debut issue that summer, described it as the “most widely heralded and universally contemplated foot race of all time.”
In front of a raucous crowd of 32,000 at newly built Empire Stadium, and heard and seen by tens of millions more on radio and early televisions, both men ran faster than four minutes, Bannister edging Landy. It became the template for modern sports as massive spectacle. It is commemorated today at the corner of Hastings and Renfrew, where the stadium once stood – a bronze sculpture of the two striding runners, nearly side by side.
In fact, the theme of 1954 – the boundaries of human potential – resonates far more on the track today. Following decades of gains through the 1990s, many records have been static for years, for men and women. The experiences of elite runners and coaches, and academic studies, suggest human beings have touched the edges of the body’s ability.
Yet there remains a hint, even from the present plateau, of possible breakthroughs ahead. Certainly, the men who established new frontiers six decades ago believe there is more room to run. Bannister, a retired neurologist, has spoken about the complexity of the human body – “centuries in advance of the physiologist.” Landy is unequivocal about the record in the mile, which has stood since 1999, when Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj ran 3 minutes 43.13 seconds.
“There’s no question it can be run faster,” Landy said in an interview from his Melbourne home.
For all the science now employed in athletics, knowledge of the body remains in some ways rudimentary, the interplay between mind and muscle not entirely understood.
“The big thing,” said running coach and biomechanics professor Frans Bosch, “is we don’t have a clue what is the limiting factor.”
24.2 kilometres an hour
The origin of the mile run goes back to the ancient Romans. The Latin mille passuum was a thousand paces, as walked by the soldiers of Rome on the march toward conquests. The distance was malleable, shifting as the unit was exported. The Roman version was figured to be a little less than 1,500 metres. The mile, as it is known today, was codified in 1593 by the English Parliament.
For most people, a four-minute mile is as abstract as the summit of Everest. But the Himalayan peak can be reached by ordinary people, or at least those with the courage and the cash: 658 people made it last year, many of them wealthy amateur climbers. A four-minute mile belongs to the world’s athletic elite – 73 men ran faster than four minutes outdoors in 2013.
The speed required to run a four-minute mile is dizzying, a sustained dash of at least 24.2 kilometres an hour over the mile. It is so fast that the typical treadmill at your local gym cannot even be set at such a speed.
‘I had four minutes inside me somewhere’
It was failings at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki that propelled Bannister and Landy, two university students on opposite sides of the planet, toward their history-making runs. Bannister’s plan was to win gold in the 1,500 m – the metric mile – and retire from competition and focus on his medical studies. But in the finals he ran out of energy on the last turn and finished fourth. The loss led to a new goal: the four-minute mile.
Landy, meanwhile, had raced seriously only for one year and did not get past the first heat in Helsinki. The agriculture sciences student did make gains, observing training methods of others and picking up better-quality European running shoes.