SI Vault
 
NAKED TRUTH CONCERNING A FLASHY RUNNER OF THE SUB-FOUR-MINUTE MILE
Michael Baughman
May 19, 1980
Everyone knows that Roger Bannister is credited with having run the first sub-four-minute mile. Yet stories persist that the feat was actually, if unofficially, accomplished before Bannister did it. Probably the most widely known concerns Glenn Cunningham, who in 1930, 24 years before Bannister ran his 3:59.4, was told by his high school coach, Roy Varney, that he had broken four minutes in a time trial. Some say Varney mistakenly timed Cunningham over 1,500 meters or that he misread his stopwatch, or that he used a coach's ploy, wildly exaggerating Cunningham's time to give him confidence.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 19, 1980

Naked Truth Concerning A Flashy Runner Of The Sub-four-minute Mile

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Everyone knows that Roger Bannister is credited with having run the first sub-four-minute mile. Yet stories persist that the feat was actually, if unofficially, accomplished before Bannister did it. Probably the most widely known concerns Glenn Cunningham, who in 1930, 24 years before Bannister ran his 3:59.4, was told by his high school coach, Roy Varney, that he had broken four minutes in a time trial. Some say Varney mistakenly timed Cunningham over 1,500 meters or that he misread his stopwatch, or that he used a coach's ploy, wildly exaggerating Cunningham's time to give him confidence.

I remember reading of a sub-four-minute mile in Ripley's Believe It Or Not. This run supposedly took place in the 19th century. According to Ripley, a Pawnee Indian named Koo-tah-we-cots-oo-lel-e-hoo-la-shar (presumably, his friends called him Clyde) ran a measured mile along a dirt road in less than four minutes, with his time recorded by U.S. Army observers. No other details were given.

Maybe Cunningham really did it, and maybe the Indian did, too. We'll never be sure. I'd now like to add a pre-Bannister, sub-four-minute-mile story of my own. I didn't run it myself. My friend Doug did.

Doug was a sprinter, powerfully built with thickly muscled arms and legs and a broad chest. He tried the mile only once. We were high school students in Honolulu then, and his notable run occurred just months before Bannister's.

These were the circumstances: Doug needed quick money, at least $100, something to do with repairs on his car. We talked things over and came up with an idea. He would run one mile nude, wearing a rubber ape mask, down Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki's main drag, at eight o'clock on a Saturday night. The name of the thoroughfare would remain secret, of course, until immediately before Doug took out. I was his business manager. I discreetly spread the word—promising only that the run would take place on "a busy street"—and collected a dollar apiece from interested customers. On the appointed Saturday morning I designated a place where everyone was to gather at seven p.m. There I would check my list of those who had paid, take money from those who hadn't and lead everyone to the starting point.

The preliminaries went smoothly. Doug and I realized that word of such a stunt would spread fast, but because only he and I knew exactly where he would run, we thought it would be safe enough. No matter what happened or who saw it, if he wasn't caught, how could anyone prove who it had been? The rubber ape mask would cover his entire head. He had altered it only slightly, enlarging the holes around the mouth and nose for easier breathing.

So at 7:45 p.m. Saturday, I led a long procession of cars toward Waikiki. We all found parking spaces a few blocks away and then walked toward Kalakaua Avenue. Timing was crucial, because a crowd of more than 100 high school boys couldn't very well go unnoticed. I hoped to reach the spot where the run was to start a minute or two before eight. There was a dark, narrow alley that opened onto Kalakaua in the middle of its brightest, busiest stretch. Precisely at eight, Doug would come out of the alley, turn right and start his mile. We had measured the distance with a car, and it actually came out to a fraction over a mile. A few hundred yards from where he would turn off Kalakaua we had hidden some clothes.

Had it not been for the police, everything probably would have gone off perfectly. Kalakaua was as mobbed as usual that night. There were the tourists, mostly middle-aged or elderly, and many local young couples wandering in and out of the bars, restaurants and night clubs in the area. When the crowd I was leading hit the street, there were some curious looks, but no one seemed to take special note of us. I checked my watch. It was 30 seconds before eight. This agreed with a clock above a nearby souvenir store. Doug and I had synchronized our watches. I kept a close eye on my watch. Precisely at eight, to the second, I heard someone scream, "Here he comes!"

It was a wild sight, even though I was prepared for it. Doug looked like an uncensored advertisement for a gorilla movie called Mighty Joe Young. Dashing down the sidewalk, legs and arms pumping hard, naked except for the mask and his wristwatch, he was really moving. Thinking back, I realize how lucky we were that no one died of a heart attack or dashed out onto the street in front of the traffic. Most of the pedestrians were interested in one thing only—getting out of Doug's way as quickly as possible. Some looked frightened, some amazed. One old man tried to climb a palm tree.

No doubt I would have noticed more such details had the police not taken up the chase at once. Later on we decided that somehow they had got the word and had managed to follow our crowd to Kalakaua. Not 10 seconds after Doug turned out of the alley, they were after him with flashing lights and a wailing siren. Then, as you might guess, Doug really turned it on.

Continue Story
1 2