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Four Minutes

Believe it or not, I used to be a runner.  It was one of the few things, athletically, at which I was somewhat decent.  Plus, it suited me.  I loved the repetition, the rhythm, the aloneness.  I also loved the challenge. Unfortunately, I wasn't very fast. I could barely run a quarter mile in a minute, pretty slow stuff.  Therefore, the longer distances were a better fit.  Thus, in High School I ran the mile.  Again, I wasn't very fast, and I suffered under horribly disinterested coaches, but I loved the thrill of those four laps around.  There was something very...I don't know, symmetrical about it.

My times flirted around the 5:00 mark, usually slower.  My split times were reflective of my poor coaching and lack of common sense.  For example: 64 seconds, 70 seconds, 78 seconds, 85 seconds.  Each lap just grew slower and slower.  Out with a bang, in with a whimper.

I was fascinated by those who could run much faster.  I once got beat by a runner who finished the race about the time I hit the middle of the backstretch, a full 3/4 lap behind.  As I ran, I watched this lanky dude with amazement, wondering what it would be like to be able to run that fast.  I read books about the great runners, paying close attention to the milers: Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe, Steve Cram.  But the two runners I found the most fascinating were Roger Bannister and Jim Ryun.

Roger Bannister was the first person to break 4 minutes in the mile.  Jim Ryun, my all time favorite runner, broke 4 minutes...in High School!  I consider these two feats to be among the most amazing, fantastic athletic accomplishments of all time.  Perhaps not coincidentally, the photos that captured these moments are among my all-time favorite photos as well.  

I love photos that capture defining moments.  Some are simple strokes of luck, some are anticipated and planned.  The Wright Brothers at the moment of flight, Earth-rise over the moon, a GI kissing a girl on V-Day... quintessential, classic photos.



But, back to Bannister and Ryun.  Just a man (or, in Ryun's case, a boy) running on a track.  Faster than anyone before them.  Here are the photos:

First, Roger Bannister.  First ever to break the 4 minute mile, and now known as Sir Roger Bannister, a British icon.  Bannister was paced during this run, completed in 1954:

I've always wondered what the fellow holding the clipboard is doing.  He looks distressed or distracted; to wit, he just missed observing one of the greatest athletic feats of all time.  Everyone else, except the timer, are watching Roger as he crosses the tape, witnessing history.  Not clipboard man, he looks as if he's swatting a mosquito.

Now for Jim Ryun.  Remember, this race occurred while Ryun was in High School.  As a Junior.  Ryan broke 4 minutes again, along with another couple of runners of his day, but after that, it wasn't until 2001 until another H.S. runner would break 4 minutes (Alan Webb).  So, to this day, only four H.S. runners have broken the 4 minute mark.  Of course, Ryun was the first and the fastest.  Here is the photo, undoubtedly my single favorite photo of athletic accomplishment: 

I love this photo.  From the jubilant official leaping in the air, to the thrill of the moment written plain on the faces of the fans, to Ryun's expression of pure agony and effort.  This is a photo of a person who has reached the very limit of his potential, who has absolutely nothing left. I love the dirt track, the shoes, the uniform. I love everything about this photo.

As a pseudo-miler myself in H.S., I naturally revered Ryun's running.  Besides being so unbelievably fast, Ryun was also a beautiful runner.  I knew I'd never get anywhere close to his time (unless I was allowed to run 3 laps to his 4), but I was inspired by the effort.  I still am to this day.  

For your viewing pleasure, here is a video of Ryun's sub-4 minute mile:


As a footnote, in 1997 a Kenyan runner ran 2 miles in less than 8 minutes. Back-to-back sub-4 minute miles. Sheesh.

Reader Comments (5)

Ruyn's leg......wow. that is some serious muscle definition. is that normal?

November 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKarin

For some of us it is.

November 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDaver

Great article! You were a good miler, I remember coming to watch you run the last year of high school. Don't play shy. No Ryun, but who is?


December 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTrey

Unbelievable . . . I remembering one time running 1/4 mile in 45 seconds . . . I about died as soon as I crossed the finish line.

December 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

Couple minor corrections to the above:

Although Ryun did indeed break four minutes for the mile as a junior in high school--just weeks past his 17th birthday--the finish-line picture that you posted above is, in fact, from the Kansas state high school meet in his *senior* year.

As of about a week ago, now *five* American high school boys have run under 4:00 for the mile--Lukas Verzbicas just did the trick.

And, although Ryun was indeed the first American high schooler to break four, he was not the fastest--that honor would go to Alan Webb, whose American high school record stands at 3:53.43.

June 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlease
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