Sixty years ago today, two dramatic races, finishing on the same cinder track within the same half hour, significantly reshaped modern running.
The climax of the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Canada, on Aug. 7, 1954, a mile and a marathon changed the thinking about the sport and left contrasting images that are still influential.
First, entering the finishing stretch of the "Miracle Mile," leader John Landy of Australia glanced quickly over his left shoulder at the very moment Roger Bannister of England accelerated majestically past him on the other side.
Twenty minutes later, marathon world record holder Jim Peters of England entered the stadium with a huge lead but suffering severe heat exhaustion. He staggered and stumbled around the track, fell helplessly, got up and finally collapsed unconscious across a line that he wrongly believed was the finish.
Sixty years later, those races are still the epitome of the rewards and the risks of competitive running, the human body's potential for supreme achievement and its heartbreaking vulnerability.
They are preserved in words, photographs, film and even bronze, a powerful statue of the Bannister/Landy moment still drawing tourists to the site of the now-demolished Vancouver stadium.
When Bannister ran the first sub-4:00 mile on May 6, 1954, and when Landy surpassed it six weeks later, those seemed to be achievements that would stand unchallenged for the foreseeable future. Four minutes still loomed as a barrier. But when both ran sub-4:00 in Vancouver (Bannister 3:58.8, Landy 3:59.6), they made it seem attainable.
It was a new thought that you could break 4:00 and not win. Runners around the world raised their sights.
Less than a year later, in May 1955, László Tábori of Hungary became third in the sub-4:00 club. Only 10 years later, in a stacked field on June 5, 1964, Jim Ryun became the first high school runner to do it. Ten years after Bannister first broke 4:00, you now could run sub-4:00 and finish only eighth.
The clash between the first two sub-4:00 milers was the biggest story of the Vancouver Games. It was being called the "Miracle Mile" even before it was run. Radio, newsprint, newsreel and early TV coverage was at saturation. Bannister grumbled about being hounded by journalists "trying to find out what toothpaste we used," and went into hiding, training in secret on a golf course.
Both knew the outcome would depend on whether Bannister could stay near enough to Landy's fearless front-running to employ his fearsome finishing sprint.
At halfway it was still in the balance. Landy went through in 1:58.2, clear by 1.2 seconds and going strongly. The third lap showed that Bannister was more than a passionate fast finisher. With determination and precise pace judgment, he slowly hauled in the rope that he visualized between himself and Landy. With a lap to go he was on Landy's heels.
With 300 yards to go Landy attacked again, and on the last bend he had opened a yard or two of daylight. But Bannister was waiting to pounce. He struck, lifting his giant stride higher and longer, just at the very moment Landy flashed that quick look over his left shoulder, hoping to see Bannister behind him on the curve.
"[Landy] lost a valuable fraction of a second in his response ... It was my tremendous luck," wrote Bannister in his book "First Four Minutes."
It was a model contest between two racers of contrasting strengths, each running his best tactic. The mile and 1,500 meters had until then been races with a slow third lap as the runners braced for the finish. The modern mile was born not when Bannister's pacemakers led him to the first sub-4:00, but in Vancouver when Bannister ran his third lap in 59.3 and outraced Landy in pure competition.
The excitement was so great that jubilant Canadian officials surged all over the track behind Landy, literally carrying Bannister off and forcing the other finishers to fight through them. Fifth-place finisher Murray Halberg described the "seething clutter of officialdom ... It was a bit of a shambles."
"The crowd was deliriously excited for 20 minutes by the thrill of competitive struggle," wrote Bannister.
But the mood changed suddenly.
Peters tottered into the stadium on the brink of a different, more grave kind of delirium, a less thrilling struggle. He led the marathon field by 17 minutes, so the gold medal was assured if he could reach the finish. The disqualification of apparent 1908 Olympic marathon winner Dorando Pietri after being helped across the line was in every mind, and no one wanted to assist and thus disqualify Peters.
"We all yearned to help him," said his England teammate Ian Boyd, who had placed sixth in the mile.
Pathetic yet heroic, reduced to a slow, weaving walk, floundering from side to side on sagging legs, arms flapping, barely keeping his balance, falling, rising, weaving onward again, at some deep level of the will Peters was still focused on finishing. To the relief of the whole crowd and his distraught teammates, he somehow reached the same finish line that Bannister and Landy had crossed 20 minutes earlier and fell totally unconscious. At last he could be carried off to receive treatment.
Peters didn't know for several hours that the marathon finish was another 220 yards away. He never raced again.
That tragic scene is almost unbearable to revisit, but it was profoundly influential on our understanding of the marathon, and all long-distance racing in hot conditions. Marathon start times around the world moved away from the heat of the day. The comprehensive medical safety arrangements at hot-weather events like the Peachtree Road Race owe much to Peters' suffering, and the lesson that there may be need for compulsory medical intervention.
Modern knowledge of the importance of hydration also owes much to the errors of that day. Not only was there little water on the course (or any marathon course in 1954) but there were rules against taking drinks in the first 10 miles. Peters carried that folly further.
"He believed that any liquid intake on the day of the race was harmful to performance," Boyd revealed recently. Many old-school men associated water with weakness. Peters ingested salt tablets, Boyd said.
Such self-destructive ignorance seems almost incomprehensible now. Yet Peters had single-handedly transformed the marathon with his high-quality, twice-daily tempo training and wire-to-wire racing. He set four world records, was the first man under 2:25 and the first under 2:20. He was the Roger Bannister of the marathon.
Exhausted collapse had long been associated with the marathon, but the spectacle of it happening to the best marathoner in the world at a huge public event, broadcast around the globe and within minutes of the triumphant Miracle Mile, brought home that it is simply not acceptable.
We are all more knowledgeable, better prepared, better hydrated and better cared for because of the sufferings of Jim Peters on Aug. 7, 1954.
Peters was later honored with special trophies in London and Vancouver, where he ran the last 220 yards to complete his marathon. He died in 1999. Bannister, 85, and Landy, 84, continue lives of great distinction.