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The Miracle Mile in Vancouver at the British Empire Games (now called Commonwealth Games). At the finish it was England's Dr. Roger Bannister by several yards over the world record-holder John Landy. Both runners finished under the once-mythical four minutes. Bannister's time was 3:58.8, Landy's 3:59.6.

AP

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."

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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

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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.

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The four-minute mile had a mystique, a purity. It entailed sprinting over distance, and on an oval track it had a pleasing symmetry – four laps of 400 m, one minute each time around, a full rotation of the second hand on a stopwatch. Audiences loved it and the newsreels of the day made athletic heroes out of the best milers.

The record for the mile had stood since 1945 at 4:01.4, set by Swede Gunder Hagg, who with countryman Arne Andersson had shaved five seconds from the record in three years. And there it was stuck.

There was talk of four minutes as an ultimate barrier. The two young men studying science were not overawed, even in the year or two they pushed unsuccessfully to overcome it. Landy ran 4:02 numerous times. Four minutes felt like a brick wall, he said then, and wasn't sure he was the man who could do it. But Landy, now 84, remembered: "I did not see four minutes as insurmountable."

Neither did Bannister. He had run three-quarters of the distance in well under three minutes. "I knew I had four minutes inside me somewhere," said Bannister, 85, from his home in Oxford, England. "As a physiologist, a medical student, it didn't seem logical to me. If you could find Swedes who could do 4:012/5s, then you could find somebody to break four minutes."

Their training only faintly resembled a modern regime, involving small distances compared with even serious recreational runners today. Bannister ran at lunchtime. He would skip one of his classes and take the subway one stop or bicycle to London's Paddington Recreation Ground. He did not warm up or cool down afterward, and he ran intervals. In the months ahead of his breakthrough, Bannister would join training partners and a coach at the Duke of York's barracks in Chelsea. He would run a quarter-mile 10 times over half an hour and slashed the pace to 59 seconds per interval from 66.

Landy's work was similar. He was new to the idea that he had a special talent. As a schoolboy athlete, he said, "I was reasonably good, but I wasn't outstanding." After Helsinki, Landy trained late at night in Melbourne. He ran intervals and distance in the grass at a large park near his family's home. "I would study," he said, "and then I would train. It was a great break. It was something physical you could do to take your mind off your studies."

In spring 1954, with Landy pressing against four minutes, Bannister felt a sense of urgency. The day it happened was not propitious. The weather was inclement. Bannister spent the morning doing hospital rounds in London before taking the train to Oxford. He was wary of a record attempt, but when the rain and winds eased, he decided to run. Led by two pacesetters, Bannister breached the barrier, 3:59.4, and collapsed into the arms of officials at the finish. "I felt," Bannister wrote afterward, "like an exploded flashlight."

The record stood for 46 days. Ahead of the Empire and Commonwealth Games, Landy had flown to Finland to run a series of races. He was already there when news of Bannister's record arrived by telegram. Then, on June 21, racing against one of Bannister's pacesetters, Landy ran 3:57.9 in the southern port city of Turku. His world record would last three years.

Vancouver was suddenly in a spotlight. It was more town than city and in the year ahead of the games Vancouver almost lost them to Toronto, struggling to cobble together funds for a new stadium to hold the main events. Wealthy businessmen drummed up the $360,000 to get it built.

Intrigue boiled by late July. Landy worked out at the University of British Columbia, sessions attended by several hundred spectators. He ran three-quarters of a mile in under three minutes, stoking anticipation of a record performance. Bannister avoided attention and ran at a golf course close to the athletes' village, "almost in secret," according to The Canadian Press. The hype stoked breathless reporting. "Miracle Miler sick with cold," trumpeted a front-page headline of Bannister's dealing with a cough in an evening newspaper.

'Pandemonium broke loose'

Saturday, Aug. 7, was a hot day: blue sky, bright sun, the stadium on the city's east side framed by the North Shore Mountains. Landy, the favourite, planned to try to outrun his rival. "My technique was to run Roger Bannister off his feet, because it's the only way I knew how to run," Landy recalled. "I only gave myself a 50/50 chance." What Landy was trying to ward off was Bannister's well-known final burst of energy, one the Brit used to run down opponents at the end of races.

The gun went off and the resounding memory in the mind of Charlie Warner, who took the iconic photograph of the race, was an eerie silence in the stadium. Landy burst out front and Bannister was more than 10 m off the pace nearing the halfway mark. "I regretted," Bannister said, "letting him get so far ahead."

Bannister closed the gap on the third lap and, amid the rising roar of the crowd, he unleashed his finishing kick on the final bend, passing on the outside, on Landy's right shoulder. In the same instant, Landy, sensing Bannister was closing in, glanced over his left. It is this moment Warner captured in his photo (the basis for the bronze sculpture). The men sprinted to the finish, Bannister winning in 3:58.8 and Landy less than a second behind, 3:59.6.

"Pandemonium broke loose," remembered Warner at his home in Ladner, south of Vancouver.

At the finish, Bannister jogged over to Landy. They commiserated, shook hands and embraced. "We've been good friends ever since," Bannister said.

The Miracle Mile is where modern sports was heading. In the earliest days of television, the live broadcast from Canada to the United States was a first, and a British Royal Air Force bomber was on hand in Vancouver to fly footage back to Britain. The victor was painted in hyperbolic strokes. Sports Illustrated, naming Bannister its inaugural sportsman of the year, described the runner as a "tall, pale-skinned explorer of human exhaustion" – conqueror of the "imaginary monster" of the four-minute mile.

'It looks like a long way off'

When Bannister and Landy were stars of the athletics world, there was no such thing as a professional running career.

Today, while a living can be made – albeit often a meagre one – society's roving spotlight swivels only once every four years to the track, at the Summer Olympics. In the pursuit of four minutes, the culture was enthralled, but attention has turned elsewhere as times have stalled. To those in the know, Kenyan Asbel Kiprop, who turned 25 in June, is the man most likely to break through in middle distance.

Still, with a number of records set during the era of blatant doping, there is a belief, especially on the women's side, that some of them will never be eclipsed. The mile itself is an orphan of a sort, a race rarely staged, its record elusive.

"Everything has to be completely perfect," said Canadian mile record holder Kevin Sullivan, who ran 3:50.26 in 2000. "The line between achieving it and missing it is so fine."

Alan Webb, who retired from the track this year and has moved into triathlon, first broke four minutes in high school, and his American record of 3:46.91, set in 2007, is the fastest time run since El Guerrouj's record in 1999.

"It takes a special person, a special moment," Webb said. "As we learn more about physiology and biomechanics, it's just a matter of time before you get that special athlete to mesh up with all that we've learned."

As running has evolved, attention has turned to the marathon. "The marathon is the new mile," said David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene. The distance of 42.195 km used to be a retirement home for elite middle-distance runners, who no longer were in the top echelon in the 1,500 or 5,000 m. However, as the economics of racing reward marathon winners, talent has gravitated to the event.

The times have come down steadily over the past decade – four record-breaking runs that cut 92 seconds from the mark. The current record, 2 hours 03 minutes 23 seconds, was set by Kenyan Wilson Kipsang in Berlin last year. Two hours is within sight, enticingly so. But the remaining gap is a chasm – too great, some say. Epstein doesn't think it'll happen in his lifetime.

The refrain is not uncommon. Richard Lee is the running coach of the B.C. Endurance Project, a group that includes top Canadian marathoner Dylan Wykes. "Not soon," is Lee's conclusion about a sub-two-hour marathon. Today's best times are being set in ideal conditions, in Berlin, where the course is relatively flat, has few turns and features elite pacesetters to lead the way for most of the distance.

"It looks like a long way off," said Wykes of two hours. "Maybe 30 years down the line."

The riddle is the requisite combination of engine and economy. The person with the biggest engine – aerobic capacity – is generally not the one with the best running economy, the right body type – just like the cars that are best on gas are not the ones that have monster engines. A 1991 journal article, assessing various physiological factors, concluded the theoretical person with a big engine and excellent running economy could complete a marathon in about 1:58:00. Trouble is, the person as imagined probably does not exist.

Other academic attempts to consider human limits conclude they have nearly been reached, such as a 2005 journal article by Alan Nevill and Gregory Whyte that used a statistical model. A 2008 article in the Journal of Experimental Biology, by Stanford University professor Mark Denny, used three statistical models and found that running speeds have mostly plateaued. He observed the same in other species that have been specifically bred for speed – thoroughbred horses and greyhound dogs.

But even at the edge of what might be possible, Denny said the likely existence of an ultimate limit "should not diminish the awe" with which we view elite athletics.

'You get a grasp of how hard it actually is'

For all the statistics, the question of what's possible may come down to intangibles. Seemingly crucial factors such as pain threshold, the will to win, dedication and passion cannot be measured in any precise way, said scientist Trent Stellingwerff, the director of innovation and research at Canadian Sport Institute Pacific who works with Athletics Canada.

"Those are incredibly important factors," Stellingwerff said.

Bannister spoke about the same thing six decades ago. He had exhausted all his energy at Oxford in his record-breaking attempt but pushed on. "The physical overdraft," he wrote a year later, "came only from greater willpower."

Talk of a plateau, of a limit discerned by statistics, is "totally made up," according to Bosch, the track coach and biomechanics expert at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.

Bosch pointed to the central governor theory, where "the brain backs off long before we reach our limits." It's pictured as a safety system, to protect the heart and the body from dangerous overexertion. If the safety margin could somehow be eased, Bosch said, whatever limit might exist gets pushed further out. Anecdotally, he cited athletes who compete when they are, off the track, in the swoon of romantic love – and in such circumstances he has seen elevated performances.

Speculation of a central governor goes back to the mid-1920s in London and Archibald Hill, a Nobel laureate in physiology, and came to prominence in the work of Timothy Noakes and his widely cited 2001 paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology. Noakes described a mechanism that corrals the body when it is starved for oxygen: "a central, neural governor constrains cardiac output regulating the mass of skeletal muscle that can be activated during maximal exercise."

It's here where there is the sense that, plateau or not, someone with a combination of innate talent and prodigious work ethic can overcome what has previously been achieved.

In the simplest of sports – no bulky equipment, no balls or bats or sticks, not even shoes are strictly necessary – runners foster an intimate relationship with time and distance, everything counted in minutes and kilometres and miles, and fractions thereof. The more ground run, the more innate the sense of time becomes. Bannister, on his lunchtimes running at the Paddington Recreation Ground, would train untimed – "knowing the feeling of my own pace," he recalled.

"You're always calculating," said Lucas Bruchet, a 23-year-old who last winter cracked through four minutes in the mile for the first time. "We're always counting in some manner."

Bruchet graduated from UBC in the spring and now chases the life of a professional runner. He will not expand the limits of human capacity; his goal is to reach the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, and he is close to qualifying in the 1,500 m. As a runner in high school, he learned of the feats of his forebears, including Bannister.

"You start learning about how fast four minutes is," Bruchet said. "The more your run, and the more you try to do it, you get a grasp of how hard it actually is." As for ultimate limits, Bruchet pointed to the steady improvement in the marathon record, but knows progress seems less likely in the middle distances.

"Maybe it's possible we've hit our capacity, the human capacity, and we can't run any faster," he said. "Or maybe the athletes that did it were just so talented, and they only come along every 20 or 30 years."

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About the Author
National correspondent, Vancouver bureau

David Ebner is a national correspondent based in Vancouver. He joined The Globe and Mail in 2000 and worked in Toronto and Calgary before moving to Vancouver in 2008. He has reported on a wide range of stories – business, politics, arts, crime – and has covered sports since 2012. More

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