Anyone with more than a passing interest in running – and plenty of those without – knows who broke the 4 minute mile: It was Roger Bannister, right?
You probably know the story. It was a blustery day at Iffley Road running track in Oxford in 1954. Thousands of people had turned out to see if the tall junior doctor could dip under the magical 4 minute mark at last. In the hours before the race Bannister wasn’t confident. The wind could cost him a second or more per lap, and the sea of hopeful faces would be disappointed. But just before the start the wind dropped and Bannister took off with his pacers, racing through the first half mile feeling as if he had wings on his feet. As his last pacer dropped out the lactic hit, and he gritted his teeth and dug deep. Crossing the line he fell, ‘almost unconscious’ into the arms of his supporters… a few seconds later it was announced: one of sport’s great milestones had been surpassed.
A magical story, a marvelous achievement and part of the folklore of athletics. But was Bannister really the first man in all of history to go under 4 minutes for the mile? Strange as it may seem, there have been other claimants, the first of which was recorded as far back as 1770.
The Curious Story of James Parrot
Research by Peter Radford unearthed the tale of James Parrot, a runner and street-seller who traded his wares in London in the latter part of the eighteenth century. He had a physically demanding job, perhaps carting a large and heavy barrow about for miles every day, or else carrying large quantities of goods from place to place on his back to make his living. He would certainly have been physically fit from his work, but it seems he was also a highly talented runner. He had the kind of self-confidence in his own foot-speed that could only have come from regularly testing himself – and winning – against others, and must have had a good idea of just what he was capable of when racing the clock.
This must be true, because in 1770 Parrot accepted a wager that he could run a mile in under 4 minutes. There are no recorded instances of the 4 minute barrier having been broken up to this date, so it was likely chosen as his target because it was a kind of record attempt – even if records as such weren’t kept at this time. Parrot must have been a serious runner to even contemplate taking the bet, staking 5 guineas (at 3:1 odds) that he could achieve the mark, a serious sum at the time.
According to contemporary newspaper reports, Parrot did indeed dip under 4 minutes, winning the princely sum of 15 guineas and potentially, a place in history.
But is this too far-fetched to believe? Let’s look at the arguments on either side.
Reasons for Doubt
- Many highly committed athletes failed to dip under the 4 minute barrier before Bannister did so in 1954. Their training was methodical, and based on scientific principles and years of accumulated wisdom. Parrot would have had access to none of this, so how could he possibly have achieved such high levels of fitness and speed without access to (fairly) modern training techniques?
- Bannister’s record was achieved on a purpose built running track, wearing the latest and lightest in running shoes and attire. Anyone who runs both road and track races knows that the track gives you an extra few seconds per mile, so Parrot’s pace seems even more unrealistic.
- The run took place under conditions we cannot trust. Was the timepiece accurate? Was the mile measured properly? At the time of Parrot’s feat wager races were popular, and potentially lucrative. Is it possible that the whole thing was manufactured – a publicity stunt to raise Parrot’s profile and attract wealthy patrons?
Reasons to Believe
- Money was at stake, and a lot of it, so you can be sure that the distances and timings were carefully scrutinised by those involved. It is highly unlikely that the person who bet 15 guineas against Parrot would have taken Parrot’s word that the distance measured was exactly a mile, or that they would not have timed the run themselves to be sure.
- Parrot wasn’t a one-off. Two other men allegedly broke the 4 minute barrier within 30 years of his run. All were part of a healthy and highly competitive running scene that existed at this time, and would have trained hard to be recognised as one of the elite.
- Parrot, unlike Bannister, came from a tough working-class background, and would have had deep reserves of strength and stamina built up over years of toil. Many of the top fell-runners of the last century were farmers, shepherds or mountain guides-turned-runners, so perhaps Parrot’s lifestyle gave him an advantage rarely available to modern athletes.
- Parrot grew up in the relatively healthy years just before the industrial revolution (when the average height of workers dipped due to malnutrition), and he may have been a country child who had access to good food – much better than the typical Victorian factory worker. If he was one of the lucky ones he may have had a diet that allowed him to develop into a healthy, strong man. Perhaps nutritionally it was just as good as the diet Bannister had growing up during the period of rationing during the Second World War and after.
… Just maybe
There are some pretty strong arguments on both sides of the debate, and of course we will never know if Parrot was really the first man under 4 minutes for the mile for sure. But on balance, is it likely? Here’s what I think:
Imagine a man with the running talent of Sebastian Coe was born in 1750 into a farming family with access to plenty of decent food. Growing up he had a rugged, outdoor lifestyle, perhaps working as a shepherd. He grows strong running up and down hills every day to get to and from the pastures and builds up a foundation of fitness. Now and then he competes in the odd village sports competition and finds that as a result of his natural talent and active lifestyle he is much quicker than anyone else from his area. He starts to pride himself on his speed, and races whenever the opportunity arises. Later on he moves to London and starts working in another physically demanding job, hauling packs of goods around the city to sell. Every day is like an army training exercise, walking miles with a huge bundle slung over his back – as much as he can carry. Now 20, he still runs regularly in wager races to supplement his income. Understanding the fundamentals of training he runs as often and as hard as he can to improve his performance. Motivated by fear of poverty he trains almost every day, far more regularly than Bannister ever did (who claims he only ran about 4 times per week in the run up to his 4 minute mile). Through running he starts to make a good income. Enough, in fact, to stake 5 guineas on his ability to run a 4 minute mile.
Now imagine that despite his talent and training he wasn’t really quite up to the task. His training was just too haphazard, perhaps. He could probably muster a 4:05 (which is possible for a very talented modern runner with only moderate training), but in a fit of bravado had accepted the bet, perhaps hoping the extra pressure – the carrot and stick of the wager – would see him through.
Fast forward to the day of the run.
Parrot sets off from the start line and runs the course of exactly one mile in an effort that on any other day would have seen him fall short by 5 or 10 seconds… BUT… the course, perhaps set in stone in the terms of the wager several days in advance, ran almost directly due East from start to finish. It was point-to-point rather than a circuit. What if that day there was a brisk Westerly wind (coming out of the West, blowing East)? It would have been following him, blowing him along almost all the way. That could easily have been enough to see him across the line within the 4 minute target.
And indeed, the prevailing wind direction for England is from the West. It’s the most usual direction for the wind to blow in London. Straight down the race route. If you have ever run with a 20mph or more wind behind you you’ll know how much of a difference this can make. Perhaps this simple (and overlooked) possibility could provide a simple explanation for Parrot’s incredible time.
So yes, I really think it could have happened. James Parrot could well have been the first man to be timed running a sub 4 minute mile. Perhaps he should be granted an unofficial (and probably illegal due to wind) world record.
But without that following wind, I’m skeptical.
Gottas, T. 2008. Running: A Global History. Reaktion Books.
Fletcher, J. 2014. BBC online article (includes Parrot’s route map): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27298505