The first person to break the 4 minute barrier in the mile, was born on this date in 1929.
Aside from his obvious athletic achievements he was also a skilled neurologist, first chairman of Sport England, a British Knight, and has carried the Olympic flame.
Let us go from his childhood, through the famous race, and afterwards, in his own words.
I was always a great bundle of energy. As a child, instead of walking, I would run. And so running, which is a pain to a lot of people, was always a pleasure to me because it was so easy.
I’ve always been very impatient. At age 10 I frankly found life boring, and I can remember age 9 having the awful thought, as it seems now looking back on it, A war! That should liven things up a bit!
I was playing rugby and the other games English school children do, and there was an event in which races were run, and I won these by a considerable margin.
School & Work
My concentration was really on getting to university and becoming a doctor. My parents let me know that school marks were important. Achievement was something which came by hard work.
I wanted to be a neurologist. That seemed to be the most difficult, most intriguing, and the most important aspect of medicine, which had links with psychology, aggression, behavior, and human affairs.
I found longer races boring. I found the mile just perfect.
I trained for less than three-quarters of an hour, maybe five days a week – I didn’t have time to do more. But it was all about quality, not quantity – so I didn’t waste time jogging, ever.
It’s a question of spreading the available energy, aerobic and anaerobic, evenly over four minutes. If you run one part too fast, you pay a price. If you run another part more slowly your overall time is slower.
When I was about to break a world record and become well known, my mother used to say that for her the important thing was for me to become a doctor – a career which had not been possible in her generation and in her society. Sport was something to be set aside.
The First Sub 4
“There was complete silence on the ground… then a false start by Chris B … I felt angry that precious moments during the lull in the wind might be slipping by. The gun fired a second time … Brasher went into the lead and I slipped in effortlessly behind him. My legs seemed to meet no resistance, as if propelled by some unknown force. We seemed to be going so slowly! I shouted: “Faster!” But Brasher kept his head and did not change the pace.
At one-and-a-half laps I was still worrying about the pace. A voice shouting “relax” penetrated to me above the noise of the crowd. I learnt afterwards it was Stampfl’s. Unconsciously, I obeyed. If the speed was wrong it was too late to do anything about it, so why worry? I was relaxing so much that my mind seemed almost detached from my body. There was no feeling of strain.
I barely noticed the half-mile, passed in 1.58 minutes. At three-quarters of a mile my effort was still barely perceptible; the time was 3.07 minutes and by now the crowd was roaring. Then I pounced past Chataway, 300 yards from the finish.
There was a moment of mixed excitement and anguish when my mind took over. It raced well ahead of my body and drew me compellingly forward. There was no pain, only a great unity of movement and aim. Time seemed to stand still. The only reality was the next 200 yards of track under my feet. I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well. The noise in my ears was that of the faithful Oxford crowd. Their hope and encouragement gave me strength: I had now turned the last bend and there were only 50 yards more.
My body must have exhausted its energy, but it still went on running just the same. The physical overdraft came only from greater willpower. This was the crucial moment when my legs were strong enough to carry me over the last few yards, as they could not have done in previous years.
With five yards to go, the finishing line seemed almost to recede. Those last few seconds seemed an eternity. The faint line of the finishing tape stood ahead as a haven of peace after the struggle. The arms of the world were waiting to receive me only if I reached the tape without slackening my speed. If I faltered now, there would be no arms to hold me and the world would seem a cold, forbidding place. I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last desperate spring to save himself from a chasm that threatens to engulf him.
Then my effort was over and I collapsed almost unconscious, with an arm on either side of me. It was only then that real pain overtook me. It was as if all my limbs were caught in an ever-tightening vice. Blood surged from my muscles to my brain and seemed to fell me. I felt like an exploded flashbulb. Vision became black and white. I existed in the most passive physical state without being quite unconscious.”
The final bit is mental. I am sure of that. The successful runner is the one who can take more out of himself than he has
Doctors and scientists said breaking the four minute mile was impossible, that one would die in the attempt. Thus, when I got up from the track after collapsing at the finish line, I figured I was dead.
It’s amazing that more people have climbed Mount Everest than have broken the 4-minute mile.