Roger Bannister, who ran the first sub four-minute mile in history in 1954, was the hero of high school middle distance runners in the 1960s.
Reading Neal Bascomb’s book, “The Perfect Mile,” has brought back the joyful and painful memories of running the half mile at Bolton High School in Alexandria the mid-1960s.
Bascomb’s book is about the year leading up to Bannister’s breaking what was called the four-minute barrier. The world record in the mile is now almost 20 seconds faster than Bannister’s time of 3:59.4, but it was once thought no one could run faster than four minutes.
The drama leading up to Bannister’s remarkable run involved Bannister, a British medical student; Wes Santee, a Kansas college miler, and another college student, Australian John Landy.
The milers, competing thousands of miles apart, kept up with one another in press accounts and movie theater newsreels. Every time Bannister, Santee or Landy stepped onto the cinder tracks of the day, the crowds were sure they’d see their countryman be the first under four minutes.
When Bannister was the first to do it, the stadium announcer’s voice was drowned by the roar of the crowd when he began to give the time “Three minutes … “
I didn’t matter what the seconds were. Bannister was under four minutes.
By the time I ran the half mile in high school, a Kansas runner, Jim Ryun, was about to become the first high school boy to break four minutes. He did it in 1964, running six-tenths of a second faster than Bannister’s first sub four minute mile.
By 1969, the best mile by a Louisiana high school runner was 4:08.4, barely 8 seconds more than Bannister’s amazing mile.
The 1960s were a golden time for middle distance in Louisiana. Robert Cavanaugh at Class AA Pineville ran a 48.5-second, 440-yard dash in 1962. I loved watching Cavanaugh run. He finished as fast as he started.
Larry Beebe at West Monroe ran a 1:53.3 880-yard dash in 1966. Bobby Sahugue of Redemptorist ran the 4:08.4 mile in 1969. The time would have put the high school miler in Bannister’s class in the early 1950s.
Improved nutrition and interval training, running a series of shorter distances to build speed in longer races, have improved times across the board, but Louisiana high school middle distance times from the 1960s have held up well.
We know now that the fastest among us, especially sprinters, have “fast twitch” muscles. Research suggests that runners may build speed in training, but sprinters and distance runners with fast finishing kicks are born not made.
Not especially gifted runners can be competitive if they’re willing to train hard and endure the pain.
Finishing “The Perfect Mile” the other night, I felt the good burn of air in my lungs on a brisk autumn afternoon. I’ll never run a near two-minute 880 again. Nor will I forget the marvelous feeling of doing it.