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Chilliwack WWII veteran claims he broke 4-minute mile before Bannister

Chilliwack resident Cecil Hansford crossing the finish line in a one-mile race against the Greek mile champion in Gaza, Palestine during the Second World War. Hansford claims he ran this mile in 3:57.7, 12 years before Roger Bannister was credited with breaking the four-minute mile barrier in 1954. - Submitted
Chilliwack resident Cecil Hansford crossing the finish line in a one-mile race against the Greek mile champion in Gaza, Palestine during the Second World War. Hansford claims he ran this mile in 3:57.7, 12 years before Roger Bannister was credited with breaking the four-minute mile barrier in 1954.
— image credit: Submitted

Sixty years after British runner Roger Bannister was the first to break the four-minute barrier in the mile, a Chilliwack man has a bone to pick with history.

“That pissed me off a little because that’s not true,” Cecil Hansford said during a conversation in his mobile home in Chilliwack.

You see, the 94-year-old Hansford is diminutive in stature but he elicits one huge claim: He ran a sub-four-minute-mile right around the time Bannister hit puberty.

“I broke the four-minute mile in 1942, two seconds faster than Roger Bannister.”

 

Unlikely history rewrite

It was May 6, 1954 on a wet, blustery day when the 25-year-old Bannister, then an English medical student, ran four times around a track at Oxford University in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.

The world took notice at the run, breaking what seemed to be an unbreakable barrier. Bannister’s name was written on sports history.

But 12 years prior, in the heat of the Second World War on a grass track in Gaza, Palestine, a friendly one-mile race took place during a military sports day.

Hansford was in the British military, serving as a “fitter” in 211 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. Quite an athlete in his day, the 5’3” Welshman took part in a race with six others, including members of a local Greek unit, which included the Greek mile champion.

Hansford said he ran the first three laps pacing off the Greek miler before he took off for the final lap. As he crossed the finish line, a certain Sgt. Burroughs shouted “Do you know you just done the mile in under four minutes?!”

According to Hansford, those timing the race clocked him at 3:57.7, with the Greek miler coming in at about four minutes even.

Not only does the long-time Chilliwack resident claim he broke the four-minute mile in 1942, he says that because four minutes was no particular target, he could have run even faster if he didn’t pace himself on the first three laps.

“If somebody said, ‘Phil, have a go at the four-minute mile,’ I probably would have done it in 3:40,” he said.

(That, incidentally, would break even the current fastest ever official mark of 3:43.13, which was set by Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999.)

Hansford’s claim holds some credulity the way he tells it, however, it’s unlikely anyone in the track world will take him seriously.

Former Olympic track and field athlete and BC Sports Hall of Fame inductee Doug Clement says there are other stories of the four-minute barrier being beaten prior to 1954. They appear, however, to be largely anecdotal without any substantiation.

“Who knows, but I personally doubt the stories,” he told the Times.

 

Borrowed time

While track history will never have Hansford’s name written upon it, the man known as “Phil” to his friends says he’s had a wonderful life and he does have one claim to fame.

He was recently told that he is the last surviving man of the nearly 600-member 211 squadron from the Second World War.

“I’m the only one alive,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

More amazing still is that he survived the war at all given the number of harrowing brushes with death he endured. At least twice he escaped death at the hands of the Germans and once the Japanese.

Once in Athens, in 1941 he thinks, Hansford was given a two-day pass as a reward for servicing aircraft under fire. When he got back from his days off, the entire squadron was gone.

“The place was full of bloody Germans,” he said.

He put his running skills to use and headed to a spot about 10 miles away near the coast. When he arrived, he found another squadron taking off. He was told by the last pilot that if he volunteered to man the top turret he could catch a ride to the island of Crete.

Arriving in Crete, the pilot told him that was as far as he could take him, and Hansford was left to his own devices. He roamed the island for days without food or any direction as to where to go. Eventually, he ran into an army sergeant who ordered him down to the water to unload canisters of gasoline. That’s when about 10 German Stukas came flying over the hill, he said. Hansford dove behind a concrete parapet and kept his head down as long as he could.

“They bombed the shit out of us,” he said. “When I got up, there wasn’t a bloody soul alive.”

He grabbed two Smith and Wesson revolvers, a rifle and some ammunition, and once again headed off by himself. After a time, he found an RAF float plane down by the water. The pilot told Hansford to scram, saying he couldn’t transport him. But that night Hansford ditched his guns and at 4 a.m., stowed away in the plane.

“That’s how I escaped capture by the Germans on Crete,” he said.

In later weeks and months, his bizarre luck helped him avoid death again.

Stationed in the Sudan, Hansford ate an unwashed banana and contracted enteritis. Stuck in a hospital bed—and on the toilet—for 13 days, he once again missed his squadron’s reassignment, this time to Indonesia.

His medical condition would oddly save his life, as nearly the entire squadron was killed or captured by the Japanese.

“No wonder I can’t win the bloody lotto because I’ve used all my luck up,” he said.

The 94-year-old loves to tell war stories, but he does freeze up frequently as he recalls certain anecdotes.

“I get these flashbacks.”

Hansford lives alone now as his wife of 65 years died four years ago.

“I’ve had a wonderful life.”

It just bugs him that Bannister got all the glory for all these years.

“Had I known this four-minute thing, I could have done the first two laps faster,” he said.

“I think about that all the time.”

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