Bath runner, 86, recalls role in Roger Bannister's historic mile run

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News of Roger Bannister’s death Saturday revived memories of his groundbreaking run into the history books 64 years ago, when he became the first runner to break the four-minute barrier in the mile.

Bannister’s achievement is especially significant in the Bath home of the Rev. George Dole.

Dole, 86, was the lone American – and apparently the only man still living – of the five runners who competed against Bannister during that historic race in Oxford, England, on May 6, 1954.

“The memories have faded quite a bit but some of them are still vivid,” Dole said by phone Monday, before taking his thrice-weekly jog at the Bath Area Family YMCA.

Born in Fryeburg, Dole moved to Bath as a young child and graduated from Morse High in 1948. He didn’t begin running competitively until his senior year, after the basketball coach started a track program. “Much to my surprise,” Dole said, “I did quite well.”

He continued his education at Yale, where the track coach had taken note of Dole’s experience and invited him to continue running. He became the school’s top two-mile runner as a junior and senior, earned a degree in Classics, and went to Oxford College to study Hebrew.

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Dole’s plan was to follow in the footsteps of his father, a minister. At Oxford College, Dole was always a student first, an athlete second. Similarly, Bannister took much more pride in his lengthy career in neurology than in his running exploits, which included a fourth-place finish in the 1,500 meters at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

“Roger was a full-time medical student,” Dole said. “His training schedule was probably not more than half an hour a day. Nobody could get away with that these days and be a world-class runner.”

Two months before Bannister broke the four-minute mark, Dole won the mile at an Oxford-Cambridge track meet in 4 minutes, 15.2 seconds. It remains Dole’s fastest time and “probably the best race of my life.”

Dole’s victory in the mile earned him the inside lane in the famous May 1954 race, but he doubted he would be able to stay with Bannister and other British Olympians who had entered. A crowd of about 3,000 gathered to watch. Dole, then 22, took a brief lead before Chris Brasher surged into the first turn with Bannister off his shoulder.

“I’d made it an honest start and thought I’d settle in,” Dole said. “You have to settle down to a pace you can run comfortably. If you strain at that point, you’ll pay later.”

Dole said Bannister was eager to go even faster earlier in the race, but Brasher provided the perfect pace, of 58 seconds for the first lap and 1:58 at the half-mile mark. Chris Chataway took the lead for the third lap and made it 3:01 into the final quarter-mile. Bannister’s kick brought him to the finish line in 3:59.4.

After Bannister collapsed into the arms of a friend, Chataway came in at 4:07 and Tom Hulatt was third at 4:16. Times for the others, initially not listed, were later determined to be 4:18 for Alan Gordon and 4:25 for Dole.

For 40 years, Dole assumed he had finished last because everyone had passed him and he didn’t remember passing anyone. It was only at an anniversary celebration at Oxford in 1994 that he learned that Brasher, the early pace-setter, faded to an outside lane and did not officially finish the race.

The previous mile record of 4:01.4 had lasted nearly nine years. Bannister’s lasted only 46 days, but remains among the most famous milestones in athletic history, coming less than a year after Edmund Hillary reached the top of Mount Everest.

Thirteen different men have subsequently lowered the mile record. The most recent was Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, who ran 3:43.13 in 1999 in Rome.

Dole competed in two more meets for Oxford that spring of 1954 at shorter distances, but that was it. He figures he probably could have broken 4:10 with more training, but not on his own.

“I didn’t realize until later how much my motivation for running was team-oriented,” he said. “The companionship, being around people doing the same thing, people wanting you to do well. … When it was just me and the track it really lost its appeal.”

He returned to Yale to continue his post-graduate education and wound up coaching the school’s cross-country team. Dole eventually entered the seminary and earned his doctorate from Harvard in 1965. He taught in the Swedenborg School of Religion and eventually became the lead pastor at Swedenborg Chapel in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Also known as The New Church, Swedenborgianism grew out of the writings of 18th-century theologian Emanuel Swedenborg.

Dole retired to Bath in 1999, and began preaching at the church of his father, until retiring for a second time four years ago.

In his honor, friends at the Fryeburg New Church Assembly established the Dole 3-Miler road race in 2014. In August he ran it in 36:15, less than a minute behind the time of his 7-year-old granddaughter.

George and Lois Dole have been married 60 years. They have five children and two grandchildren.

“His history here outdates our software system,” said Sabrina Murphy, head of the Bath Area Family YMCA. “He’s a very friendly, very kind man who comes in and engages with all the staff. He’s an inspiration to watch.”

Dole said he had no contact with Bannister until being invited to an anniversary celebration in 1994, when organizers flew the lone American to Oxford.

“I wound up at his table and he gave me a good share of his time,” Dole said. “He realized I was a stranger in the group and we had a very informative conversation.”

Years later, they spoke again by phone when Bannister was in Maine for the wedding of his daughter.

Chataway, Brasher and Hulatt died before Bannister. Dole said he has tried to get in touch with Gordon, who was last known to be living in Switzerland, but without success.

“I think,” Dole said, “I’m the only survivor now.”

Until the weather improves, Dole will continue his laps on the balcony track at the YMCA, and maybe pedal the stationary bike in his basement at home.

“He’s very unassuming and kind,” Murphy said. “But when you find out his history, it’s pretty fantastic.”

The Rev. George Dole, 86, of Bath runs laps at the Bath Area Family YMCA on Monday. Dole still runs three times each week. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald)

 In this May 6, 1954 file photo, Britain’s Roger Bannister hits the tape to become the first person to break the four-minute mile in Oxford, England. A statement released Sunday March 4, 2018, on behalf of Bannister’s family said Sir Roger Bannister died peacefully in Oxford on March 3, aged 88. (AP Photo, File)

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