Rediscover: The Perfect Mile

On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes. It was a windy, damp day at Oxford University's Iffley Road Track, hardly prime conditions for 1,200 spectators to witness an historic record. After a blistering race, stadium announcer Norris McWhirter milked the crowd's excitement as they waited to hear the time:

"Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event nine, the one mile: first, number forty one, R.G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which--subject to ratification--will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire and World Record. The time was three...."

At which point, the audience's cheers drowned out McWhirter's announcement. Bannister's time was 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. The 25-year-old medical student had stunned the athletic world. Then, seemingly at the height of his career, Bannister retired to concentrate on his studies. He went on to have a distinguished career in neurology. He died on March 3 at age 88.

Though Bannister's record was broken 46 days later, shattering the four-minute mark was something akin to breaching the sound barrier for running. Journalist Neal Bascomb's 2004 book, The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It, tracks the race to beat that milestone. It is available in paperback from Mariner Books ($14.95, 9780618562091). --Tobias Mutter

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