First Sub-4 Mile by a Canadian
By David Bailey
The United States had its first sub-4 minute miler in Don Bowden in 1957. Canada had to wait for several more years. Yet, the desire was strong. The spark that kindled the flame occurred when Rich Ferguson ran 4:04.5 to finish third to Roger Bannister and John Landy in the Miracle Mile at the British Empire Games in Vancouver in 1954. A major step forward was taken by Bruce Kidd, the 18 year old team mate of mine at the East York Track Club, when he ran a stunning 4:01.4 as part of a remarkable season of successes at the longer distances in 1962. There were other very good attempts by the likes of Jim Irons, Ergas Leps and Bill Crothers in the following years. Yet, the newspaper headlines always read “No Canuck Sub-4 miler - Yet”. I demonstrated an early affinity for running the mile. When I joined the East York Track as a 16 year old in 1961, I ran 4:07.5 after just one year of training and competitions and finished third at the senior national championship. This time was a fraction of a second faster than the previous world best time for a 17 year old (4:07.6) established by the late Ron Clarke of Australia. However, my record did not last long as it was obliterated (3:59.0) by the amazing Jim Ryun of the United States in 1964. Progress after 1962 was halted for several years because of my injuries. Those were frustrating times but I persisted. Things finally started to come right for me with several progressively faster times that culminated in a 4:02.9 mile in 1965. It was then that I began to feel that I could be a legitimate contender for the Canadian Sub-4 title, likely in the following year. The build up training for the 1966 summer season when well. A 3:00 minute paced 3 quarters mile time trial in May was achieved with only moderate effort. As East York Track Club team mate Bill Crothers had a #1 world ranking in the 800m/880 yd in 1965, Coach Fred Foot had some leverage to get me an invitation to the Compton Invitational Mile in the Los Angeles Coliseum on June 4. On race day, a chance encounter with the meet promoter in the athletes’ reception room proved to be difficult. The realization that this was my first highly competitive race of the year made him question the validity of my presence. Well, Jim Ryun ran 3:53.7 (0.1 second off Michel Jazy’s world record), Jim Grelle ran 3:56.0, Neill Duggan of England ran 3:59.0 and I ran a personal best of 4:01.5. During a car ride back to our hotel with the Adidas representative, I was questioned as to my reason for wearing Puma spikes. I truthfully said that they were a gift and that I could not afford to purchase the preferred Adidas which fit me better. A phone call from Adidas Canada in Toronto on the Monday after returning home was a much appreciated offer of new running shoes and sweat suit! Coach Fred Foot was now totally convinced that a sub-4 minute mile was within my reach. Bill Crothers and he were scheduled for a trip to the San Diego Invitational Track and Field Meet on June 11. A request for expenses to include me in the meet was rejected. Ultimately, I was included in the meet because I went in place of Coach Foot. Bill and I left Toronto on Friday afternoon, connected through Chicago and arrived late in the evening in San Diego. This race was the opportunity for which I had waited for years. Everything seemed to be falling into place. The track would likely be fast, the weather looked fine and the competitors were of high calibre. If the pace could be right, would I be able to rise to the challenge? I don’t think I was ever this anxious before. Waiting for the race was torture. I could not tolerate being inside the stadium and found solace sitting in the dark under a tree outside listening to the muffled voice of the P.A. announcer until it was time to warm-up. Just before the race, Bill came over to me and said I’d better run better that his third place finish. I was placed in lane one and introduced as “our Canadian friend”. The others were record holders of some significance (Jim Grelle, Neill Duggan, high school student Tim Danielson) and received big cheers. I got a good start and briefly led. During the second quarter, both Grelle and Duggan passed me and I stayed with them. Bill kept yelling splits and I kept thinking that we were right on pace. Duggan led with one quarter to go and just as the gun fired Grelle and I started to accelerate. I accidentally clipped his heal and got a dirty look. Typically Canadian, I said “Sorry”. With about 300 yards to go, I was right with them. Then, Grelle changed gears and sailed past Duggan. Duggan hesitated and it was too late for him. When Duggan kicked, I was left behind. The announcer said that Danielson was coming on fast. I am blind in my right eye and knew that I shouldn’t look, but I did. Once I saw him, I knew I couldn’t let up. As I crossed the finish line, my first reaction was “Crap, I missed it again!” However, Bill was there with his watch showing a time of 3:58.8 (official time: 3:59.1)! The confusion after the race was amazing. It lasted for about 20 minutes, partly because Grelle and Duggan seemed to have disappeared and partially because the first four finishers had run sub-4. However, I think it was mainly because home town hero Tim Danielson had just become the second high school sub-4 miler in United States history. I can only imagine the elation that he must have felt. Extraordinary! Then the fatigue set in. I had done a lot of my training on the grass of nearby golf courses to reduce the risk of injury (back in the day golfers were more tolerant). After running on the hard all-weather track at Balboa Stadium, my legs “felt like rubber”. Bill and I had to jog back to our hotel about 2 miles away. It was a struggle but I had with a big smile on my face. The next day Bill and I got our return flight to Chicago. As I walked through the airport to the gate for our connection to Toronto, I saw my widowed mother coming towards me. “What are you doing here?”, I asked. Apparently, the airport in Toronto had many reporters waiting for my arrival for interviews. However, the Toronto Star had taken the initiative and flown a reporter and my mother to Chicago, so that we could celebrate over dinner while they could get an exclusive interview.
Later that week, I got a letter that is now framed and hangs in my trophy room. It is from the Prime Minister of Canada, Lester B. Pearson. One paragraph in this letter is especially meaningful for me. It states, “May I congratulate you, both personally and as Prime Minister, on your achievement and on the recognition that you have brought to yourself and your country.” Lester B. Pearson was a great Canadian. There is good reason why the airport in Toronto now carries his name. If I might quote author Steven Pinker “He gave Canada many of things it’s most proudest of: universal healthcare, bilingualism, abolition of capital punishment, and a national identity symbolized by a new flag that was distinct for the Mother Country. Most important, he won a Nobel Peace Prize for conceiving and implementing one of humanity’s greatest inventions: the armed peacekeeping force.” Last year on June 11 as I walked through a local shopping centre, I saw on monitor the historical reminder, “On this day in 1966, Dave Bailey of Toronto became the first Canadian to run a sub-4 minute mile.” It felt good.
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