When Roger Bannister first ran the mile in less than four minutes, on May 6, 1954, he was hailed the next morning by The New York Times as having achieved "one of man's hitherto unattainable goals." The four-minute barrier was not only physical but also psychological, and by cracking it with a time of 3:59.4, the Oxford medical student cleared the path for runners everywhere. Within three years, sub-four-minute miles had been run 17 times by 11 runners. But not by an American.
It wasn't until June 1957 that a gangly 20-year-old Californian with economics studies on his mind, the half mile on his track agenda and only four competitive miles under his belt became the first U.S. citizen to run a sub-four-minute mile. But who remembers? Though he bolstered his nation's pride 40 years ago, Don Bowden remains little more than an afterthought in most running histories. Unlike Bannister, Bowden didn't become a household name.
Of course, if Bowden had had his way he would have been a football player, not a runner. But he was 6'3", weighed about 160 pounds and was nicknamed Stork. Lee Cox, the football and track coach at Lincoln High in San Jose, took one look at him and said, "Don, I don't want to have to scrape you off the field. I think I'd better make a track man out of you."
Bowden developed into a premier runner, setting a national high school record of 1:52.3 in the half mile at about the same time Bannister was running his famous mile. Then it was off to study economics at the University of California, where he trained under track coach Brutus Hamilton and continued to dominate the half mile, setting an NCAA record of 1:47.2 in 1957. He never ran the mile competitively in high school and did so only occasionally at Cal. "I had the speed to run the half mile," says Bowden, now 61 and the owner of a tennis-court-surfacing export business in San Jose. "The mile took a lot more training, more endurance."
Hamilton, though, thought he would fare well at the longer distance. He ran his first collegiate mile in 1955, and he set a national freshman record of 4:11.7. When he ran a 4:08.2 in the mile as a sophomore, one local newspaper headline asked, CAN BOWDEN RUN 4-MINUTE MILE? Coach Hamilton said he was "horrified by the very audacity of the question."
Nevertheless, in the summer of 1956 Bowden qualified for the U.S. Olympic team not in the 800 meters but in the 1,500. Because the Games were in Melbourne, they were scheduled for late November, during the Australian spring. That meant Bowden would miss the fall semester at Cal if he competed. Intent on graduating on time, he opted for a double session of summer school at Berkeley. Unfortunately the combination of intense training and extra classes led to a case of mononucleosis. Though he recovered enough to go to Melbourne, he didn't make it past the first heat in the 1,500.
Americans were still trying to break the four-minute barrier when the next outdoor track season started. Some had come agonizingly close—Wes Santee of Kansas had been .5 of a second too slow in 1955. But when Bowden ran an unofficial 4:01.6 in the mile anchor lap of a medley relay in late spring of 1957, even his cautious coach started to wonder if Bowden was the man to do it.
The Pacific Association Amateur Athletic Union meet, on June 1, was the last chance Bowden would have to run the mile during the 1957 track season, and he and Hamilton decided to go for it. But while previous sub-four milers had benefited from pacesetters, months of focused training and fierce competition, Bowden had none of those. And he had other problems, too.
For starters, Bowden had an economics final at 1 p.m. on June 1, seven hours before his race was to be held some 75 miles away, in Stockton. Meanwhile, Cal was hosting the state high school championship, just a javelin throw from Bowden's classroom. "I wasn't worried about the race," he recalls, "but every time they shot that gun off, I'd think about it again."
When the exam ended, Bowden rushed to Stockton, arriving about an hour before the starting gun. The field itself was hardly world class. There was no one among the other five milers to push Bowden, and his pacesetter, a Cal teammate, had taken ill. On top of it all, Bowden felt lousy. "I don't feel much like running," he told a reporter before the race. "I haven't been sleeping."