50 years ago, Kansan raced for a ‘Perfect Mile’

Conditions at '54 Relays spoiled Santee's record try

Fifty years ago this week, Kansas University running legend Wes Santee was supposed to become the first person in history to run a mile in less than four minutes.

About 20,000 fans weathered a heavy downpour and brief hailstorm just to see Santee singe the cinder track with his spikes and blaze his way into track and field immortality at the Kansas Relays.

Crummy conditions ravaged the old track and cost Santee an estimated one second per lap in the four-lap race. He still dashed his way to a scorching 4:03.1, but it wasn’t good enough.

“I swear to God he would’ve broken the record if he’d had a decent track,” said Bill Mayer, who covered the race for the Journal-World. “(Coach Bill) Easton was out there with a grater and a flame-thrower trying to dry it out.”

It was one of Santee’s final shots at running a sub-four before military duty and an Amateur Athletic Union ban cut his career short. He ran below 4:01 three times but never reached the sport’s seemingly untouchable barrier. London’s Roger Bannister and Australia’s John Landy did, however — a feat Sports Illustrated called the most significant sports achievement of the 20th century, along with scaling Mount Everest.

Santee’s best time was a 4:00.5, but his ferocious competitiveness, larger-than-life personality and numerous near-misses made the Ashland native a key figure in the new book “The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It,” author Neal Bascomb’s chronicle of Bannister, Landy and Santee’s assault on the four-minute mile in 1953 and 1954.

Recapturing the moment

The 1950s and 1960s were the golden age of track and field. Fans flocked by the thousands to see their favorite middle-distance runners.

Kansas University track great Wes Santee, shown in this 1954 photo from the Kansas Collection at Kansas University's Spencer Research Library, will be honored as an inaugural inductee into the Kansas Relays Hall of Fame this weekend. Fifty years ago, Santee was one of a trio of milers who captured the sports world's attention as they tried to break the four-minute barrier.

Bascomb, 33, didn’t see any of it but was inspired by Bannister’s autobiography, and he’d heard plenty of stories during his days on the freshman cross country team in high school. He knew that although today’s runners are clocking mile times faster than 3:45, track’s heyday was decades ago when the uncorrupted amateurs ran. It was the genuineness of the time, Bascomb said, that drew him to the story.

“The early 1950s were a watershed moment in sports,” he said. “It was really a time when amateurism was on its way to extinction and professional athletes were the only ones who were going to be able to compete at the elite level.”

Bannister, Landy and Santee were three college students who fit training into their school and social schedules. They all just happened to share a common goal: 4:00.

“They have different training techniques, different approaches to coaches, different reasons for running, different socioeconomic backgrounds,” Bascomb said. “I was sort of rooting for all three of them, and that’s what made the writing more fun.”

From continent to continent, the world watched and rooted, too. Once the possibility of a three-man race toward the milestone emerged, the story earned a permanent place on newspaper front pages around the globe. The three milers were on a crash-course with the history books.

Why the 4:00 mile?

“A lot of people ask why the mile was so popular aside from the time thing,” Santee said. “The mile seemed to be just the right distance to attract a crowd. The mile’s long enough that you can see some strategy develop.”

It was almost like playing on an oval chess board. There was something sexy about the mile, the speed, stamina and pageantry, that fans craved. It was artistic and romantic.

As for four minutes, it was an even, round number that was so perfect — four laps in four minutes flat — that it tantalized hundreds of runners to test the limits of the human body. All who tried failed.

When the top crop of milers in the world emerged in mid-1953, stadiums sold out. The Kansas Relays regularly drew between 15,000 and 20,000 fans. Even the indoor circuit filled Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden to capacity.

“There’s really only time for one offensive move and one defensive move in a mile race,” Bascomb said, “so you really have to take advantage of those moves because you can’t recover from trying to burst ahead twice. That’s why the mile’s the most fascinating track and field event — the combination of speed, endurance, strategy and decisiveness.”

Race after race, the trio nipped closer and closer at four minutes. They eyed each other from around the world through the press. They raced the calendar as much as the clock, scheduling races just hours before the others would compete in hopes of eclipsing four minutes first.

They were simple students and distance runners, but you would’ve thought they were rock stars. Newspaper headlines chronicled their exploits as fans rushed to stadiums and scrutinized every step the runners took.

“Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are the two best examples of people who have something in the paper about them every weekend,” Santee said. “That’s what I was fortunate to have back in those days. It was a great ride.”

A moment in time

It’s been almost 50 years since Bannister first smashed the four-minute mark on May 6, 1954, since he and Landy clashed in the race of the century three months later and both ran sub-four, and since Santee came within a finger-snap of joining them in track’s uncharted territory.

Since then, almost 1,000 men have run the mile in less than four minutes. Most go largely unnoticed. Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj set the world record in 1999 with his 3:43.13 mile. Few outside the track community batted an eye.

Mayer said television played a major factor in the lack of interest today. Santee agreed, adding that professionalism, technological advances of sport and an influx of performance-enhancing substances have washed away some of the appeal record-breaking performances once had.

“I can’t think of anything (recently) that really has captured the imagination of folks quite like what we were doing,” Santee said.

Kansas Congressman Jim Ryun, who held the mile world record for almost nine years between 1966 and 1975, said it would take somebody special — like a Santee, Bannister or Landy — to return track to the national spotlight. The sport needs another American hero, Ryun said. Until then, shining moments will be a thing of the past to be chronicled in books.

“You’ve got to have the right person if the magic’s going to be recaptured,” Ryun said. “Most people can still relate to a mile. They walk a mile, drive a mile, there’s miles per hour on a car. There’s still the ability to relate to it, but there’s got to be a person who can capture the attention and carry it on once more.”

Neal Bascomb and Wes Santee will discuss ‘The Perfect Mile’ and sign books at 7 tonight at Unity Temple, 707 W. 47th St., Kansas City, Mo. Tickets are required and are available from Rainy Day Books, 2706 W. 53rd St., Fairway, (913) 384-3126.They will sign books from 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Saturday at Oread Books, Kansas Union, KU campus.
The Kansas Relays begin at 11 a.m. today and continue through 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium.Kansas Relays buttons are being sold, which allow the bearer to attend each day. The cost is $10 for adults and $5 for seniors and youths. Kansas University students and Big Blue card holders receive free admission.