It’s the race that cemented Roger Bannister’s name into history and the distance that everyday runners use to gauge their progress and pace.
Yet, over the years, the mile has been cut out of most mainstream track meets, replaced by metric numbers that don’t have nearly the same meaning, at least to Americans.
A grass-roots group of runners led by Ryan Lamppa, who once ran the mile in 4:11, want to change that. The group called Bring Back The Mile has sprouted on the Internet and elsewhere. Their goal: To make the mile the standard for middle-distance running and, while they’re at it, maybe bring some passion back to a portion of their sport that has lost some of its pizazz over the years.
“It’s a distance people get,” Lamppa said. “We can tell from the people who sign up with us. People are passionate about the mile. It really does have prominence in our culture. Not only on signs and odometers, but there’s something about the mile that’s very different from any other track event.”
Bannister knew that. After finishing a disappointing fourth in the 1500 meters at the 1952 Olympics — where metric measurements have always been in place — the Englishman looked for another mountain to climb. He set out to become the first person to break the 4-minute barrier in the mile. In 1954, he accomplished his goal during a meet at the Iffley Road Track in Oxford.
More than 50 years later, it’s hard to recall who won that Olympic gold in 1952. (For the record, it was Luxembourg’s Josy Barthel). But mentions of Bannister’s name and accomplishment still come up routinely. Lamppa said in the past two weeks, he saw eight media stories referencing Bannister and his sub-4 minute mile.
“And these articles, except for one of them, had nothing to do with track and field,” Lamppa said. “Here’s a mark that transcends sports. It’s something that’s so embedded in our culture and other cultures that it’s referenced outside the sport.”
Jumping on the Bring Back The Mile bandwagon is Jim Ryun, the former Kansas congressman who in 1964 became the first high school runner to break four minutes. A nice, easy, round number for an average fan to judge by. Not like trying to figure out what running 1500 meters in 3 minutes, 34 seconds really means. (That’s a pace for a 3:49 mile, by the way).
“You have to be an astute track fan to really understand that’s about 110 yards short and you’re going to add anywhere from 15 to 17 seconds,” Ryun said. “By the time you do all of that, you’ve lost a large share of the general public. Bring back the mile, that’s the goal of the whole program.”
Lamppa is hoping to gain traction for this movement by asking his “Mile Maniacs” to petition state high school activities associations around the country, almost all of which scrapped the mile and two-mile races for metrics decades ago.
The changes began in the late 1970s, when the United States was in the middle of a big push for metric conversion to match the distance-measuring system used by most of the world. The effort largely fizzled over the next decade, but before it did many new high school tracks were built with metric measurements. During this period, state activities associations converted their races to 1500 meters, which matched the Olympic distance, and 1600 meters, which still remains the official distance in many high school meets.
“Back then, I was a young coach and there was some resistance from those who’d been involved in high school running for a long time,” said Mario Martinez, a retired track coach in New Mexico who is in that state’s high school hall of honor. “They wanted to know, what happened to all their records, things like that. We went ahead and listed those and, obviously, they’re going to be there forever now.”
Though Martinez appreciates the effort to bring back the mile — “Just the other day, I was watching a movie about Jim Ryun and what a big accomplishment that was,” he said — he feels the Milers are fighting an uphill battle.
“You would have to adjust starting and finish lines at every track and you’d have to measure that,” Martinez said. “Not that that would be that big a deal, but obviously, then people would say, ‘Why are we doing this in the mile and not everything else?’”
Lamppa said he wants to take that debate one step at a time. The mile, he says, is the best chance to grab a foothold, maybe at the high school level and with a series of pro races around the country. Then, maybe the two-mile race. And after that, well, who knows where the movement might go?
“If they went to a mile in the Olympics at some point in our lifetime, I’d think that would be beyond our wildest dreams,” he said. “That would be something that would be like, ‘Wow, we really did do something with this mile event.’”