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 Peter Takes on History 

March 23, 1929

The 4-Minute Mile

OK kids, take a map of Europe. Grab your crayons, draw a box starting in Great Britain, south to Morocco, east to Egypt, north to the Black Sea then back to England again. You can color that the Roman Empire, held for 1000 years through the persuasive powers of the Roman Legions who patrolled their domain on foot. In order to map their holdings effectively, the Romans came up with some universal measurements based on the footsteps of legionnaires. They decided that a full step, left-right-left would be a “pace,” formalized in 23BC as a distance of five feet. So a thousand paces - or in Latin “Milia Passuum” would be 5000 feet. “Milia,” that’s where we get our word for “mile.”
Around 1700 the English revised the mile to 8 furlongs or 5280 feet and started placing roadside Mile Markers, marking the distance between towns. Less than 20 years later Englishman Richard Mawbone turned to Thomas Groves and said, “Hey, Tommy, I’ll race you to the next mile marker.” So in 1719 Mawbone won the first documented one mile race.
No one recorded Mawbone’s time in 1719 but I can tell you that for the next 230 years racers improved very slowly. In 1835 the mark was 4:30. 50 years later it was four minutes and 12 seconds. 50 years later still it was 4 minutes, 10 seconds. But, that’s the way records usually fall, right? By tenths of an inch or fractions of a second. And little notice is taken. But on this day, March 23rd, 1929 a man was born who would draw the world's attention.
Now, most of us can name some famous runners. Usain Bolt and Jesse Owens. Maybe Carl Lewis and Flo-Jo - Florence Griffith-Joyner. But I’d be very surprised if anyone knew the records they set; even though they were mostly set right there in front of the whole world on the Olympic stage!
But the whole world knows the name of the neurologist and amateur middle-distance runner who ran the first sub 4-minute mile. But why?
Well, four was a nice, even number and sports writers and running experts had, for a century, played it up as though it just wasn’t possible for humans to run a 4-minute mile. But as runners tickled that mark, awareness grew, attention spiked and the level of hype shot through the roof. That’s why, on May 6th, 1952, despite the race being held at the scruffy old Iffley Road cinder surface track in Oxford with a mere 3,000 spectators braving the wet and windy conditions, the BBC broadcast the event live.
And the BBC announcer knew what was at stake in this race and continued to build anticipation even after the race was run. He read in a casual, even tone, “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,” Now he’s building, “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…”
And at the number “3”, the cheering crowd drowned out the result. Most never heard Roger Bannister's time; 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.
While the sub-four-minute mile is notable, it is no longer rare. A thousand men from 60 countries have made the mark. Teenagers, seniors. American Steve Scott has broken the four-minute barrier 161 times!
Looking back at Bannister’s story, it’s been recognized that his feat was not astounding as a physical accomplishment. Heck, the record only stood for 46 days! Bannister’s real achievement was in showing us the danger of conventional wisdom and the power of determination and positive thinking.
Roger Bannister knew he could do it and he did. You gotta wonder what else we can accomplish if we disregard the declaration of experts.

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