In the famed photo of Sir Roger Bannister finishing the first four-minute mile ever run in competition, a man holding a large clipboard kneels next to the finish line.
His face in his hand, he appears to be overwhelmed by the event of May 6, 1954.
“I was,” David J. “Charles” Wenden later told me. “It was such a remarkable achievement.”
Charles and I had become friends in 1966 when he was Distinguished Visiting Professor of History at San Francisco State, and I was a first-year faculty member. We were both runners, so we had become workout partners.
On our easy training runs, he told me about jogging with Oxofrd’s three world-class middle-distance runners in the 1950s: Chris Brasher, Chris Chataway, and Bannister. The latter in particular fascinated me; since his greatest results were achieved while he was a full-time medical student, with little time off for training.
When Charles and his family returned to Oxford – he was then bursar of St. Catharine’s College – they extended an open invitation to my family. Not until 1989 did my wife and I – with pals Tom Alexander and Judy Anderson – visit Oxford as houseguests of the Wendens.
Charles, by then bursar at All Souls College, pretty well had free reign at Oxford University, so our first afternoon there, he asked, “What would you like to see first?”
“The Iffley Road Track?” I said.
“I’d anticipated that,” Wenden smiled.
Tom and I jumped into our host’s car and, momentarily it seemed, we were walking on sacred ground. A small marker commemorating that first-four minute mile seemed less grand than merited.
As we walked away, our host announced, “I have a bit of a surprise for you. Let’s visit Roger.” My breath caught when he suggested that.
A few minutes later, we pulled up in front of a cottage on an Oxford campus. Charles tapped at the door, and a middle-aged lady opened it. “Charles?” she said, and hugged him, then looked at us. “These are two of my California friends,” he said, then introduced us. “Is Roger in?”
“I’ll fetch him” she smiled.
A moment later, the lanky figure so familiar from photos was greeting us with unexpected warmth, looking remarkably fit despite a limp. By then, Bannister was not only a distinguished physician and medical researcher, but also Master of Oxford’s Pembroke College.
“So, you’re from California?” he grinned. “Perhaps I’d best not offer you any French wine,” but then he opened a bottle of white and poured four glasses.
Engaging conversation followed. I asked about that first four-minute mile, and he said it had felt “natural but quite difficult.” His greatest athletic achievement? Defeating Australia’s 3:58 John Landry in the 1954 British Empire Games.
“Timing was wrong for John, and for the Yank, (Wes) Santee, too.” He was about to open a second bottle, when his wife said sweetly, “Roger, we have dinner guests coming.”
“Ah, I’d forgot. Perhaps another time, chaps.” He bid farewell to us like old pals, but as it turned out there never was another time. For Tom and me, though, there was an incandescent memory.
Gerald Haslam ran for Garces Memorial Hgh School and Bakersfield College in the 1950s. He did not run very fast. The opinions expressed are his own