May 6, 2014, 12:28 PM EST
English medical student Roger Bannister ran one mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds on May 6, 1954. The four-minute barrier has been broken by more than 1,000 men in the last 60 years, but Bannister will always be celebrated as the first.
“All I can say is that I’m instantly overwhelmed and delighted,” Bannister said 60 years ago, shortly after achieving his feat at the Iffley Road Track in Oxford. “It was a great surprise to me to be able to do it today, and I think I was very lucky.”
Bannister, now 85, performed what many thought at the time to be physically impossible. He’s long credited his two pace makers, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, and said that he considers his greatest life achievement not to be the 3:59.4 but his career as a neurologist after he retired from running later in 1954.
Bannister would win Sports Illustrated‘s first Sportsman of the Year Award for 1954 and then be knighted in 1975.
Bannister broke the world record by two seconds, but his mark lasted a mere 46 days. Australian rival John Landy clocked 3:58 on June 21, 1954. The record is now down to 3:43.13, set in 1999 by the two-time Olympic champion Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj. Bannister believes 3:30 will one day be possible (A 3:28 mile was done in 1983, but it was on a downhill course.).
Bannister ran his mile on a cool, windy evening 60 years ago. Brasher paced the first lap in 57.5 seconds and 1:58 for the half-mile. Chataway then took the lead and crossed three laps in front of about 3,000 spectators in 3:00.7. Bannister burst past Chataway on the back straight, needing to run the final 400m in 59 seconds.
“The world seemed to stand still, or did not exist,” Bannister later wrote. “The only reality was the next 200 hundred yards of track under my feet. The tape meant finality — extinction perhaps.
“I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well. I drove on, impelled by a combination of fear and pride. …
“I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him. …
“I knew that i had done it before I even heard the time.”
An announcer began reading out the time, “Three … ” and the crowd drowned out the rest.
Technology makes Bannister’s feat even more impressive. Author David Epstein consulted biomechanics who said running on soft cinders as Bannister did in 1954 was 1.5 percent slower than on today’s synthetic tracks.
Bannister now lives with Parkinson’s disease in Oxford, a short distance from the site of his history-making run.
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