Take a Step (or 9) Back for Sir Roger

The annual Cinco de Mayo parties and marketing campaigns may be winding down, but the following day offers another reason to celebrate, especially if you’re a runner, and even more so this year.

roger_bannisterThis May 6 marks the 60th anniversary of Roger Bannister’s historic run on the Iffley Road track in England, where he became the first man to dip under the “unbreakable” four-minute barrier for four laps of the cinder oval.

In the intervening six decades, running under four minutes has gone from being considered an unobtainable, superhuman feat to the mark of a really, really good miler (in fact college runners achieve the feat somewhat often, the latest occurrence coming at the Penn Relays last month).

Sub-four minute miles might be even more commonplace if the distance was contested more often, but sadly, that’s not the case.

Since Bannister turned the trick on that stormy English afternoon 60 years ago, the hallowed distance of the mile has been supplanted by its metric equivalent, the 1500 meters, a race which lacks the mile’s symmetry of four equal circuits of the oval, each to be covered in an average of 60 seconds.

Of course almost every track in the world has now been downsized from a quarter mile to the slightly shorter 400 meters, and that has led, at least in American high school ranks, to an abomination of a race known as the 1600. This event is contested nowhere else in the world, and has been shoved down the throats of American high school runners by some unknown bureaucratic rule makers of the National Federation who obviously felt most track officials were too infirm to walk across the oval to the backstretch for the start of the 1500.

As a result, scholastic runners across America run a race that means nothing outside of their own insular athletic world, establishing personal records that they’ll never have a chance to better the rest of their racing careers.

That’s why on this May 6, with its signature anniversary year of Bannister’s achievement, high school middle distance runners across the land should celebrate and honor him by stepping back from the common start/finish line and run an extra 9.344 meters and make what has heretofore been a miss as good as a mile.

A few minutes with a tape measure and a piece of chalk will do the trick, allowing thousands of high schoolers a chance to measure themselves against what many consider the most salient athletic achievement in history, over the full 1,760 yard distance.

So when the starter calls for all 1600-meter runners to assemble, be bold, line up just inside the 4×400 relay exchange zone, and find your inner, and true, miler. By taking a few steps back, you may actually be taking huge strides forward in bringing meaning to middle distance racing in an area it’s been sadly lacking for years.



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