Saturday, August 1, 2009


I’m packing my running kit for Oxford, partly in the hope I can neutralize the effect of all that beer, but primarily to see if I can’t manage to shuffle a mile around the Iffley Road Track. For an old miler, it will be something like going on the Haj. This is the track on which Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile on May 6, 1954.

As a young runner in the early ’60s, I idolized Peter Snell,* but we all knew about the first 4-minute mile and were familiar with that famous photo of Bannister’s breaking the tape, mouth open, head thrown back, arms rising in fatigue, and that lovely, last long stride. Most of us knew, from Bannister’s book, how the race had gone.

Bannister was openly paced by Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, and took some flak over this at the time. Brasher led him through the quarter in 57.4, which I’m sure was a good bit faster than they’d planned. Chataway took over and paced through the half in 1:58.2, still perhaps a little fast; and the three-quarter in 3:00.5. Bannister passed Chataway coming off the turn onto the final backstretch, and had to make the pace himself from there. He put in a 58.9 final quarter—astonishingly fast in those days— to finish in 3:59.4. (It’s not often noted that Bannister broke the existing world record by almost two full seconds, in its own right a remarkable feat.)

All this gave Norris McWhirter his opportunity, carefully prepared, to create sport’s all-time greatest public address announcement: “Ladies and Gentlemen, here is the result of event number 9, the one mile: First, number 41, R.G. Bannister of the Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which subject to ratification will be a new English Native, British National, British All-Comers’, European, British Empire, and World’s record. The time is Three...”—and the crowd went nuts.

My own internal personal announcement will be along the same lines—I’ll be staying at Merton, after all—with just a few small excisions and modifications to fit the facts. “The time is Eight...”—and I’ll walk happily home.

* If I go tramping in New Zealand next year, I wonder if I can get to Wanganui.

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