Enduring Questions: Mile Markers (Preview)

When Gunder Hagg ran 4:01.4 to set a mile world record in 1945, his achievement stood for 3,215 days - almost nine years. Then Roger Bannister ran his historic 3:59.4 on May 6, 1954. Bannister's record lasted just 46 days before John Landy took it down to 3:58.0. "For a few minutes, I was stunned," Bannister says in his autobiography, The Four-Minute Mile, first published in 1955 and still among the best running books ever written. "But records were made to be broken. Men would go on breaking records for as long as they ran. There was no limit."

The disparity between these two intervals - 3,215 days versus 46 days - says something about the inexorable march of world records. But what? I wondered what the mile record would be in 2054, 100 years after Bannister's record. Would it continue to drop at the same rate it had followed for the past 50 years? Or would record improvements become smaller and more difficult to achieve, as milers approach some sort of physical limit?

I try some maths on the back of an envelope. In 1886 a British man, Walter George, ran a 4:12.8 mile. The mile record dropped by a little more than 13 seconds in the 68 years leading up to Bannister's 3:59.4. In the 50 years since Bannister, the record has dropped another 16.3 seconds, to Hicham El Guerrouj's current record of 3:43.14. No hint of a slow-down so far. Is homo sapiens evolving into an ever-faster mile-running species?

Given our expanding waistlines, that seems unlikely, but let's go ahead and assume the record will drop another 16 seconds in the next 50 years. That takes us, in 2054, to 3:27. There's only one problem: I simply don't believe it. It seems impossibly fast.

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