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Bannister marks 60th anniversary of 4-minute mile

Saturday - 5/3/2014, 9:54am  ET

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, MAY 3-4 - In this photo taken on Monday, April 28, 2014, Roger Bannister, 85, who as a young man was the first person to break the 4-minute barrier in the mile in 1954, poses during an interview with The Associated Press at his home in Oxford, England. It was on a wet, blustery day, May 6, 1954, that the lanky English medical student became the first runner to break the fabled 4-minute barrier in the mile, a feat that many thought was humanly impossible. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

STEPHEN WILSON
AP Sports Writer

OXFORD, England (AP) -- Sixty years later, Roger Bannister is busy reliving the four minutes that still endure as a transcendent moment in sports history.

It was on a wet, blustery spring day -- May 6, 1954 -- that the lanky English medical student became the first runner to break the fabled 4-minute barrier in the mile, a feat that many had thought was humanly impossible.

Helped by two pace makers, the 25-year-old Bannister completed four laps around a cinder track in Oxford in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, a milestone that captured the world's fascination and still resonates today.

"It was a target," Bannister, now 85 and fighting Parkinson's disease, said in an interview with The Associated Press at his Oxford home, a short distance from the Iffley Road track where he made his name. "University athletes had been trying for years and it just didn't seem to be capable of being broken. There was this magic about four symmetrical laps of one minute each.

"It was just something which caught the public's imagination. I think it still remains something that is of interest and intrigue."

Bannister's record lasted just 46 days, and he considers his victory over Australian rival John Landy a few months later as his greatest running exploit.

Yet, as Tuesday's 60th anniversary attests, Bannister's 3:59.4 remains part of track and field lore, a symbol of boundary-busting endurance that stands the test of time.

It's only a slice of Bannister's life story. He retired from running at the end of 1954 and went on to pursue a long career in neurology that he considers more significant than anything he accomplished on the track.

"Medicine without a doubt," Bannister said when asked about his proudest achievement. "I wouldn't claim to have made any great discoveries, but at any rate I satisfactorily inched forward in our knowledge of a particular aspect of medicine. I'm far more content with that than I am about any of the running I did earlier."

The man knighted Sir Roger in 1975 is slowing down as the years pass. He's coping with the effects of Parkinson's, a neurological condition that falls under his medical specialty.

"I know quite a bit about it, which is both helpful and unhelpful," Bannister said, sitting in his living room lined with photos and mementoes of his running and medical career. "But I'm 85 and something has to happen."

Bannister's right ankle was shattered in a car accident in 1975, and he already had been unable to run since then. Now, he walks with crutches inside his home and uses a wheelchair outdoors.

Hundreds of athletes have run the mile in less than 4 minutes since Bannister did it, and the world record has been broken 18 times since then. The current mark of 3:43.13 was set by Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999.

The next barrier in the sport? Bannister believes the 2-hour mark in the marathon will be broken in the next few years. The fastest time stands at 2:03.23, run by Kenya's Wilson Kipsang in Berlin in 2013.

"It involves a 2 percent improvement," Bannister said. "It has to be run on a day with the right temperature and on a course which isn't too hilly, preferably a course which is a single line with the wind at your back all the way. It'll be done."

Bannister and his wife of 58 years, Moyra, will mark Tuesday's May 6 anniversary at Oxford University with family and friends -- a lunch at Exeter College, where Bannister enrolled in 1946, and a ceremony at Vincent's Club, an elite 150-year-old sports club.

Missing will be Bannister's pace makers, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway. Brasher, who founded the London Marathon, died in 2003 at the age of 74. Chataway passed away in January at 82.

"I miss them very much," Bannister said. "We used to meet on the anniversary on May 6 with our wives and sometimes with children and have a kind of party and reflect."

Bannister has just come out with a new autobiography, "Twin Tracks." The book -- which grew out of letters to his 14 grandchildren -- traces his family's origins in Lancashire in northwest England, his years growing up in the London borough of Harrow and the story of his athletic, medical and academic life.

"If I don't write my autobiography, there may be biographies written, and I think I'd rather like to tell it myself," he said.

Bannister went to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics as a favorite in the 1,500 meters -- the shorter metric mile distance run in the Olympics -- but struggled with the addition of an extra day of heats and finished only fourth.

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