Off track

3:59.4: the quest to break the four-minute mile

John Bryant <em>Hutchinson, 310pp, £14.99</em>


When I saw the cover of this book, which depicts various scenes from 6 May 1954, the day Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile, I was excited. There's a picture of Bannister, looking shattered, just before he crosses the finishing line. There's another picture, taken after the race, of Bannister and his two pacemakers, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway. What was that about? I had always wondered exactly why he needed these pacemakers. I had been intrigued, in a psychological sense, by the relationships between the three men. And the author, John Bryant, an Oxford Blue and Olym-pic coach, got to know them all.

The book starts well. On the day of the race, Bannister woke up "in a state of tortured anticipation". He had been resting, trying to conserve energy. But he suffered from nerves and worried constantly about his health. Bryant says that Bannister "felt alternately ridiculously strong and impossibly weak". On the day in question, he went to work - he was engaged in medical research at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, in London - and honed the spikes of his running shoes on the laboratory grindstone. "You don't really think that's going to make any difference, do you?" asked a colleague. "He knew there might be magic in sharpening the mind along with the spikes," Bryant writes.

And then there was the weather. Bannister was due to run at an evening meet at the Iffley Road track in Oxford; this, he believed, was his big chance to break the four-minute mile. He wanted a bright, clear day, but the sky was, as Bryant puts it, "cinder-track grey", and the clouds were dark and spitting rain. Bannister knew that if he did not do it now, he might never get another chance; two other runners, the American Wes Santee and the Australian John Landy, had been making attempts on the record, and were closing in on the magical four minutes. Was it even possible? Bannister believed that it was.

So here we are, with the story set up beautifully. A nervous Bannister catches an early train to Oxford, expecting to be alone; instead, he runs into his "adviser", Franz Stampfl, who is also travelling early, expecting to be alone. The two men fret about the race; Stampfl tells Bannister to be resolute. Still, when he arrives at the track, he is "paralysed by dithering doubt". He "agonised through his warm-up". He had failed to win gold at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki; would he fail now? The stage is set for a great race and, incidentally, for a great book about the race.

And what happens? At this point, the author veers off track. You might expect him to take you back a few weeks, to when Bannister, Brasher and Chataway planned their strategy. Instead, he takes you back to 1785 and describes a race, reported in the London Chronicle, between one runner called Yorkshire Joe and another called The Welshman. The course was a mile. A spectator died. The Welshman won. From this point onwards, Bryant tells you about the history of mile-runners. It is not uninteresting, and in places it is fascinating, but he has missed a great, and perhaps a unique, opportunity. I want to know about Brasher and Chataway. How did they train? How, exactly, did they feel about being Bannister's pacemakers? At one point, it is true, Bryant does briefly explain the science of pacemaking, but I wanted a detailed account.

Still, we are whizzed through a fine history of mile-runners. There was Walter George, a 19th-century pharmacist who would "prance on the spot whenever he got the chance", and who could run the first half-mile in less than two minutes, although he couldn't quite manage the whole thing in under four. Bryant also tells us about Arnold Strode-Jackson, known as "Jackers", who took long strides, who was Olympic champion, but who still could not crack the four-minute barrier.

Interestingly, a "golden thread" connected Jackers to Bannister. Jackers was admired by Sam Mussabini, who coached Harold Abrahams (the sprinter from Chariots of Fire) and another Olympic champion called Albert Hill, who ran the mile in just over four minutes and 13 seconds. After Mussabini died, Hill coached a runner called Sydney Wooderson, who ran the mile in a little over four minutes and four seconds. As schoolboys, both Brasher and Bannister watched the puny-looking Wooderson run. Both were inspired. "We looked at him and thought, 'If he can do that, why can't I?'" said Brasher.

There is loads more history. There are Swedes and Finns, Americans and Australians. There are interesting oddball facts, such as Jackers's belief that running the wrong way round the track - clockwise rather than anti-clockwise - makes you faster. Don't laugh - it might actually strengthen your left leg, giving you better balance. At the end, though, I still wanted to read a thorough account of the race in which Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. And for that, I will have to find another book.