THE MILE RACE OF THE CENTURY
John Landy, the second man to run the mile under four minutes died at age 91 on Feb. 24, 2022. The New York Times ran a lengthy story about his life, and I have condensed some of it for this article.
In 1954, three men were closing in on the once considered unattainable goal: breaking the four-minute barrier. They were Landy of Australia, Roger Bannister of Great Brittan, and Wes Santee of the US. Bannister, a medical student at the time, was the first to cross the barrier and will be forever remembered for his accomplishment. He ran 3:59.4 on May 6, 1954 in Oxford. Just 46 days later, Landy bettered Bannister’s time and ran 3:57.9 in Finland. Bannister was first, but Landy ran faster. Who was better? The two had to face off.
On August 7, 48 days after Landy’s record time, the two met in Vancouver, British Columbia in what was billed as the Mile of the Century. As predicted, Landy lead from the start and maintained a sizeable lead till the last lap. On the final turn he glanced over his left shoulder to see where Roger, now Dr. Bannister, was. At that moment Bannister flew by on the right and won in 3:58.8. Landy finished in 3:59.6.
In the many stories I have read about this historic matchup, I never learned a detail contained in the NY Times article. The night before the race, Landy was too nervous to sleep, so he went walking. Strangely for some unknown reason, he walked the streets with bare feet. He stepped on a discarded flash bulb and received a big gash on the bottom of his foot. A doctor closed the wound with four stitches but only after he promised to keep the whole incident quiet. Would Landy have won if not for the cut? We will never know. Lesson: even if you can’t sleep the night before a big race, do not walk the streets barefoot!
Santee never broke the barrier. He ran 4:00.5, 4:00.6 and 4:00.7. For a time, he held the US outdoor mile record, the world indoor mile record, and the world outdoor 1500 record. When running was over for Santee, he operated an insurance business and eventually retired from the Marine Corps reserve. He died in 2011, in his home state of Kansas, of cancer at age 78. Landy retired from running in 1957 and went on to become a distinguished researcher in agricultural science and died after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Bannister, also diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2011, died in 2018 at 88 after a lengthy medical career.
The mile record has been broken many times, since these three were setting records. It now stands at 3:43.13 and will likely go lower. The three best milers of the 50’s are now gone, but their honored accomplishments will always remain part of our history.