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Bob Phillips Articles / History

Early Attempts at the Four-Minute Mile

184 years of talking – Parrot fashion –  about someone running a four-minute mile

by Bob Phillips


Jack Lovelock: Did he run 3:52.2?

When I was researching a book I wrote to mark the 50th anniversary in 2004 of the first sub-four-minute mile I became intrigued by the ”near-misses” and the “might-have-been” – the performances by athletes who could perhaps have preceded Roger Bannister by a few years, or even more, had they been given the right opportunity. There are a surprisingly large number of them, and I came to the conclusion, for example, that not nearly enough credit had been given to the fastest mile run in the years before World War II. Contrary to what you might suppose, that was not the official World record of 4:06.8 by Great Britain’s Sydney Wooderson in 1937 but the 4:04.4 indoors by the USA’s Glenn Cunningham the following year.

Wooderson’s mile had been achieved in unashamedly artificial circumstances, with other runners in the “”race” given as much as 140 yards’ start (his brother, Stanley), and an initial pace-maker off 10 yards who was a former British Empire Games mile champion, no less (Reg Thomas). Cunningham’s time was achieved in almost identical conditions, even if the venue was very different. Wooderson had run at the 440-yard Motspur Patk track in Surrey, just beyond the suburbs of South London, which was probably the best cinder surface in Britain at the time. Cunningham covered 6.73 laps of the oddly-contoured 264-yard board banked circuit at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, with six members of the college track team starting off at various distances ranging from five yards to 600 yards ahead of him to aid his efforts – all of them hand-picked by the college coach, Harry Hillman, who had won gold medals at 400 metres, 200 metres hurdles and 400 metres hurdles at the 1904 Olympics. .

I can’t help thinking that whatever advantage Cunningham gained from his helpmates might have been offset to some considerable extent by his having to negotiate 13 tight turns – made even tighter by the fact that the straights were 100 yards in length, each briefly passing through a tunnel !. Of course, the camber would have helped on the curves, and no one knew more about the technique of indoor miling than Cunningham in those days. He did his 4:04.4 on 3 March, and between 12 February and 19 March he ran (and won) five other indoor mile races in the 4:07-to-4:11 range, plus a 3:48.4 for 1500 metres which was only six-tenths slower than Jack Lovelock’s outdoor record from the Berlin Olympics of some 18 months before. At 5ft 10in (1.77m) tall, and with a somewhat heavy-looking running style, Cunningham wasn’t exactly the perfect build for indoor racing, but he obviously coped perfectly adequately Bu there’s more to this story than a mere matter of Cunningham running a quicker mile among so many others that year. Hillman knew the track was fast, and it was unintentionally so because the staff responsible for the design and construction knew nothing about track & field, and unbeknown to them the extravagant spruce-wood under foot, laid on a cinder base, provided for an ideal running surface. Cunningham had been persuaded by Hillman to try the track out and had arrived at the local station that afternoon on the aptly-timed 4.04 p.m. train, to be welcomed with wild excitement by almost the entire student body and most of the local residents.

Some 3000 people packed into the arena and they even complied with a “no smoking” request from Hillman. One of the oft-forgotten hazards of indoor athletics in the USA throughout much of the 20th Century was that competitors had to contend with an atmosphere in which most of the thousands of spectators were puffing away on their cigarettes, cigars or pipes, oblivious – as was officialdom – to the effect. Cunningham was to say of his smoke-free Dartmouth College engagement that “it was the first race I’d ever run under such favourable conditions”.

One of his pace-makers, Fred Upton, thought in later years that Cunningham should have benefited even more from the occasion. “Cunningham”, he said, “could have run four seconds faster had he trusted coach Hillman’s assurance about just how fast the Dartmouth track was”. Wishful thinking on Fred Upton’s part ? Maybe so, but his statement does have a ring of truth about it.

By the time that Bannister broke four minutes 16 years later, this sort of contrived record-breaking that Upton and his colleagues had provided for Cunningham was beginning to be frowned upon, but it doesn’t seem out-of-place in the 1930s. After all, it was merely reviving an ancient practice because in 1895 the Irish-born American, Tommy Conneff, had run 4:15 3/5 at Travers Island, New York, in a pre-publicised record attempt, again with an ageing ex-champion to spur him along – in this instance, Eddie Carter, the AAU mile winner in 1886 and 1887. What is surprising is that such an enterprise wasn’t made more use of in the years that followed.

Norman Taber ran 4:12 3/5 in 1915, with three others in support, starting 10 yards, 120 yards and 355 yards ahead of him. When Jules Ladoumègue, of France, became the first man to break 4:10 in 1931 he had the pre-arranged help of a capable 800 metres runner, René Morel, for the first half-mile. Otherwise, the mile records of John Paul Jones in 1913, Paavo Nurmi in 1923, Jack Lovelock in 1933 and Glenn Cunningham in 1934 had all come about in genuinely competitive races. Maybe that’s the reason the record advanced only eight seconds in 24 years, though it has to be said that the progress at 1500 metres was uncannily exactly the same.

It wasn’t for lack of thinking that a four-minute mile was feasible. As early as 1825 an eminent physiologist, Peter Heinrich Clias, who had been born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1780, wrote in a 184-page book primarily concerned with gymnastic exercises that pupils of his had run “a mile in four minutes, and afterwards in less”. However unlikely this claim, it would seem that Professor Clias – who presumably knew as much as anybody did in that era about the capabilities of the human physique – did not regard the four-minute-mile as a fantastical dream, even if his time-keeping had not been as accurate as he thought!  

Professor Clias was almost 90 years ahead of his time because it was not until the eve of World War I that the subject was being seriously discussed by persons with a first-hand involvement in athletics. We have the first detailed history of mile running to thank for knowing this, as in the year after Bannister’s historic 3:59.4 a book cleverly entitled “All Out For The Mile” was written by George W. Smith, who was the honorary secretary of the UK’s Amateur Athletic Association (AAA). For the most part this is a fairly straightforward account of miling progress over the years, but the author had the good sense to contact at his home in Tucson, Arizona, the first official holder of the mile record, John Paul Jones, to write the foreword, and Jones – by now 64 years of age – responded with a most lucid recollection of a conversation he’d had with his coach at Cornell University:

“In 1913 I asked of Jack Moakley, who in my humble opinion was the greatest trainer of track men who ever lived, if he thought 4 minutes 10 seconds could be beaten. He replied, ‘Within three years, and some day four minutes will be beaten’ “. Moakley was coach at Cornell for 50 years until 1949 and died in May of 1955, just a year after his bold prophesy of more than 40 years before had become reality. This is the earliest confirmed reference that I can find to anyone closely connected with athletics discussing the possibility of a four-minute mile, and when I discovered that Cornell University actually held two copies of Paul Heinrich Clias’s book in their archives I naturally wondered if Jack Moakley had been inspired by reading it. Alas, a helpful librarian informed me that the books were not endowed until 1956, a year after Moakley’s death.

It may be that the same idea as Moakley’s was also circulating in the UK in those years immediately preceding World War I. One of the finest runners of that era was George Hutson, the Olympic 5000 metres bronze-medallist of 1912 and the AAA mile champion in 1914, a month or so before war broke out. A great admirer of Hutson’s was F.A.M. Webster, who would be a pioneering coach and prolific author of the inter-war years, and who in 1919 was to write of Hutson in glowing terms:

“Men there are – and a very few of them – who have great natural staying powers and a pretty turn of speed as well. To such a man nature has been very kind, for he has the making of a champion indeed if he is properly handled. Of this class of speedy and enduring runner was Alfred Shrubb, and to the same class, we believed, G.W. Hutson belonged, who had done some great running but nothing compared with what we feel he was capable of”. Sadly Hutson, serving as a Sergeant in the Royal Sussex Regiment, had been killed in action on 14 September 1914, only 72 days after his AAA mile triumph.

Webster quoted Sam Muassabini, who would be Harold Abrahams’s mentor for the 1924 Olympic 100 metres gold, as saying in 1919 that a four-minute mile was “a good deal more than a possibility”, and it’s not unreasonable to assume therefore that Webster already shared such a view. He certainly did so in later years because in 1937 he stated that “I am of the opinion that a mile will be run the level four minutes within the experience of the present generation”. It is maybe fanciful to believe that Webster had once had Hutson in mind as a serious candidate, seeing as how Hutson’s fastest mile was merely 4:22.0, but I rather think that coaches and athletes in those days might have been much less inhibited about times and targets than we are now a century later when hundredths-of-a-second are regarded as highly significant.  

Of the leading milers in the 1920s and 1930s, Albert Hill and Paavo Nurmi had set their sights rather lower than four minutes. Hill, the Olympic 800 and 1500 metres champion of 1920 at the age of 35 or so (he was coy about the subject), had apparently written out a schedule for 4:08 before he won the AAA title in 1921 in a UK record 4:13.8, and he may well have got much closer to his objective but for having to run an excessively fast first lap to avoid the melee caused by the 24 others who started in the race. Nurmi’s best was 4:10.4 in 1923 in one of his very few mile races, leading all the way against a single other opponent.

When asked in 1940 during a visit to the USA what sort of mile time he thought he could have done during his career, Nurmi reckoned that 4:06 would have been possible for him. He told a reporter from the Associated Press agency in New Orleans, speaking English in what was described as a deliberate and precise manner: “It’s foolish to consider the four-minute mile beyond the limit of human possibilities. The remarkable feats of Lovelock, Cunningham, Wooderson and now Chuck Fenske have proved that the figure will be driven down consistently. I never specialised in the mile, but I honestly believe that if I had concentrated on the mile I could have driven the time down to 4:06 or 4/07 15 years ago. If that had happened, perhaps the four-minute mile would have been here by now”.

The American, Fenske, twice ran 4:07.4 indoors the following month and never got closer to four minutes, but other Americans, with typical candour, believed that they could have done. Cunningham, when interviewed in 1981, was adamant – “I always wanted to be the first to break the four-minute mile” – and one of his contemporaries certainly shared such aspiration. At the 1940 AAU Championships Walter Mehl beat Cunningham by the narrowest of margins at 1500 metres, 3:47.9 to 3:48.0, and a stride or so quicker would have broken Lovelock’s record. Mehl ran a 4:07.4 indoor mile the following year and then went into the armed services, thwarting ambitions he had to go a great deal faster, and more than 60 years later, when I was able to contact him at the age of 86, living with his wife in a care-centre in Arizona, he still had clear memories of a chance missed.

“We talked about the four-minute mile”, he recalled wistfully, “but the war came too soon for us to pursue that further. I truly believed I could run the four-minute mile, but going into the Navy and four years’ service put an end to that hope of attaining my dream. I felt that the best in most of us was never realised because of the war. I wish I could have had more time !”

Miling activity continued in the USA and in neutral Sweden throughout the war years, and as we all know Hägg and Andersson, competing in cosy neutrality, between them reduced the record in six instalments to 4:01.3 in 1945, and but for the fact that they tended to start looking at each other on the third lap and thinking about winning rather than breaking records  both of them would surely have broken four minutes. It should have happened in 1946, but by then they had been suspended from competition for flouting the amateurism laws. Imagine the frenzied excitement there must have been among the crowd when Hägg led with 400 metres to go in 2:59.7 in Malmö on that ultimate record-breaking evening of 17 July 1945 ! But Hagg’s last lap was still only 61.6, even though Andersson strongly challenged him Actually, it was more than a lap because the track, bizarrely, measured only 393 metres in circumference, and maybe that could have confused the runners.

Any American miler whose best was 4:09.7 indoors but who reckoned that he had run four minutes on a rather less public occasion is likely to find his claim not being taken too seriously. Yet there is some good reason to believe this presumptuous tale. After all, American middle-distance runners were required in the 1940s, as they were for the entire 20th Century, to often run two or three races in an afternoon for their colleges or universities, and so they rarely had the chance to show their full capabilities. Thus it’s not too difficult to imagine that a training time-trial might be faster – just as it had been for the greatest of the 19th Century milers, Walter George. 

The four-minute claimant in this instance is John Munski, who was one of 12 children of a Polish-born miner and his wife from Minnesota, and who attended the University of Missouri. There he broke five of Cunningham(s conference records and was 4th in the Mehl-v-Cunningham duel at the AAU 1500 metres of 1940. In the year 2005 a reader of the renowned US magazine, “Track & Field News”, posted an intriguing message on the publication’s website, as follows:

“During outdoor practice in 1941 (I believe) Dad – a mediocre half-miler at best – would pace Munski. One particular day Dad did his two laps as the rabbit. Munski ran his usual third lap, when the coach, looking at his stop-watch, told him to take one more lap. Dad and the coach watched as Munski made his way round the track one more time to complete the mile. The watch read 4:00 flat. The story’s never wavered. Dad’s been telling it to me for 40 years”. So far as is known, neither Munski’s coach, Jack Matthews, nor Munski himself – who was to became an eminent teacher of journalism – ever commented in later life on the matter. Dr Munski died in 1998, and so we’ll never know ! 

A number of other interesting tales have been told from as far back as the late 18th Century about four-minute miles which “might have been”.

In October of 1798 a runner identified only as “Mr Weller” was said to have covered a measured mile along the Banbury Road, in Oxfordshire, in 3 minutes 58 seconds, but the press report added no comment, which rather suggests that it was mistakenly regarded as a commonplace accomplishment (the ignorance of the reporter, perhaps ?) or as being a highly unlikely achievement and therefore worth only a brief note.

Professor Clias’s belief in the 1820s that a four-minute mile was attainable does not seem to have been shared at all widely, even though he was a pioneer in introducing physical exercises into schools and his work was highly regarded in England and Switzerland. At the time of his death in 1854 four minutes was still a pipe-dream, as the fastest mile run to date was 4:28.0 by Charles Westhall on an 880-yard circumference gravel track at Islington, in London, in July 1852.

The timing of races was becoming ever more strict as the leading professional milers engaged in a series of lucrative match-races during the 1850s, largely in Manchester, and amateur athletics began to be properly organized, starting with the first annual meeting between Oxford and Cambridge Universities in 1864. No more was heard of surprisingly fast times in obscure corners of the country, and by the end of the century the fastest authenticated mile remained 4:12¾ by the greatest exponent of the era, Water George, though he was reliably timed in close to 4:10 in a supposedly secret time-trial. The spying stop-watch holder that day was Charles Westhall, the former amateur record-holder who was now a leading sporting journalist.

The most startling exploit of the 20th Century which purported to be a sub-four-minute mile long before Bannister received official recognition was that of a man whose credentials could not for one moment be doubted – Jack Lovelock. Yet it was not until 1987, almost 40 years after Lovelock’s death, that it was reported that he had run 3:52.2 one Friday afternoon in the 1930s at the Motspur Park track, witnessed only by a watch-holding friend and fellow-athlete, Anthony Etheridge, who was a reasonably competent miler himself, and so should have known what he was doing and seeing.

The distance was unquestionably the right one. The stop-watch had apparently just been re-calibrated. The witness was a reliable one. Lovelock was notoriously secretive and his extensive published diaries contained only such detail as he was prepared to make public. Even so, numerous questions spring to mind as to whether Lovelock really did achieve such an astonishing time – not least the fact that the first report of it did not surface until after Lovelock’s tragic premature death in 1949 – and, frustrating though it may be for zealous historians, it’s really rather more interesting, isn’t it, that we’ll never know the truth of the matter !   .     

But then is it stretching credibility too far to suggest by way of conclusion that Lovelock was beaten by 165 years or so to the honour of making the four-minute mile a reality ? On 9 May 1770 James Parrot (sometimes spelt “Parrott”), who was a street trader by occupation, selling fruit and vegetables from a barrow, was reported to have run “exactly a mile” through the streets of London in four minutes. The starting and finishing points were specified precisely as being Charterhouse Wall and the gates of Shoreditch church, and certainly that distance is one mile. Neither is there any reason to doubt the timing because accurate watches had long been in use, and presumably the time-keeper in this case carefully carried one as he rode by carriage either in front or behind Parrot.

The press made little fuss about the whole business – to be strictly accurate, they made no fuss at all, and the first report did not appear in print until 24 years later. This naturally raises doubts in any modern historian’s mind. So it would be all too easy to dismiss out-of-hand Parrot’s achievement as myth or exaggeration, but it’s much more fun to set aside the natural  scepticism of zealous statisticians and other seekers after absolute truth and give proper consideration to the thought that a four-minute mile may just conceivably have been achieved 184 years before it officially happened.

If you need any further illustration of  such a historical perspective, you might care to note that Captain Cook and his crew had stepped on to Australian soil for the first time 10 days before. Even from the other side of the World the news of that discovery would have been made public long before James Parrot’s rather briefer journey became widely known.       



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