Athletics: The four-minute miler who beat Bannister by 29 days

Ken Wood could have changed history - if only he hadn't been just training

It is Wednesday lunchtime on a windswept football field in Sheffield. In Athletics Weekly this morning the editor has written about "Sub-four fever gripping the athletics world," referring to the hysteria mounting in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Sir Roger Bannister's breaking of the four-minute-mile barrier.

It is Wednesday lunchtime on a windswept football field in Sheffield. In Athletics Weekly this morning the editor has written about "Sub-four fever gripping the athletics world," referring to the hysteria mounting in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Sir Roger Bannister's breaking of the four-minute-mile barrier.

A meeting is being staged to mark the occasion, at Iffley Road, Oxford, on 6 May, and a BBC documentary is to be screened. There have also been three new books published on the subject, one of which Ian Wooldridge has reviewed in his Daily Mail column, under the headline "How Roger's historic run killed off the amateur era". On Radio 4, Sir Roger himself has been talking about his historic run, and about the re-release of his autobiography, The First Four Minutes.

Braving the biting wind at the University of Sheffield Sports Ground, Ken Wood is recalling another First Four Minutes. It is 50 years to the day since the sub-four-minute mile he claims to have run in training here on 7 April 1954 - 29 days before Bannister clocked his 3min 59.4sec in the annual match between Oxford University and the Amateur Athletic Association at Iffley Road. There are no fanfares accompanying the bespectacled 73-year-old, who is clad proudly in his 1956 Olympic team tracksuit - not quite one man and his dog, just a pair of unaccompanied cocker-spaniels doing their yapping best to hound him away from the pot-holed, partially grassed-over remains of Warminster Road track.

"No, it's not quite the same," Wood acknowledges, comparing his anniversary to the fevered celebrations being planned for Sir Roger. "It's just one of those things. Mine was only a training run, but it was a definite sub-four minutes; no question. I ran 3min 59.2sec."

At the time, Wood was a recent graduate to the Great Britain track-and-field team and worked as a sales representative for a Sheffield paint firm. He used to train with the local university athletics team on Wednesday afternoons, and on 7 April 1954 he was accompanied by Peter Adams, a Welsh international middle- distance runner, and John Webster, a quarter-miler. It is only recently that the outcome of the time trial that day has become public knowledge.

"Well, I didn't think it was special at the time," Wood says with a shrug of the shoulders, now back in the warmth of his house near Graves Park, on the southern outskirts of Sheffield. "I thought it was just another time. The lads who were with me made a little bit of a fuss about it, but I never really mentioned it to anybody."

It is not as though Wood is attempting to undermine Bannister's place in the history books - performances on the training track and within the competitive arena are, after all, wholly different propositions - and nobody has yet cast any doubt on the veracity of his claim. "Fritz would probably remember it," he says, "because he was holding the stopwatch that day."

Back in 1954 Roy "Fritz" Koerner was a geography student at the University of Sheffield. In 1969 he was a member of the four-man team, led by Sir Wally Herbert, who completed the first surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean, an epic 3,800-mile trek that took 16 months. Still working as an Arctic glaciologist, Dr Koerner is not an easy man to locate. Tracked down to the Penny Ice Cap on Friday, though, he struggled to recall the events of 50 years ago.

"I did used to hold a stop-watch to time Ken, but I simply do not remember the time being less than four minutes that day," he said. "It was 1954. My memory that far back is not great. Ken is not remembered as well as he should be, though. In those days, class distinction played a part. It was one thing for Bannister and Chris Chataway to do great things, but Ken Wood? I can remember hearing radio commentaries and the BBC guy was grudging to Ken - how could the likes of Ken beat the greatest? But he damned well did."

He did indeed. The Emsley Carr Mile has been won by a glittering collection of all-time greats - Kip Keino, Jim Ryun, John Walker, Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe, Said Aouita, Haile Gebrselassie - but no one has matched Wood's record of four victories in the classic four-lap event. Hicham El Guerrouj - the current holder of the mile world record, at 3min 43.13sec - has won three times.

In his History of British Athletics, Mel Watman describes Wood as "an ungainly mover, blessed with immense stam-ina and a formidable 'kick' - his times were not remarkable but his competitive record was". Wood always saw himself as a racer rather than a clock-chaser, though he still recorded some quick times in competition. He clocked 3min 59.3sec in a mile race at the White City Stadium in 1957, and 8:34.8 for two miles at the same London track in 1956 - five seconds inside Gaston Reiff's old world-record time, but 1.4sec behind Sandor Iharos's new global mark.

Wood won 20 successive mile and 1500m races in the summer of 1956 but finished only ninth in the Olympic 1500m final in Melbourne in December that year. It came as a huge disappointment, but it was by no means the biggest blow he was to suffer. His first wife, Barbara, was knocked down and killed in a road accident 25 years ago. She was the daughter of Wally Boyes, who played alongside Tommy Lawton and Joe Mercer in Everton's championship-winning side of 1938-39 (a left-winger, he also won three caps for England and scored for West Bromwich Albion in their 1935 FA Cup final defeat).

Now happily married to his second wife, Brenda, Wood has just the one regret about his life as an international runner. He never did get to toe the line with the great Roger Bannister. "I was supposed to run against him in a race in Edinburgh in 1954 but he didn't turn up," he muses, with a playful smile. "I don't know whether he'd heard about me being on form."

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