By Scott A. Grant

When humanity emerged from the calamity of the Second World War, we saw definite limits to man’s endurance. One of those limits was the four-minute mile. It was an unconquerable barrier, like Mount Everest. Man could not run that fast or climb that high.

Between the wars, a young American named Glenn Cunningham from Kansas had come close. He even claimed to have broken the four-minute barrier once in practice. But as Allen Iverson taught us: practice doesn’t count.

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Cunningham’s story is interesting. At a young age he had suffered massive burns over the lower parts of his body. Doctors said he would never walk again. His father refused to accept the diagnosis and nightly massaged his son’s damaged legs with liniment. Throughout the ordeal, his father quoted from the Bible, from the book of Isaiah.

“But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”

Then, suddenly, in 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Everest. I mention Norgay first because for almost half a century, he was all but ignored. By many accounts, the indomitable local Sherpa pulled Hillary and the expedition up the slopes towards that final ascent the two men would make together. At one point, Hillary fell. Tenzing saved his life. 

Just as suddenly, in 1954, the four-minute mile came under serious assault. Three friends from Oxford University had a plan. They would work together to push the fastest of the three to the record.

May 6, 1954, was a cold and rainy day in Oxford, England. Roger Bannister, a young medical student, made his morning rounds, nervously awaiting the afternoon and his date with destiny. It seemed a bad day to make the attempt, what with the weather, but they all knew they might not get another chance. 

Chris Brasher would pace the first two laps of the race, Chris Chataway the third, leaving Banister alone against the clock for the final lap. Brasher, who went on to win a gold medal in the 1956 Olympics and found the London Marathon, went out in a good time. Bannister, who was running easily kept calling out “faster,” but Brasher did his job and held the pace to 58 seconds for the first lap and 1:58 at the half.

The crowd was electric as Chataway pushed into the lead. The four-minute mile was within reach! The pace slowed in lap 3 to three minutes and one second. Suddenly, four minutes seemed in jeopardy. Chataway, who was supposed to drop out, ran on, sprinting really, pushing himself to exhaustion. Bannister exploded past Chataway on the back stretch, lengthening his stride and surging towards immortality. His head back, Bannister leapt at the finish and then collapsed. No one in the stadium knew for sure if the lad had succeeded, until the time was announced. 

Norris McWhirter called the race. When he announced the time, the crowd exploded at the number “3” and the realization that one of the great obstacles had been broken. No one heard the rest of the time over the screaming exaltation of the crowd.

Later that summer, the owner of a brewery in Ireland called Guinness decided that the world needed a book of records. One of his employees, Chris Chataway suggested twin college chums Norris and Ross McWhirter to compile what would become the Guinness Book of World Records.

Not surprisingly, the first record the pair compiled was Bannister’s world record mile time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. To this day more people have climbed Everest than have run the mile in under four minutes.

Scott Grant is a local historian and author. By day he is Chief Investment Officer at Standfast Asset Mgmt. in Ponte Vedra Beach. 

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