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Frank on Friday – Four Minutes In History

Frank on Friday

A great man was mourned and a milestone of athletics celebrated once again across the world on March 3rd 2018 with the announcement of Sir Roger Bannister’s death at the age of 88.

On May 6th 1954 at the Iffley Road track in Oxford Bannister, helped by his friends Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, shattered an historic barrier that many people thought could never be broken, when he ran 3:59.4 in a mile race. Monday next will mark the 70th anniversary of that historic event.

Twenty years ago I had the privilige of hosting an evening with Sir Roger Bannister in the CityWest Hotel in Dublin to mark the 50th anniversary of his historic achievement. My chat with him on stage that evening was followed by a lively and entertaining audience question and answer session with the athletics icon.

That was a wonderful weekend in June of that year, when Bannister, at the invitation of the Irish Milers Club, also attended the All-Ireland Schools Track and Field Championships in Tullamore.

It was a special weekend for the Irish Schools Championships too, as it marked the 50th anniversary of the track in Tullamore where up to then nobody had broken four minutes for the mile.

On that June weekend the Irish Milers Club organised a mile race and local hero James Nolan ran 3:58.45, witnessed by a delighted Roger Bannister.

In a book entitled Twin Tracks, Sir Roger Bannister vividly described that evening at Iffley Road. It’s a description that I feel is well worth sharing. Bannister wrote:

“At one and a half laps I was still worrying about the pace. A voice shouting “relax” penetrated to me above the noise of the crowd. I learnt afterwards it was my coach Franz Stampl’s voice that I heard. Unconsciously, I obeyed.

“I barely noticed the half-mile, passed in 1:58. At three-quarters of a mile my effort was still barely perceptible; the time was 3:01 and the crowd was roaring. Then I pounced past Chataway, 300 yards from the finish.

“The was a moment of mixed excitement and anguish when my mind took over. There was no pain, only a great unity of movement and aim.

“Time seemed to stand still. My body must have exhausted its energy, but it still went on running just the same. The physical overdrive came only from greater willpower.

“With five yards to go, the finishing tape seemed to almost receede. Those last few seconds seemed an eternity. The faint line of the finishing tape stood ahead as a haven of peace after the struggle. The arms of the world were waiting to receive me only if I reached the tape without slackening my speed. 

“I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last desperate spring to save himself from a chasm that threatens to engulf him.

“Then my effort was over and I collapsed almost  unconscious, with an arm on either side of me. It was only than that the real pain overtook me. I felt like an exploded flashbulb.

“The stopwatches held the answer. The announcement came from Norris McWhirter, delivered with a slow, clear diction; “Result of Event Eight; One Mile. First R.G Bannister of Exter and Merton Colleges, in a time which subject to ratification, is a new Track Record, British Native Record, British All-Comers Record, European Record, Commonwealth Record and World Record….Three minutes….”The rest was lost in the excited roar of the crowd. I grabbed Brasher and Chataway and together we scampered round the track in a burst of happiness. We had done it, the three of us”

In June of the same year John Landy ran a mile in 3:58.0 in Turku, Finland and on August 6th 1958 another Australian runner, Herb Elliott, broke the then existing world mile record when he strode to victory in a famous event in Santry Stadium in 3:54.5. Ireland’s Ronnie Delany, who had won the Olympic 1500m Gold Medal in Melbourne in 1956, placed third in that race in 3:57.5 and five men ran under four minutes on that occasion.

Eamonn Coghlan set a world indoor record of 3:49.78 in Madison Square Garden in 1983 and later in his career he became the first Master runner (over 40) to run a mile in under four minutes when he posted 3:58.15 at age 41 an an indoor meet at Harvard University.

The current world mile record held by Hixham El Guerrouj of Morocco is 3:43.33, but it was Roger Bannister who dismantled the big psychological barrier that long surrounded the mile and catapulted the event into a new era.

Bannister became the first man to break four minutes when running on a cinder track- estimated to be one second a lap slower than the high specification surfaces of today’s tracks..

Bannister always believed that even today, runners are nowhere near their capabilities.

“I’ve said that three and a half minutes is physiologically achievable but that I thought it would take a long time  for a runner to achieve that,” he said. Bannister was not taking into account the huge improvement in fast track surfaces, or the massive advances in running shoe technology that we continue to see, when he made that predicament.

The Irish Mile record of 3:49.77 was set in Oslo back in 1982 by Ray Flynn of Longford. Wouldn’t it be great if that record was finally broken in this special 70th celebration anniversary of the first sub 4 minute mile.

The Magic of the Mile is there to be grasped by any runner with a true sense of adventure. You may have tried the 5k, 10k, half-marathon, or even the marathon, so why not make May the month when you see how fast you can run one mile? 

The Mile is, after all, shorter, quicker, easier to measure and a more immediate challenge. The classic nature of the mile run has all the glamour a runner could ask for, so why not make running a faster mile a target for the rest of 2024 starting with putting down a one mile base-line in May and trying to improve on that each month all the way to Christmas and the GOAL Mile on Christmas Day.

A mile challenge can be a great way for running group members to spice up their training – taking one evening to measure out a mile on road, track or trail and having each runner discover their own best mile pace.

The exciting thing about the mile is that it can be talked about with the same awe as the marathon. It offers ample targets and barriers to tackle, whither it’s the 12 minute mile or the 5 minute mile- there’s a challenge there for runners of all abilities to take on.

The Magic of the Mile is there to be grasped. Once you dedice to do it and exert yourself with a bit of fast training, the world of the mile is at your feet.

Let me know if you take up this Irish Runner May Mile Challenge and how you have found the experience. I love hearing stories from runners and it could be YOUR story about YOUR Mile Challenge that will feature in a future Frank On Friday Column.

Keep in touch with me at frankgreally@gmail.com if you enjoy this Frank on Friday column and please like and share. 

Irish Runner Magazine Summer 2024 Edition including our Paris Olympics Souvenir Supplement will be published June 27th.
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