I tried to replicate Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile – but I only lasted a few yards

Jim White running on the Iffley Road tack - I tried to replicate Roger Bannister's four-minute mile – but I only lasted a few yards
Not quite as lithe or fleet of foot as Roger Bannister, Jim White nevertheless puts in a good time to mark the famous feat, finishing on the same track as the history maker - John Lawrence for The Telegraph

Back on 6 May 1954, Roger Bannister ran a mile round the University of Oxford athletics track in three minutes 59.4 seconds. Seventy years to the day on from that seismic moment, hundreds of us gathered in front of Christ Church Oxford, waiting to see if we could emulate his achievement. Or in my case, take twice as long to run the same distance.

A mile long course had been marked out, along Oxford High Street, across Magdalen Bridge, then up Iffley Road, finishing just in front of the very track where he made history. And the thing that was immediately evident is this: a mile is a lot further than you think it is. In the footage of the time, Bannister made it look like a sprint, a dash over and done with in the blink of an eye. For the hundreds of us pounding the Oxford streets it was more like a marathon haul, a lung-buster of an outing.

People of all ages run the mile from Christ Church Oxford to the Iffley Road track where Bannister made history
People of all ages ran the mile from Christ Church Oxford to the Iffley Road track where Bannister made history - John Lawrence for The Telegraph

Among those marking the great man’s effort were Steve Cram and Hicham El Guerrouj, two of just 13 men who, across all that time, have held the mile record.

“One of the things about breaking the record was joining the club,” said Cram after he had run. “There’s not many of us left who can still run, even as slowly as me. So I was sort of doing it today to fly the flag for those who followed in Bannister’s footsteps.”

Also there was David Picksley. Now 91, and having recently completed this year’s London Marathon as the oldest competitor, Picksley was among the crowd at Iffley Road that day in 1954. He was then an undergraduate at St Edmund Hall, reading French and Russian. A club athlete himself, he had turned out with a couple of thousand other students, wrapped up in scarves and gabardine coats against an unseasonal chill.

“It was blowing a real gale, the talk was all about whether they were going to go for the record in the conditions,” he recalled. “It was over in a flash. I remember when he crossed the line, the announcer really milked it. “A new British, Commonwealth and World record time,” and all that. But when he got to the word three you didn’t need the rest. We all went mad, ran off the bank and down on to the track. I don’t think I ever heard what time he had actually run.”

Now, seven decades on he was back in Oxford, travelling from his home in Croydon.

“I had to be here,” he said. “I was not going to miss this.”

Jim White with David Picksley
David Picksley, seen here with Jim, was in the crowd to witness Bannister's remarkable feat and 70 years later took part in the run to mark the achievement - John Lawrence for The Telegraph

He was right to mark the moment. This remains a record etched in history, made all the more extraordinary given the circumstances.

Bannister was a medical student at the time, who had completed a morning’s shift at St Mary’s Hospital in London before taking the train to Oxford. He was running on a track not like the sprung surface of today, but constructed of cinders. On his feet were not the scientifically calibrated shoes of modern runners, but a hefty pair of leather plimsolls (which, in 2015, raised £266,500 at auction). He had sharpened the spikes the previous day in the hospital laboratory. His training was comically minimal compared to today’s athletes. Yet he tore round the track at a pace never before recorded and seldom matched since.

Certainly for those of us setting off seven decades on, his speed remains improbable. For me to equal his time would have meant legging it past Queen’s College and the University Examination Schools, over Magdalen Bridge and up Iffley Road at an average pace of 14 seconds for every 100 metres.

When I set off, I tried to run at that speed for the first few yards. I didn’t last long. As I fell back into a weary plod, I quickly appreciated how extraordinary Bannister was. All around me, young and old, men, women and children were getting a practical insight into his genius. Here’s a how quick he was: El Guerrouj – the man who 20 years on from breaking it, still holds the mile record – completed the course in six minutes 50 seconds, a time well beyond the capacity of most of us, but nowhere near Bannister’s pace.

“He was meant to be running with his wife and daughter,” Cram said of El Guerrouj. “But I saw him leave them behind and spring on. The competitive instinct kicked in.”

Like El Guerrouj, Bannister, I decided as I wheezed up Iffley Road and across the finish line eight minutes 50 seconds after I had started, must have had jet propulsion in his heels.

Jim White with a medal
It's not the four-minute mile but Jim got a medal with which to remember his mile run among the dreaming spires - John Lawrence for The Telegraph

When I finally got to the track where the record had been broken, I joined dozens of others doing little sprints, in our imagination matching the great man. Later there was a whole afternoon of elite runners doing the mile, belting round the track trying to match him. In the final men’s race, the first three, channelling the spirit of Bannister, all made it over the line in under four minutes.

As they ran, in a marquee on the infield, was an exhibition of art dedicated to his run, with watercolours and pastel impressions of his breasting the tape, his face contorted with the effort. Which is where the mere mortal like me can at least claim similarity with the great Sir Roger Bannister: I too looked as if I was about to expire too as I crossed the line.

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