News arrived overnight that Australia’s legendary runner, John Landy, the second man to break four minutes in the mile and 26th Governor of Victoria (2001 – 2006), had died at his home at age 91.
Mr. Landy’s passing closes the book on perhaps the greatest three-man quest in running history; the race to eclipse the 4-minute barrier for the one-mile run.
Like reaching the summit of Mount Everest, which happened for the first time the year before, the four-minute barrier was seen at the time as a near impossible barrier to break.
During that period, Roger Bannister from England, John Landy from Australia, and Wes Santee from the USA riveted the sporting world with their separate assaults on the sub4 mile, helping establish the one-mile run as the marquee event of athletics, a position the event held for many decades.
Today, some 68 years after Dr. Roger first broke the barrier at the Iffley Road track in Oxford, England on 6 May 1954, the question arises, has the guest for the fastest mile run its course?
During this young 2022 indoor season alone, we have seen a slew of new sub4s, 85 in all as of 17 Feb. 2022, another 44 outdoors. As of 17 February 2022, 3:56:00 is the 1685th outdoor sub4 time in history as listed on the World Athletics website.
How important is the sub-four minute mile anymore?
We just saw Norway’s Olympic 1500m champion, Jakob Ingebrigtsen, break the world indoor record at 1500m in Lieven, France last week. His 3:30.60 would equal, give or take, a 3:47 mile. BTW, the indoor mile mark stands at 3:47.01 set by Ethiopia’s Yomif Kejelcha in Boston 3 March 2019.
Before New Zealand’s John Walker broke the 3:50 barrier in 1976 at 3:49.4, there was still a close connection to Banister’s 3:59 by all sub4 milers. But the world record for the mile still stands at an otherworldly 3:43.12, set by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj on 7 July 1999 in Rome. Second all-time on the list came in that same race at 3:43.40 from Kenya’s Noah Ngeny. In fact, the top five mile times in history were all run in the 20th century.
The quest for the sub4 mile began in earnest during the years of World War II when two Swedes, Gunder Haag and Arne Anderson exchanged the record six times, bringing it from 4:06.2 in 1942 to 4:01.4 in July 1945. That record lasted nine years before Roger Bannister’s historic run in Oxford.
Since then, the mark has gradually improved, highlighted by several special performances like Jim Ryun‘s 3:51.1 in Bakersfield California in 1967 which lasted nearly 8 years before Filbert Bayi of Tanzania peeled 1/10 of a second off it in 1975. But Bayi’s record only held for three months until John Walker produced his 3:49.4.
Brits Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett famously traded the record four times in just one year in 1980 and ‘81 before countryman Steve Cram notched his 3:46.32 in July 1985 in Oslo. Eight more years elapsed before Algeria’s Noureddine Morceli bettered the time by two seconds in Rieti, Italy in September 1993. That record remained on the books nearly 6 years until the current mark was set by El Guerrouj in Rome in July 1999. Since then, 23 years have gone by without any improvement or true challenge.
Without a top American in the hunt – America, Liberia, and Myanmar are the only three countries that still use the imperial system of measurement – there doesn’t seem to be as much worldwide interest in the one-mile record. Besides, 3:43 is so far under four minutes, it doesn’t really compute anymore. When was the last time anyone even came close?
Well, Jakob Ingebrigtsen went 3:47.24 at last season’s Prefontaine Meet in Eugene, Oregon (2021). That is the 9th best time in history, but still quite a way off from 3:43.
In 1997, at an indoor meet in Gent, Belgium, Morocco’s El Guerrouj’s bested Irishman Eamonn Coghlan’s 14-year-old indoor mile mark by more than a second at 3:48.45. Just one week before, a horse named Isntitgood galloped over a mile on the turf at Santa Anita Park in California, to break a nearly 20-year-old equine record for the fastest turf mile in history.
Despite this accomplishment, news of Isntitgood’s record was greeted, not with banner headlines, but with the fanfare usually accorded a post-election call for campaign finance reform. Crickets.
In speaking with notable horse trainers, I learned nobody considered Isntitgood a superb horse. The racetrack surface was probably too firm, they said, which led to the record, but also scared the trainers because horses have legs the size of humans yet must carry six times the weight. So speed is a dangerous commodity and horse people don’t train their charges for record attempts, only to win. Plus, you can’t interval train a horse, because you can’t get feedback about how it feels, and injury is too severe a price to pay.
Last week in Lieven, while the men took on the indoor 1500-meter record, the women contested the mile. Ethiopian Genzebe Dibaba’s 4:13.31 indoor world record stood as their goal. But a tumble within the first 15 seconds of the starter’s pistol by Ethiopia’s Gudaf Tsegay ruined the attempt. Tsegay got up, made her way back to the pacer and took the win in a meeting record 4:21.75. But she walked away disappointed by the fall.
Perhaps women still take a crack at the mile mark, because there’s a feeling they can still eclipse the record, while the men’s outdoor mark seems somewhat out of range.
However, with the new super spikes in play, that may no longer be true.
Now, time’s relentless march has taken John Landy from us to join rivals Roger Bannister (2018) and Wes Santee (2014) in the running firmament.
Their global battle to break four minutes for the mile took on worldwide import when the effects of World War II were still palpable, especially in England.
Though Bannister achieved the historic mark first, his record would only last six weeks. On June 21, 1954, Landy tore 1.5 seconds from Bannister’s record with a time of 3:57.9 at a meet in Turku, Finland.
Landy’s record, achieved without the aid of pacers, set the stage for a dramatic showdown between history’s first two sub4 men in August of the same year at the Empire Games in Vancouver, Canada.
Dubbed the Miracle Mile, the press promoted the matchup like a heavyweight boxing championship. Before 35,000 fans, Bannister followed Landy over the first 1500m. Then, rounding the final bend, Bannister pressed Landy on the outside as Landy glanced to the inside. Bannister rocketed to the line to take the gold medal in 3:58.8, Landy 0.8 seconds behind, marking the first time two runners had broken four minutes for the mile in the same race. Their race remains among the greatest mile races in history.
Sir Roger’s barrier breaking 3:59.4 in 1954 topped many polls as track & field’s most memorable moment of the 20th Century (Some lists have Bob Beamon‘s 8.90m long jump in Mexico City 1968 as #1). Could such a moment happen today in the mile with the same anticipation? The answer is likely not.
Yet the 4-minute mile barrier itself endures as an iconic number and cultural touchpoint. Ask any kid that dips below for the first time, or 38-year-old who does it for the twentieth year in a row. They will tell you.
R.I.P. Mr. Landy. When the world needed heroes, you stepped to the line with Dr. Bannister, perfect gentlemen displaying grace both on and off the track. That is a record that will forever stand.