SI Vault
Gary Smith
June 27, 1994
Forty years after Roger Bannister broke four minutes, the brotherhood of mile record holders gathered to honor their grand obsession
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June 27, 1994

An Exclusive Club

Forty years after Roger Bannister broke four minutes, the brotherhood of mile record holders gathered to honor their grand obsession

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Finally the bus headed down Park Lane, into the suburbs and then the deep green-and-gold country meadows between London and Oxford, the rain clouds unable to shadow the radiance within the bus's windows or without. "Jesus!" Tony Ward, the British Athletic Federation official who had organized this gathering, yelped every now and then. "What a collection!" He just couldn't help it.

Mutual respect rolled up and down the aisle like marbles, ricocheted over seat backs, pinged off wives, as the bus chugged down the motorway. But even among these men there was a hierarchy of awe. Elliott, having never lost a mile or a 1,500-meter race, having demolished the world record by the largest margin ever, 2.7 seconds, and having chucked it all at 22, had earned a special rung—what more, they all wondered, might he have achieved? "A being," Jazy called him. "from another world." Ryun, having chewed 2.3 seconds off the world record on a cinder track as a skinny 19-year-old—this still made them all shake their heads. Had his training, which included clusters of 20 60-second quarter miles with almost no time for recovery, not been so "suicidal," several milers agreed. Ryun might well have gone down as the most prodigious miler of all. Snell's blowtorch finishing kick was still held in awe, as was Walker's longevity (129 sub-four-minute miles over nearly 20 years) in an event that left Bannister bathed in sweat on the night before each race and Elliott "incredibly, uncomfortably, powerfully, sickeningly nervous" even as he warmed up. Then, too, there was Morceli's 3:44.39 ravaging of the record last year at age 23, entering a realm, without a rival to push him, that even these men found almost incomprehensible.

Walker, whose career straddled track's amateur and professional eras, had to know more about Morceli. "A V-8 engine on a VW frame," he marveled. "He'll destroy so many hearts, they'll all wish they weren't born in his era. What a tough bastard." Bleary-eyed from the long flight from Auckland. Walker leaned over a seat back in the rear of the bus, trying to learn what had incubated the Algerian. Walker harbored a theory that great milers were born not on tracks but on cross-country trails, amassing heart by slogging through mud, bounding over tree roots—and yes, Morceli confirmed, that was where he, too, had begun. "What do you think of the 2,000?" Morceli wished to know, since Walker once owned that record. "I am thinking of going for that record next." The 2,000 was the son of a bitch of all races, Walker confided, the most grueling on the body.

Sir Roger Bannister, the neurologist who lives part-time in Oxford, would soon be collected and seated in the front of the bus, John Landy behind him—just as they would sit forever in track history. It was not difficult, even across the expanse of 40 years, even amid the damp fragrance of the English countryside, to catch scent of an old anguish, baked slowly to resignation. Landy, the Australian, pounding out 15-and 20-mile workouts in pursuit of the record while Bannister, the ultimate amateur, whisked off his white medical student's smock, dashed from St. Mary's Hospital in London to the tube to squeeze in 30-minute sessions at lunch. Landy, the front-runner with the lovely economy of stride of an "Inca courier," as a writer of the time described it, hurling himself again and again at Hägg's record of 4:01.4 and at the magical number that lay just beyond it, unfurling six races of 4:03 or less between December 1952 and March '54 and once groaning, "It's a brick wall. I shall not attempt it again." Landy bursting through the wall with a world-record 3:58 mile on June 21, 1954...46 days after Bannister had smashed the four-minute barrier with his May surprise, a preemptive strike on history a full month before the summer track season was rolling. Landy finally racing Bannister to settle the question two months later in the Mile of the Century at the British Empire & Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, leading Bannister as they swept into the final bend only to see the tall, stoop-shouldered Englishman un-bottle yet one more of those delirious finishes that left him all but collapsed.

"I keep rerunning that Vancouver race," said the 64-year-old Landy, "on the theory that if I rerun it a thousand times, the results will at least once be reversed...but it hasn't happened yet. I've asked myself many times if I should've laid back that day, not set the pace, but I knew that would make for a slow mile and be unsatisfactory to everyone, and I didn't like the feeling of running behind someone. The trouble is, you make yourself a tangible target when you front-run, and you give yourself no tangible target. We were all the kind of men who set targets and chased them down."

Having run a faster mile than any previous human, Landy mused as the bus rolled on, had helped to transform him from a bashful loner into a man unafraid to try almost anything in life. He taught science. He helped run a cattle and sheep ranch. He worked on conservation of national parks. He became manager of the agricultural research department of the biggest chemical company in Australia, chairman of the Wool Research Corporation, technical director of Melbourne's bid for the 1996 Olympics. He wrote two books on natural history, one a bestseller, and now acts as a consultant to Australia's dairy industry and serves on committees for a hospital charity and the prestigious Melbourne Cricket Club. "The hardest thing to know, once you've taken something to the limits, as we did, is when to give something up, when to stop pushing further," Landy said. "I've tried to put a three-year limit on each of my projects. I've had a rich life."

On his lap was a sheaf of crisp photocopies, reproductions of pictures of all the world-record holders blazing around tracks in their primes. Landy straightened the stack a half-dozen times, glanced at the men around him speaking French, Swahili, Swedish and English and wondered if he dared to...and how it would be received if he....

"Michel...could you be so kind as to autograph these?" Landy asked. "It's not for me, of course. It's to auction them off for charity, for medical research.... Good on ya.... All for charity...wonderful...perfect."

ELLIOTT: Why did I run? I ran at first to remorselessly beat everyone I possibly could.

RYUN: I ran to get a letter jacket, a girlfriend. I ran because I was cut from the basketball and baseball teams. I ran to be accepted, to be part of a group.

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