The Chase for the Sub 4-Minute Mile and The Complexity of Success


“Wes Santee has recently broken the world mile record in the time of 3:58.3, and it should stand for many years to come.” -1950

With the passing of Sir Roger Bannister, who in 1954 became the first man to run a mile in under 4 minutes, we know the quote above is false. Where did it come from? Wes Santee, the Kansas miler, wrote it in his high school yearbook in 1950. Santee did not go on to run a world record in the mile, though he did in the 1,500m (3:42.8). He also did not go on to run a sub 4 mile, though he ran miles of 4:01.3, 4:00.6, 4:00.7, 4:00.5, and 4:01.3 in 1954 and 1955. In other words, Santee, a man who was in a 3-way chase to become remembered as the ultimate barrier breaker, never actually broke the barrier.

The sound bite version of history proclaims that Bannister won the chase to break the barrier via a combination of belief and precision-like execution of a task. The tweet-worthy version attributes it to Bannister realizing he could breakthrough. But the true story is more interesting and contrasts nicely with why Santee didn’t achieve his goals.

By all accounts, Santee was a brash and confident runner. His high school proclamation that he would soon set the world record demonstrates this nicely. As does his own words “I was the workingest kid you ever saw, and one skinny, strong SOB.”

On paper, Santee appeared the better candidate. He was much faster, splitting an astonishing 47.4 for 440 yards and running 1:48 for 800m  compared to Bannister’s 1:50 best. He also possessed equal endurance as an NCAA cross-country champion and Olympian over 5,000 meters in 1952. In other words, he had had both sides of the equation, speed and endurance.

Yet, Santee had his own issues. The collegiate season meant running two or three races almost every weekend. At a meet in Berkeley, he ran 48.0 for 440 yards, 1:51.4 for 880 yards and 4:05.5 for a mile, all on the same weekend. At the Texas Relays, he ran relay splits of 1:47.7 and 4:05. In other words, Santee was in shape to go under four, but he was wasting his fitness on team relays, instead of targeting history. By the time his collegiate career was over and Santee would be in control of his career, Bannister had achieved the impossible. Shortly after, Santee’s own dream of running under 4 was dashed as he was banned for violating amateur rules for accepting a little over $1,000 from meet promoters on a racing trip to Europe. (Track and field was considered Amateur sport during that time period, so if you were paid, they’d boot you out. Even though, under the table payments occurred frequently to attract the top talent to meets)

John Landy, on the other hand, spent his time training and competing in Australia, increasing his training load to a level that was completely unfathomable to Bannister. From July 21st, 1953 to October 1st, 1953, he completed over 700 x 600-yard repeats, averaging 10×600 yard intervals with 600-yard jog recoveries every single day. Variety must not have been Landy’s strong point. He had run 4:02.0 and was on his way to Finland where he could take advantage of the better-manicured tracks, competition, and perhaps even a rabbit or two that would be available in Europe. When he arrived in Finland, he heard he was too late.

History relegates John Landy to the 2nd man under four, pushing Bannister from across the globe. Santee is remembered as a world-class runner who fell just short. Arne Anderson and Gunder Hagg, the two men who preceded Bannister, Landy, and Santee, had traded the world record 6-times bringing it from 4:06.4 to 4:01.4 before being banned for violating amateur rules. They battled to run 4:01.4 and 4:01.6 in 1945, nine years before Bannister’s magical run. They were both banned in 1946, ending any further challenge to the barrier.

If Bannister had called off his attempt on the account of wind (like he was tempted to do), if Santee’s coaches had allowed him to focus solely on the mile, if Landy had just had some training partners willing and able to set up a race, or if Anderson and Hagg had been allowed to chase the mythical barrier instead of being banned for amateur rules, history might have been different.

While bite-size history might emphasize the psychological breakthrough, the reality is much more complex. The point isn’t to put down Bannister, who had his own setbacks and difficulties to overcome. Yet, in the race to become the one person remembered in history as a transformer, there were 5 likely candidates. All worthy, all capable. Only two ever made it under four minutes for the mile, and one obviously did it first. Preparation, circumstance, and a bit of luck played a role in deciding the fate of the five men.

And that’s how success often is. We like to attribute success to concrete items, to give the illusion that we can control the outcome. The easy answer is to proclaim that Bannister had the psychological fortitude. The reality, however, is that success is messy and complex. Sometimes, we are like Wes Santee and have to make the best of our competition schedules. Other times, we miss the timing ever so slightly like John Landy. Other times, life gets in the way and takes our opportunity away, like Anderson and Hagg. That doesn’t discount what any of these men did. They all went for it, all put in the work, and dared to see how good they could be. And to me, that is the lesson from the quest for the four-minute-mile. The magic is in the chase, whatever our own 4-minute mile may be.

If you’d like to know more about this wonderful battle to break 4, check out the book The Perfect Mile.

— Steve

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