Runners from Canada, the United States, Mexico and Australia cherished the chance to compete in a rare one-mile race Thursday night as the Harry Jerome International Track Classic celebrated the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Miracle Mile.
On Aug. 7, 1954 in the British Empire (now Commonwealth) Games at Vancouver's since-demolished Empire Stadium, Britain's Bannister and Australia's Landy became the first two runners to run a mile in under four minutes. Now at Burnaby's Swangard Stadium the goal was the same: to break the four-minute mark.
Yet, despite advancements in fitness, training and technology intended to gain as many competitive advantages as possible, only three runners — two Canadians and an American — managed to duplicate Bannister and Landy's feat.
Nate Brannen, a 31-year-old Cambridge, Ont., native who now lives and trains in Dublin, Ohio, crossed the finish line first in three minutes 57.48 seconds. Charles Philibert-Tiboutot, 23, of Quebec City finished second in 3:57.85, while Chris Derrick of the U.S., took third in 3:59.92.
Brannen has accomplished the sub-four-minute feat before in faster times. But he considered Thursday, along with the festive celebration of history on a beautiful night featuring a clear blue sky and slightly cool conditions that runners love, to be an accomplishment.
"It's awesome," said Brannen. "It's not too often that people see a sub-four-minute mile. Probably 99 per cent of the people here have never seen one. It was a barrier that was broken a long time ago, but everyone always looks at it as a special thing."
While Brannen was motivated by the chance to make some unforgettable moments, he also had an extra incentive — money. He earned $6,000 for placing first and, with his wife Theresa eight months pregnant, knew beforehand where the money would go.
"We're going to use it to pay the medical bills," he said. "(Health) insurance is different in the U.S."
Brannen could have earned a $4,000 bonus if he had finished in under 3:56.00, considered as today's standard for a miraculous mile. However, considering the baby on the way, he focused on securing at least $6,000.
"(The money) was the main goal," said Brannen, whose best showing in a mile is 3:52 and change. "Ten grand would have been nice, but I'm not losing 10 grand for $3,000 (the second-place prize.) So worst case (scenario): Go for the win; miss out on the (bonus) money."
Brannen indicated he had no choice to do so because the pace was inadequate. The race had a pacesetter or "rabbit" who held a wide lead from the outset, because nobody challenged him before he dropped out halfway through the contest.
"It was way too slow," said Brannen. "Everyone knows my style. I'll be there at the end. I'm going to kick hard. So if you're going to beat me, you better go."
Instead, the field remained tightly packed for most of the race with arms and legs churning and lifting almost in unison.
Like Bannister in 1954, Brannen came from behind and overtook the leader, with Philibert-Tiboutot playing the role of Landy.
"We started to go and I pushed it even more," said Philibert-Tiboutot. "Then I could feel (Brannen) right on my shoulder, and he wanted to go (out front). I tried to hold him off, but I think he has more years than I do in a race like this. I'm just really happy that I could get under a four-minute mile (for the first time.)"
The Miracle Mile anniversary was Philibert-Tiboutot's first outdoor one-mile race and only his second all-time after competing at an indoor version. Like Brannen and most others in the race, Philibert-Tiboutot specializes in the 1,500 metres.
"I'm from Quebec," said Philibert-Tiboutot. "The mile, for most Quebeckers, doesn't work. It's metres and only metres in Quebec. That's why I've never been too much into running the mile. But then, this year, with the 60th anniversary, (organizers) made lots of publicity around it, and I thought it would be a great time to do it. I knew I could showcase a sub-4:00 mile. The event was well (publicized) and I knew that everybody would have their eyes on this single race."
He also cherished the chance to compete before a larger-than-usual audience.
"Our sport needs more crowds like this," he said. "I don't know if you could call it good sportsmanship or bad sportsmanship, but I was just happy to go in front of the crowd waving and feel like they appreciated the show, a showcased event like the event we had."
Fans and organizers watched the final lap anxiously, and buzzed louder and louder as the seconds on the clock tipped upward before erupting with a loud cheer as the first three broke the four-minute barrier.
"I was worried with (less than a minute) to go, because I had said publicly, many times, that we were going to have a sub-four-minute mile," said meet organizer Doug Clement, who spearheaded the Miracle anniversary. "Fortunately, the athletes put in an under-56-second last lap to get 3:57.00. So it was a success."
Bannister and Landy, who have been dealing with health issues, were invited to the anniversary but, according to Clement, felt the travel from their homelands would not be advisable.
Clement, 81, who witnessed the Miracle Mile in person, said the anniversary event was actually more competitive than the original race, but the prize money deterred better times.
"I think the women's mile was actually even a better race," he said.
Sarah Brown of the U.S., won the women's mile with a time of 4:26.67, beating the 4:27.00 barrier that is considered the benchmark for female milers. Toronto's Kate Van Buskirk placed second (4:28.08) while American Lauren Paquette was third (4:30.73).
Brown prefers the slightly shorter 1,500 metres. But she was thrilled to record her best-ever time for a mile, while taking part in the anniversary of the men's event in a season with no Olympics or world championships scheduled.
"It has such a rich history that, I think, it's exciting in an off-year like this to be able to run in it," she said.
With the Jerome crowd, the best in a decade at 3,200 according to Clement, and a movement in the U.S. to run the mile more often, possibly for bigger prize money, the question now is whether it will be held more often in Canada. Clement predicted that the push for Canadian mile events will generate mixed results.
Brannen does not want the one-mile event to become commonplace here any time soon.
"In Canada, this is the only mile this year," he said. "But I like having not as many miles in Canada. If every (meet had) a mile, it wouldn't be as significant. Running it a couple times (per year) keeps that magic around it."