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Sports World Celebrates 50-Year 'Mile'stone

From Canberra, Australia, to Mt. Desert Island (search), Maine, runners across the globe will be lacing up their sneakers Thursday to recreate one of the greatest events in the history of sports.

On May 6, they will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the day a 25-year-old medical student named Roger Bannister (search) did the impossible — running a mile in under four minutes.

In honor of the half-century anniversary, Bannister's autobiography, "The Four-Minute Mile," is being re-released; "The Perfect Mile," a new book about the history of the record-breaking run, is hitting shelves; and commemorative mile-runs are taking place across the world.

For Neal Bascomb, author of "The Perfect Mile," Bannister's achievement transcends sport.

"It's really a story about what it takes to do the impossible," he said.

Bannister was a 25-year-old medical student when he ran his record-setting time of 3:59.40 at the Iffley Road Track in Oxford, England, on May 6, 1954. He ran at a time when tracks were made of cinder, running shoes were simple and athletes were amateurs.

"The Perfect Mile" tells the story of Bannister and his main competitors of the time: American Wes Santee, who was the first to announce he wanted to break the four-minute barrier, and Australian John Landy, who broke Bannister’s record seven weeks after Bannister’s run. The three athletes were driven to change their training approaches after disappointing performances in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics (search).

"The lessons the characters learn from their failure and triumphs are just as relevant to the same challenges we experience in our lives and careers,” said Bascomb, who said he was inspired by the men's incredible tale.

"No one had told the story completely about the race among these three men," he said. "Bannister, I believe, may not have been able to set the record without the competition."

By today's standards, when elite athletes endure grueling training, Bannister's history-making time seems almost insignificant. After all, Hicham El Guerrouj (search) of Morocco, the current record-holder, ran a 3:43.13 mile in 1999. But Bannister’s run happened at a time when amateurs ruled track and field and when the sport enjoyed a worldwide following.

"It was the glory days of running," said Rep. Jim Ryun, R-Kan., who set the male high school record of 3:55.30 in 1965, which stood for 36 years.

Bannister’s determination to break a record that experts said was unbreakable is the lesson he hopes is his legacy.

"It may seem incredible today that the world record at this classic distance could be set by an amateur athlete, in bad weather, on a university running track," Bannister said in a statement released by Oxford University (search). "I hope that this serves as an inspiration to sportsmen and women everywhere to keep striving to achieve their best through personal effort alone."

Today, advances in nutrition science and technology have allowed more than 2,000 runners to finish under four minutes. Amby Burfoot, the 1968 Boston Marathon (search) champion and Runner’s World executive editor, describes the difference in athletes today as being full-time professional runners who make hundreds of thousands of dollars compared to Bannister, who was a medical student who enjoyed running.

“Today’s athletes run five to eight times as many miles a week as Bannister probably did,” said Burfoot. “They also avail themselves to a team of nutritionists, sports psychologists and exercise physiologists who analyze their breathing and muscle fiber.”

Despite these advancements, Bannister's run remains one of the most memorable achievements of the 20th century.

On Thursday, Oxford University will restage Bannister's race, in addition to hosting an elite mile race with the top three runners from Oxford and the British Amateur Athletic Association (search), the same teams who competed 50 years ago. Bannister, who became a neurologist and who was knighted in 1975, will be present for the Oxford festivities, as will John Landy (search) and other record-breaking runners.

And from Australia and England to small towns across America, running clubs will celebrate the history-making event with commemorative mile runs.

In Mt. Desert Island, Maine, runners will gather to run for 3:59.40, Bannister's record-setting time. The Badgerland Striders of Wauwatosa, Wis., are hosting mile runs beginning at 6:00 p.m., the same time Bannister's run was held. And on May 11 in Ventura, Calif., The Roger Bannister Mile Challenge will be held with a prize of $359.40 going to the first competitor who runs a sub four-minute mile.

For Bannister, he said he believes the lasting recognition of his achievement is in the simplicity of running.

"A man can, with his own two feet, overcome severe difficulties to reach a pinnacle upon which he can declare, 'No one has done this before.'"