I was very sorry to hear of the death of Chris Chataway, one of Britain’s finest middle distance runners from the fifties.
Chris was word record holder for the three miles but he’s probably best remembered, like his great friend Chris Brasher, as a pacemaker in Roger Bannister’s historic first four-minute mile.
The late Chris Brasher was a good friend of mind, a man who gave me a lot of his time and enthusiastically supported my 20 years as editor of The Great Outdoors magazine.
I enjoyed many a good malt whisky-fuelled night with Brasher, a man who, in the great traditions of the fine raconteur, rarely allowed the truth to get in the way of a good story. I have no way of knowing how much truth is in this story… Perhaps someone will ask Roger Bannister, the only one of the famous trio still alive.
Being a keen student of athletics history, I often questioned Brasher on that very first four-minute mile. Roger Bannister and Australian John Landy were competing openly for that time and Landy was bringing the world record down closer and closer to the magical four minutes.
As Oxford students, Bannister, Chataway and Brasher had a plan. There was to be an athletics event at the University’s Iffley Road running track and the trio decided this would be the ideal opportunity to make an all-out effort not only on Landy’s world record, but on the magical first four-minute mile.
Bannister, it seemed, was under all kinds of pressures from his medical exams to the press interest in how he was going to combat Landy’s relentless pursuit of the four-minute mile.
Brasher had an idea. He convinced Bannister and Chataway that they had to get away from things for a few days so that Bannister could relax and get himself into the right frame of mind for a world-record attempt. He suggested they go climbing in Glen Coe!
So, the weekend before the Iffley Road event, the three of them crammed into Brasher’s two-seater sport car and drove north from Oxford to Glen Coe.
Brasher was the only real climber in the trio, and if you’d ever climbed with the man you would put a great question mark over that, so decided the three of them should tackle the infamous Clachaig Gully.
Now the Gully isn’t the hardest climb in the world, but it’s hard enough and escape from it’s upper reaches, beyond the cave pitch, isn’t easy. Anyway, to cut a long story short the team got into some difficulties and were benighted. A very uncomfortable night below the wet and dank cave pitch couldn’t have been pleasant at all.
Next morning, at first light, they managed to get extricate themselves and trundled down the hill to the Clachaig Inn for a belated breakfast before piling into Brasher’s car again for the long journey back to Oxford.
A few days later, on 6thy May 1954, Brasher led the team through the first lap in 57.3 seconds and then through the half-mile in 1min 58secs before dropping out. Chris Chataway took over the pacemaking, pulling Bannister to the three-quarter mile mark in 3min 0.4 sec. With 350 yards to go Bannister went past Chataway to finish in 3min 59.4 sec.
It was a fabulous achievement but few folk know of that “relaxed” preparation in Glen Coe a week earlier. Hard to imagine any modern athletes preparing in such a fashion…