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‘Like a chairlift up Everest’: Once running’s supreme challenge, has the value of a four-minute mile diminished?

<i>Martin Rickett/PA/AP</i><br/>Athletes compete in the men's 1
Martin Rickett/PA/AP
Athletes compete in the men's 1

By George Ramsay and Amy Woodyatt, CNN

To Roger Bannister, the final few seconds felt like they would never end, pain overwhelming his body as he lurched towards the finish line.

But when he did break the tape, gratefully falling into the arms of bystanders shortly after, the famed middle-distance runner knew immediately what he had achieved.

As Bannister gasped for breath, the announcer tasked with declaring the finishing time got as a far as “three …” before the noise of the crowd drowned out the rest, for the exact time now seemed irrelevant.

It was 69 years ago on Saturday that Bannister became the first man ever to run a mile inside four minutes, gaining sporting immortality in three minutes, 59.4 seconds at Iffley Road track in Oxford, England.

The achievement, thought by some at the time to be impossible, had been dubbed running’s Everest in the years leading up to that day in 1954, though it didn’t take long for the record to be lowered even more.

Australian John Landy, one of Bannister’s rivals also gunning to break the four-minute barrier, took more than a second off the Briton’s time in Turku, Finland, a few weeks later.

But it’s Bannister’s landmark record that remains history’s most famous mile effort. In the years that followed, male athletes treated their first sub-four-minute mile as a watershed moment — a rite of passage on the way to becoming a top middle-distance runner.

“I was on cloud nine for two weeks … I remember I’d be sitting in the car driving and I’d get this big smile just thinking about that sub-four-minute mile,” former American track runner Dave Wottle, who first dipped under four minutes in 1970, told CNN Sport last year.

“It was just something that takes you right to the core of how important it was.”

Wottle was the 39th American man to break four minutes in the mile, an achievement he ranks on par with equaling the 800-meter world record and winning Olympic gold.

“Back then, getting under that four-minute mile was a big thing, especially for milers,” he added.

‘Mythical undertaking’

The four-minute mile captured the imagination of the general public partly because it was easily quantifiable — four laps of a running track, each lap run in under a minute — but also because of the appetite for discovery at the time of Bannister’s record.

Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had become the first people to summit the world’s highest peak the year before, and the first four-minute mile duly became running’s own Everest summit, expanding perceptions of human potential.

As well as Bannister and Landy, American Wes Santee was also bidding to break four minutes at the same time, though he fell short of the mark on several occasions throughout his career.

“This kind of combination of factors I think came together and made it this mythical undertaking,” author and performance coach Steve Magness tells CNN Sport. “It became this almost Western, country battle to see who could get there first.”

Today, the four-minute mile is still recognized as a notable achievement for male runners, though the frequency with which athletes break the barrier has become a topic of contention.

Earlier this year, Track and Field News magazine announced it would no longer update its list of Americans to break four minutes in the mile, explaining in a statement how advances in shoe technology “bombarded the 4:00 barrier into something no longer relevant for tracking.”

However, the publication reversed the decision after criticism from readers, who still deemed the four-minute mile an accomplishment worth recognizing.

It was common for fewer than 10 new runners to enter the Track and Field News annals each year in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, but today the record books tell a different story.

According to Track and Field News‘ records, 63 American men have run a sub-four-minute mile for the first time this year — and that number is likely to rise in the coming months — while 64 did last year.

“It still has some mystique,” Magness says about the status of the four-minute mile today. “I think where it differs is it’s not that insurmountable mystique — especially after the last couple of years when we’ve seen a rapid uptick in performance and the number of athletes who have gone under four.”

Changing the game

For long-time track and field coach Peter Thompson, recent developments in shoe technology have been central to increasingly fast times over the mile — especially since middle-distance running spikes with carbon fiber plates in the soles became widely available in 2021.

“Four minutes was the Everest,” Thompson tells CNN Sport, “and somebody said to me recently it’s like they’ve put a chairlift up Everest now.”

Thompson has previously worked with running brand Hoka to develop carbon-fiber-plated shoes and delivered a workshop on the performance-enhancing effect of “super shoes” and “super spikes” — as they are now ubiquitously known — at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon, last year.

The carbon plates, Thompson says, function as “spring-like devices” and give runners more energy return compared to traditional shoe models.

According to data he collated, between 30 and 38 athletes competing in NCAA Division I indoor track races ran sub-four-minute miles each year between 2015 and 2021; that figure has increased about three-fold over the past two years to 90 in 2022 and 97 in 2023, he says.

Thompson believes current performances are skewed by modern shoe technology and prefers to focus on the competitive aspect of races, rather than the time.

“Athletics is a simple sport,” he says. “It’s about who can jump the highest, who can run the fastest over whatever distance, who can throw the furthest. And the technology behind it doesn’t really matter.”

Sieg Lindstrom, the editor of Track and Field News, said the outlet stopped updating its list of four-minute-mile debutantes in January but relented a few weeks later after “a raft of negative commentary on social media.”

“Give the audience what they want,” Lindstrom tells CNN Sport.

He adds, though, that modern shoe technology has “changed the game” — thanks to the spikes mile runners wear in races, as well as the road shoes they wear for training.

“Workout performances are faster and recovery is quicker, allowing athletes to pack in more hard training with less risk of injury or overtraining,” says Lindstrom.

“From coaches and other long-time observers, I’m hearing estimates of four to five seconds of aid over a mile … I also believe some athletes are ‘super adapters’ to the shoes and due to stride mechanics get more help from the shoes than do others.”

Acknowledging that shoes are “a huge factor” in the assault on the four-minute barrier, Lindstrom also points to modern indoor tracks, many of which are engineered specifically to stage big races and produce fast times.

Take, for example, New Balance’s recently-opened indoor track facility in Boston, which has banked lanes to encourage fast running. Boston University’s banked track and The Armoury in New York City, popular hunting grounds for four-minute-mile hopefuls, also lay claim to being some of the fastest tracks in the world.

Tom Jordan, who spent 37 years as the race director of the Prefontaine Classic track meet in Eugene, says track surfaces make an “incremental” difference to running times compared with modern shoe technology, which he sees as “almost entirely responsible for the huge improvement in times.”

“I think that what you have is a situation where the value of the sub-four-minute mile will be so diminished,” Jordan tells CNN Sport. “It’ll take 10 years, but it won’t rate a mention in meet summaries or meet stories.”

Today, judging by the online response to Track and Field News’ decision to no longer chronicle four-minute miles, the marker is still worth recognizing for many observers.

That’s perhaps testament to the mile’s enduring legacy — even if a sub-four-minute time is unlikely ever to be met with the same fanfare as when Bannister collapsed across the finish line in Oxford nearly 70 years ago. It’s also a sign of the way athletic disciplines develop — just as the introduction of fiberglass or carbon fiber poles enabled pole vaulters to jump greater heights.

“Everything moves on,”1,500-meter world champion Jake Wightman told The Independent in a 2021 interview. “If you’re arguing we shouldn’t wear these spikes, are you arguing we should never have changed from leather spikes with nails in the bottom running on cinder tracks?”

“There are always going to be developments in technology across the sport … It’s always going to keep moving forward.”

According to Jordan, the Prefontaine Classic had more sub-four-minute miles than any other track meet in the world — something he looks back on with pride. However, he predicts it won’t be too long before we revise what’s considered a “fast” time in the distance.

“What may well happen is that it will become so common that eventually the athletics public will catch up and say, ‘Okay, well, four minutes doesn’t really mean that much, but 3:50 is still a very good goal,'” says Jordan.

“There may be new benchmarks that are established in terms of what constitutes the supreme challenge.”

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