This man is 40. He wants to run a mile in four minutes. Shouldn't he know better?: David Moorcroft wants to be the first 40-year-old to emulate Roger Bannister. Chris Arnot reports

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DROPS of sweat, but no hint of grey, showed in David Moorcroft's hair. A damp patch spread across the front of a cerise T-shirt with no sign of middle- aged spread beneath it. More than 6ft tall, he still weighs comfortably less than 11 stone.

Lines around his eyes are the only outward sign of ageing. The former 5,000-metre world record holder celebrated his 40th birthday last month while coaching in Mauritius; hence the even tan on his long legs.

He had been for his second brisk and lengthy run of the day - three times round the perimeter of the vast War Memorial Park in his native Coventry. It was a hot afternoon. Younger joggers were left trailing in his wake, slack-mouthed, as he clocked up seven miles to add to five he had completed that morning.

At a time of life when he could relax, Moorcroft is back in serious training. He wants to be the first 40-year-old to run a mile in under four minutes. And he has competition. In Dublin, his old friend and rival Eamonn Coghlan is putting himself through a similarly punishing schedule.

Earlier this year, Coghlan finished just over a second outside four minutes at Madison Square Garden indoor track in New York. 'I must admit to a four- letter word when I saw that clock,' he said.

Coghlan has produced some of his best times indoors. In the United States, where he spends much of his time, he is known as the Chairman of the Boards. But he believes he can go slightly faster on an outside track, despite picking up a hamstring injury. 'Now I'm doing between 60 and 70 miles a week. I'll have to run through the pain to achieve it.'

What makes a former champion want to push ageing limbs and lungs to the limit? Coghlan is matter-of-fact. 'A year or so after retirement I missed being in shape, so I started jogging again. After a couple of months I was running well. John Walker (the New Zealand former mile world record holder) was planning to break the four-minute mile on his 40th birthday but he had to pull out through injury. It was placed in my court.'

Walker is almost certainly the oldest man to break the four- minute barrier so far: 3 minutes 54.28 at the Bislett Games in Oslo in 1990 when he was 38.

Veteran or Masters races are very popular in the US. The American magazine Runners' World was hoping to promote a Coghlan-Moorcroft clash in June or July, but the Englishman is wary of the high summer humidity of New York. He favours dropping into a race with younger men in Europe, preferably on 10 July in Oslo, where he broke the world 5,000-metre record in 1982.

Coghlan became world champion the following year. Both have run miles well inside four minutes. Both were still in nappies in 1954 when Roger Bannister broke the four-minute barrier.

Sir Roger is now 64. On being told that men of 40 were attempting what he had done at 25, the former consultant neurologist said: 'I wish them well. Whether they do it depends on how well they've kept in training. Changes in the lungs and heart become more pronounced at that age.'

Seven years have passed since Moorcroft ran a mile in under four minutes. As an athletics coach and BBC pundit, he is widely respected as Mr Nice Guy. But he admits that he enjoyed the limelight.

'It's a great thrill for any performer to see a stadium erupt when you win. I remember watching Dave Willetts in the Phantom of the Opera and thinking how wonderful it must be to have that control over an audience.'

To turn the spotlight back on himself, he has to rediscover the single-mindedness of his youth. 'The danger now is that there are too many alternatives in my life. I have to keep telling myself: yes, it does matter; no, you can't afford to lose.'

His wife, Linda, knows better than anybody that his career has been dogged by injuries. She worries about the strain of pushing a 40-year-old body to the limit.

'Sometimes he looks wiped out,' she said. But she also knows why he wants to do it. 'He's pretty much a family man, stable and homely, yet he always needs a challenge to stimulate him.

'Three years ago people kept asking me why he was still running. They couldn't understand why a man of 37 kept training so hard when he was past his best. Now he's reached an age when he has something to go for again.'

And if he succeeds?

'Gardening,' he smiled. And then, more seriously: 'I shall still run, but I'm not looking for any more challenges.'

For the time being.

(Photograph omitted)