By Jim Taylor
Early this month, news came that Roger Bannister had died. I turned 18 the year Roger Bannister became the first human to run a mile in less than four minutes. A mile — a quaint anachronism consisting of 5,280 feet, each containing 12 inches. Remember those funny dimensions? Only the U.S. still uses them, although it has long given up other measures of the mile – eight furlongs, 80 chains, 320 rods…
Back in 1954, though, the mile was still a standard measure. We measured fuel efficiency in miles per gallon, speeds in miles per hour. And the four-minute mile was still considered impossible for mere humans. Banister was a medical student at Oxford who would later be knighted for his work on neurology. He took up running as a hobby. Some tributes say that he only trained for about half an hour a week – a ridiculously low figure for today’s athletes. But Banister had one thing going for him that no other athlete did – he refused to be trapped by conventional wisdom. Until then, the mile was seen as a distance race. One trained for it by running longer distances. Milers tried to conserve their energy. In interviews later, Banister explained that he saw the mile as an extended sprint. Instead of saving his energy, he planned to expend it totally, to cross the finish line with absolutely no reserves left. The first time he broke the four-minute barrier, he collapsed. Later that summer, Banister and his rival John Landy of Australia met in what was called the Miracle Mile in the British Empire Games in Vancouver. (Like the mile, time has rendered the name of the Games obsolete; they’re now called the Commonwealth Games.)
I was in the far west of Ireland that August night. To mark my graduation from high school, my parents had taken me to experience what was still called the British Isles, and to meet my mother’s family.
My uncle had rented a fishing lodge in Connemara for our two families. In 1954, it still had no electricity. And Vancouver was eight time zones away. So when the Miracle Mile was run in Vancouver in the afternoon of August 7, eight of us clustered around a table in the kitchen of a pitch-dark house, lit by the glow of a single kerosene lantern, ears tuned to a battery-operated radio. We were rooting for Banister. Landy led for four laps. In the final turn before the finish line, Landy risked glancing back over his left shoulder to see how much of a lead he had. Perhaps it affected his stride, perhaps it affected only his concentration. But in that moment, Banister surged past on Landy’s right and won the race of the century.
Our kitchen erupted. Two families not normally given to expressing emotions danced, hugged, and cheered. It seems so long ago now. Of the eight people present that night, only three of us are still alive. And now the cause of those memories has died too. But I won’t forget that moment, listening to a race on the other side of the world. And I won’t forget the man who had the courage to think outside the box, and to change the world of running forever.
Author Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country: firstname.lastname@example.org