The golden mile
Back in the early 1950s, breaking the four-minute barrier in the mile was considered by many to be physically impossible.
Yet, in 1952, there were three runners who were very close and dreamed of doing what no one had ever done before.
Roger Bannister, from England, John Landy, from Australia, and Wes Santee, from Kansas, all flirted with history, running within seconds of achieving the almost impossible goal, spurred on in part by each other while trying to be the first to break the barrier.
The Perfect Mile, a book chronicling the efforts of these three world-class competitors, was published this year, and author Neal Bascomb appeared at the California State University, Sacramento Library Gallery Thursday, along with U.S. Olympian Wes Santee.
Bascomb spoke first, noting that his book is more than just about great moments in track history, but about what it takes to do the impossible.
He also pointed out that in those days runners had “prehistoric shoes” and were running on cinder or dirt tracks, not nearly as good as the running shoes and all-weather tracks we have today.
The summer of 1954 would prove to be an eventful time in track history as Bannister, who as a medical student had only a half hour between classes to train and totaled less than forty miles per week, had quality training partners who would pace him in his mile record efforts.
On May 6, at a meet in England, Bannister broke the previously untouched four minute barrier, running 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. Sports Illustrated called his performance that day “the twentieth century’s greatest sporting achievement.”
Bascomb was inspired to write The Perfect Mile by Roger Bannister’s autobiography, The Four Minute Mile.
Interestingly, Bannister had become scientific about his running, considering it an intellectual pursuit for a time, and according to Bascomb felt that being the first to break the four-minute mile was secondary in importance to his rediscovering the joy of running.
Bascomb pointed out that all three runners had competed in the 1952 Olympics, but had “failed,” which further drove them to attempt to redeem themselves by breaking the four-minute mile.
Santee, who was the best miler in the U.S. in 1952, had one of his many run-ins with Amateur Athletic Association officials in the Olympic trials.
He had qualified for the 5K, finishing second, and at the starting line for the 1,500 meter trial the next day, had officials pull him off the track.
By the time he received an explanation, the race had started. The officials had decided he wasn’t good enough to compete in both events in the Olympics, so pulled him from his best event.
And you can still hear the bitterness and disappointment in Santee’s voice when he talks about the incident.
For the most part, Santee was very funny when telling his stories and answering many questions.
This is yet another example of unbelievably poor decisions made by bureaucrats changing the course of running history, echoed twenty years later in the life of the late, great American distance runner, Steve Prefontaine.
Less than one month after Bannister ran 3:59.8, Santee ran 4:00.6.
Santee was always the runner who wanted, intensely, to win. After growing
up on a Kansas farm with an abusive and, as Bascomb put it, “brutal” father, Santee found running as a way out, getting a scholarship to Kansas University.
Santee loved to win, loved the sport and reveled in performing in front of large crowds. He said that times were secondary to him.
When asked about the importance of coaching, he got choked up when speaking of his college coach, Bill Easton, as being like a father to him.
Then, on June 21, John Landy smashed Bannister’s world record by running
3:58.0. This set up the golden mile race in Vancouver, on August 7, with the idea of the world’s three best going head to head.
Santee had just wanted that chance, as he felt confident he would win.
Unfortunately, once again, bureaucracy reared its head.
Santee was in the Marines after college, after having received a lifetime ban from the AAU, and had requested summer leave so he could compete in this much anticipated event, but his request was denied, even though he ran for the Marines, leaving him listening to it on the radio.
The chance and race of a lifetime, denied, and you could hear the disappointment and frustration as he described what happened. Santee said his biggest regret was that American officials wouldn’t let him run that race in Vancouver.
Landy, despite a bad cut on his foot requiring stitches the week of the race, ran valiantly, leading until the last straight, when Bannister went by, with both runners going under 4:00.
Adding to Santee’s frustrations with the AAU was that Bannister used pacers – runners who only run part of the race on record pace to help the other runner – to break the four minute barrier, while that was not allowed in America. He said that if he had used a pacer and broken the record, it would have been noted with an asterisk, which is what he felt should have been the case with Bannister’s historic run, that it should not have been an official time.
Santee explained that he bombed in his 5K in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland because there were no coaches then, and a runner in his qualifying heat, unknown to Santee, went out intent on setting a world record, which left Santee following him, setting a personal record for 3,000 meters on the way before running out of gas.
Santee didn’t have many chances to run the mile rested, as he was often in four events while helping his team in various relays. He noted, with a chuckle, that he won 54 wristwatches as a member of winning relay teams in college.
He remembers a race he was really looking forward to in Los Angeles. Two days before the race, he ran under 3:00 for 3/4s of a mile in a workout and was raring to go under four minutes in the race. As luck would have it, or lack of luck in this case, it poured rain and the track was flooded the day of the race, despite it being summer in southern California.
Asked how he would compare mile times run over 50 years ago to today, Santee responded that he figures that the better tracks would take off at least one second per lap, with better training methods, like two-a-day workouts taking another 8 to 10 seconds off. And then there’s got to be something for the better shoes as well.
Santee, who looks like he’s in good shape at 73, still runs for fun.
Many more people will enjoy the story of the great competition between these three runners to achieve the (nearly) impossible as The Perfect Mile is in development for a major motion picture by the team behind Seabiscuit, with the screenplay already written.
Even today, 50 years later, top high school and collegiate milers still look at the four minute barrier as a magical goal to reach, if possible.
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