Bannister made life in the fast lane a goal

May 06, 2004|by ANDY MASON

"Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event No. 9, the one-mile. First, No. 41, R.G. Bannister of the Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton colleges, with a time whic is a new meeting and track record, and which, subject to ratification, will be a new English native, British national, British all-comers, European, British Empire and world's record. The time is three ..."

The rest of announcer Norris McWhirter's suspense-filled words was drowned out by the roaring crowd.

Roger Bannister, a 25-year-old medical student, had just defied the limitations of the human body, running one mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds at Iffley Road Track in Oxford, England. No athlete before had broken 4 minutes for the distance.

The date was May 6, 1954 - 50 years ago today.

Buzz Sawyer, 75, of Hagerstown, remembers it like it was yesterday.

"I was in Norfolk, Va.," said Sawyer, who founded the Cumberland Valley Athletic Club and JFK 50-Mile ultramarathon shortly after moving to Hagerstown in the early 1960s. "I had been out for a workout and got back in and heard the news flash on the radio that Roger Bannister had just run sub-4.


"I just was awestruck, I really was," he said. "Breaking 4 minutes was something that was dreamed about for so many years. As a runner, I had trouble running below 60 seconds for the quarter-mile. To be able to put four of those together just blew my mind. At that particular time, I was running around 4:20 for the mile."

And Sawyer was one of the better milers in the United States. He graduated from North Carolina State in 1954 as an undefeated miler in the old Southern Conference and a two-time All-American in cross country.

Perhaps the most positive influence Bannister's performance had on Sawyer was making him rethink his game plan for the track.

"It made me think I might be better suited for the two-mile," Sawyer said. "Eventually, I was ranked seventh in the world in the two-mile (8:59.2) in 1959."

Auburn University track and cross country coach Chris Fox, a 1977 Martinsburg High School graduate and former Hagerstown resident, is one of roughly 2,000 runners worldwide who have broken the 4-minute barrier. Fox, the only Tri-State product to clock a sub-4, ran 3:59.10 at an indoor track meet at East Tennessee State in 1983.

Fox competed in five straight U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials from 1980 to 1996, either in the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters or marathon. His personal records for those events are world class - 13:21.60, 27:53.00 and 2:13:40.

But it's his sub-4 that always will remain magical.

"When I started running at 13, I wanted to break 4 minutes," Fox said. "That was fairly important to me. After the day I broke 4 minutes, I never ran another (one-mile race). I wasn't really a miler, but I just wanted to get that goal out of the way.

"That has the most lasting meaning to folks," he said. "That stands the test of time. Most people don't care about my other PRs. ... Breaking 4 minutes is like saying you hit 40 home runs or rushed for 1,000 yards."

On May 6, 1954, it was like hitting 40 home runs with a single swing. Sports Illustrated calls Bannister's run the greatest athletic feat of the 20th century.

"It was the first individual race I can remember that made the front page of every newspaper," Sawyer said. "I still have the clippings."

"It was a significant moment in human history, not just athletic history," Fox said. "Guys were chasing that time for years. Scientists said it couldn't be done.

"Since then, more than a thousand of us have done it. It kind of opened up the door for us."

Andy Mason is assistant sports editor of The Morning Herald. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2334, or by e-mail at

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