Doug Robinson: After 60 years, sub-4-minute mile still the standard for runners

Published: Tuesday, May 6 2014 8:10 p.m. MDT

England?s Dr. Roger Bannister, near collapse after his come-from-behind victory in the mile run in the British Empire games at Vancouver, B.C. on August 7, 1954 is supported by handlers. Banister caught and passed Australia?s John Landy in the fourth and final lap to win in three minutes, 58.8 seconds. Landy was clocked at 3:59.6. (AP Photo)

Anonymous, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Like so many others around the world, Henry Marsh noted the 60th anniversary this week of Roger Bannister’s historic feat. On May 6, 1954, Bannister became the first man to break four minutes in the mile, running 3:59.4 on a cool, blustery day on the wet cinder track at Oxford. It was exactly two seconds faster than Gunder Hagg’s 9-year-old world record.

Marsh, a former BYU All-American and Olympian, has a special reason to acknowledge the anniversary. He is a member of the sub-four club. He competed in four Olympic Games, set four American records in the steeplechase, and ranked No. 1 in the world in that event three times, and he still mentions his sub-four mile in the same breath as those other accomplishments.

“That was the standard,” he says. “That was it.”

Since Bannister’s historic run, more than 1,300 men have broken the so-called four-minute barrier, including 420 Americans and 11 Utahns. Twenty to 30 men join the club each year, but the sub-four still retains a certain mystique and is on every distance runner’s bucket list. Maybe it’s the nice even numbers — 60 seconds per lap, four laps, four minutes — that capture their imagination, this perfect combination of speed and endurance.

Marsh is 60 years old, born two months before Bannister’s historic run, which was considered comparable to Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight and Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s summit of Everest. As he gravitated toward track in high school, and specifically the mile run, Marsh became steeped in the history of the race and the lore surrounding the four-minute mile. He read Bannister’s story. He read about Glenn Cunningham and Jim Ryun and other great milers.

“A big part of my life was running the mile,” he says. “As far as I knew, that was my future. My dreams and goals were around the mile and running a sub-four mile.”

Marsh was a two-time state mile champ in Hawaii with a best time of 4:18, but his miling days ended at BYU. He didn’t have the sprinter’s speed to compete at that distance, and he found a home in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. He became a force in that race for more than a decade, but he never forgot the mile.

“I still had that childhood dream,” he says. “I always had that goal.”

So at the relatively late age of 31, firmly established as one of the world’s top steeplechasers, he attempted to fulfill his childhood ambition. It was 1985 and he was preparing for another assault on his own American record. He was in the best shape of his life — 12 days later he would clock a steeplechase in 8:09.17, which endured as the American record for 21 years — and decided a mile race would be just the thing to sharpen his speed for the longer race.

“I thought, 'This is my shot,'” he says.

He looked for a mile race in Europe and found one in Berne, Switzerland. He ran precise 60-minute laps, reaching the 1,200-meter mark in three minutes. He closed with a 59-second lap to clock 3:59.31, nearly duplicating Bannister’s time. With that, he became the 142nd American to break four minutes.

“I was elated,” he says. “I think I was the oldest person to run his first sub-four mile. The mile is the glamour race and that was the glamour standard.”

Marsh is one of a handful of Utahns who have broken the four-minute mark. Ten Utah collegians or alumni are sub-four milers — Weber State’s Jeremy Tolman, and BYU’s Nate Robison, Bryan Lindsay, Kyle Perry, Miles Batty, Doug Padilla, Paul Cummings, Jay Woods, Jason Pyrah and Marsh.

For the record, six native Utahns have broken four minutes — Wade Bell (3:59.8 in 1966), Tolman (3:59.99 in 2001), Robison (3:59.99 in 2004), Lindsay (3:59.16 in 2005), Perry (3:59.16 in 2008) and Batty (3:55.79 in 2011). Except for the performances by Bell and Lindsay, they are indoor marks. Padilla, a two-time Olympian at 5,000 meters, owns the fastest mile of the group: 3:54.2. He also is the only man ever to run a sub-four mile on Utah soil — 3:57.23.

Meanwhile, the world record has fallen 18 times since Bannister’s monumental run, having progressed from 3:59.4 to 3:43.13 (by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999). “It has all happened in my lifetime,” says Marsh, marveling. By the way, on his resume, Marsh includes this entry: “Ran a sub four-minute mile.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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