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At first glance they seemed like an odd pair of gladiators. Like most distance men both look frail and thin in street clothes. Landy has a mop of dark, curly hair, the startled brown eyes of a deer, a soft voice with little trace of the Australian snarl, and a curious habit of bending forward and clasping his hands before his chest when making a conversational point. As a student at Australia's Geelong Grammar School ("A Church of England school," says his father with satisfaction, "where the prefects whack the boys, y'know") John developed a passion for the collection of butterflies and moths and an ambition to become an entomologist (which his father cured by sending him to Melbourne University to study agricultural science).
Roger Bannister is taller (6' ?" to Landy's 5' 11?"). slightly heavier (156 pounds to Landy's 150) and slightly older (25 to Landy's 24) but he too would be the last man in the world to be singled out of a crowd as an athlete. He is stooped and negligent in carriage; he has lank blond hair, a high-cheeked, peaked face, and a polite and noncommittal upper-class British voice. The face is expressive and can flash with instant animation and warmth. He can use words with precision and humor, and at times, even with a sort of conversational eloquence. But scholarly is the word for Dr. Bannister. It is apt?he is a scholar and a brilliant one. Perhaps five per cent of London medical students go through their courses without failing one exam and Bannister was among that small fraction when he received his degree at London's St. Mary's Hospital this year.
But men are seldom what they seem; Bannister, a complex and many-sided person, is both repelled and fascinated by the hurly-burly of big time sport, but for seven years, he has driven himself, stoically as an Indian brave or a man climbing Everest, toward the four-minute mile. So during the last five years has John Michael Landy. Both men have engaged in an endless and grueling effort to explore and push back the furthest boundaries of their own endurance.
Neither has ever been coached?in the casual British club system of competition, unlike the more regimented U.S. college team system, runners are presumed to be able to train themselves. Separately, half a world apart, both Bannister and Landy arrived at curiously identical conclusions; both decided that overtraining and stale-ness were simply myths and that the more the body endures the more it will endure. Both drove themselves to extremes of exertion (training sessions of 10 to 14 58-second quarter miles with one lap walked between) which would have staggered the average U.S. athlete.
Bannister carried his preoccupation with the mysteries of exhaustion into the world of science when he was a medical student at Oxford in 1951. He ran to the point of total collapse on a treadmill almost daily, with hollow needles thrust into his fingers to measure lactic acid and with an oxygen mask clapped over his face to give him extra fuel. Meanwhile at Oxford, and all through his three years at St. Mary's (where he ducked out to Paddington Recreation Ground and paid three pence to use the cinder paths), he went on with his massive burden of running.
The two four-minute milers developed into unique beings?men whose hearts have enormous capacity and power and whose bodies can utilize oxygen with fantastic economy and resist the inroads of fatigue with fantastic success. Bannister's pulse rate, which was a normal 65 when he was 17, is now 45. Landy's is 50. But there their similarities end. In Vancouver, as the remorseless pressure of the world's excitement pressed down on them, and race day neared, their differences of temperament became obvious. Landy seemed assured, relaxed, cocky. Bannister became quiet, remote, and fled daily to a golf course to train.
But Bannister's teammates were not misled. "Roger hates the idea of having to beat Landy?of having thousands of people expecting him to do it," said one. "But he'll do it. Nobody gets in such an emotional pitch before a race as he does. He's got a cold now, you know. I suspect it is psychosomatic and I suspect he suspects it?he had one just like it before the Oxford mile. Roger may tell you he has slept before a race, but he hasn't. When he goes out to run he-looks like a man going to the electric chair. There are times the night before a race when he actually makes involuntary sounds, like a man being tortured. But Roger is a hard man to comfort?if you try he'll give you a look that goes right through you."
Whatever their preliminary travail, both runners seemed equally intent and equally oblivious of the rumble and roar of applause as they warmed up on the infield grass in the moments before race time. Bright sunlight bathed the jampacked stadium. The temperature stood at a pleasant 72, the relative humidity at a pleasant 48. Only the faintest of breezes moved on the track, as the field of milers was called to the mark. Landy, in the green of Australia, stepped quietly into the pole position. Bannister, in the red-barred white of England, had lane 5?he drew one deep, shuddering breath and then leaned forward for a standing start.
The gun puffed and popped and New Zealand's darkhorse Murray Halberg burst into the lead with his teammate William David Baillie at his heels. Landy let them go?he wanted speed, but he wanted top cover if he could get it?and settled into a docile fourth on the turn. He stayed there for less than the lap. The pacesetters slowed, almost imperceptibly, and Landy moved instantly and decisively into the lead. His strategy was simple and savage?to run the first seven furlongs at so blazing a pace that Bannister would be robbed of his famous kick.
As Landy moved, Bannister moved too. They ran Landy first, Bannister second at the end of the stretch and the duel had begun. "Time for the first lap," the loudspeakers grated as they entered the turn, "fifty-eight seconds." Then bedlam began too. It increased as Landy moved away?five yards, ten yards, fifteen yards?in the backstretch of the second lap, and Bannister let him go. "It was a frightening thing to do," said the Englishman later, "but I believed he was running too fast. I had to save for my final burst and hope I could catch him in time."