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January 26, 2009

Chasing Roger Bannister: The Prequel

Sometime during my elementary school years, my father got the crazy notion to start running.

It might have been a kind of mid-life crisis, or maybe it was a grasp at past glory. Dad was the quintessential 4-sport jock in high school, and perhaps he wanted to recapture the athletic mojo that had long since given way to the burdens of grown-up responsibility. Maybe he just wanted to drop a few pounds or shake up his daily routine a bit. Whatever his motivation (I never really pressed him for a reason), he announced to the family that he was going to start jogging through our neighborhood a few mornings per week.

That’s when an even crazier thing happened: I asked if I could join him.

To this day, I don’t even know what my own motivation was for my impromptu request. I was always an athletic kid, but distance running had never been part of my repertoire - in fact, I pretty much hated it. And yet, some small corner of my brain harbored this romanticized notion of the long-distance runner: the solitary figure persevering against time and distance and fatigue and all manner of weather, as well as any other obstacles that lie ahead. So I woke up early to lace up my shoes and start training with my dad, and to begin my own metamorphosis into the strong, resilient, self-reliant man I was eager to become.

The whole experiment lasted less than two weeks.

Both of us quickly realized that this running thing was a bit more work than we wanted to handle in the early mornings. I lasted just a few runs before I decided I had much better things to do before school – namely, sleeping - and Dad only lasted another handful of days before eventually giving up on the whole idea. Before long, we were both back to our regular routines.

(What’s even more embarrassing in hindsight is just how short our “long distance” mileage was. We had a 1-mile loop through our neighborhood; on those mornings, Dad and I did two laps together, and he did one additional lap without me. No one would have pegged either of us as a future ultrarunner, that’s for sure.)

I can’t exactly say that those mornings were building blocks for any of the experiences I would later enjoy as a distance runner – but my Dad did plant the seed for something I would later become obsessed with. Namely, he told me the story of Roger Bannister.

In particular, he recommended that I read The Four-Minute Mile, Bannister’s autobiography of his brilliant, all-too-brief running career. I checked the book out of the library – and at first, I wasn’t terribly impressed. I enjoyed reading Bannister’s first-hand account of what was arguably the most heroic sporting feat of all time, but much of the other information about his training program or his personal philosophies about athletics and life were pretty much lost on me (remember, I was like 10 or 11 at the time).

It wasn’t until I grew up that I took the full measure of Bannister’s life and exploits – and his story has resonated with me ever since.

This May will mark the 55th anniversary of what many people – myself included – still call the greatest athletic achievement in the history of mankind: Roger Bannister’s breaking the four-minute barrier in the mile. It’s the sporting world’s version of landing a man on the moon: a moment so simultaneously unbelievable and inspirational that it changed all the rules we ever learned about the limits of human accomplishment.


Five years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary, I wanted some way to pay tribute to the event that captured my imagination first as a child, and even more strongly as an adult. In the meantime, I had become hooked on marathons – somehow, that feckless young boy had grown into the distance runner he naively aspired to be – so the decision came fairly easily: for one season, I’d train for and race the mile, just like Bannister did.

Well … it wasn’t quite like Bannister did; obviously, I didn’t have any delusions that I could ever approach running a four-minute mile. Five minutes, on the other hand, seemed possibly attainable. Daunting and terrifying, but attainable.

As you can imagine, I wrote about the experience – a whole series of articles (10 in all) that I posted on my long-extinct former website, that I’m going to republish in rapid fashion on this page, starting later this week. They’re equal parts training diary and historical overview of what was once the most glamorous race in the world. They’re also the ultimate, most tangible result of that brief period of time that my father and I ran together. Those mornings didn’t last long, but they were enough to instill something that would eventually lead to one of the most memorable summers of my life.

And if either Dad or I had predicted such a thing back then, we both would have cracked up laughing.


See the remainder of this series on sidebar at right.

12 comments:

mindy 1/26/09, 2:45 PM  

Can't wait for this series, Donald. Has your dad ever read these articles that you mention? It's truly something to be able to share something like this with a parent, even if you never knew where running would take you back then.

mindy 1/26/09, 2:45 PM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
jen 1/26/09, 3:44 PM  

Sounds like a great topic- can't wait to read it.

I love hearing people's stories about their first exposure to running. Sometimes it's a story of joining the school track team and sticking with it in the years since, but most of the time it's something like you told. A random experience only recalled with any significance later in life. That's me too. :)

Rainmaker 1/26/09, 9:38 PM  

Great intro - I'm definitely looking forward to reading the series. There's always a book at the running store about the 4-minute mile that catches my eye. Not of course because I have any desire to run that fast, but rather because it looks like an interesting read.

Dave 1/27/09, 6:23 AM  

Can't wait to read the Diary...Donald at the risk of sounding sycophantic, you write really well. With your tribute to Bannister, I may have to dust of the research archives and give a tribute to Eric Liddell.

Sunshine Girl 1/27/09, 6:56 AM  

I recall seeing my father in a far-to-tight grey cotton sweatsuit in the early 1970's, in what was a brief experiment. It did inspire me to run to the bus stop one day, to meet him after work. I had some exciting news! I had randomly decided to join the Cross Country Team and desparetely wanted to run.

The tall skinny girl showed some talent and 5 years later as a skinny 13 year old, I was invited to a very public, elite, one mile race. The race was to go down our busiest street in Calgary and finish at the Calgary Tower. I was the youngest runner by 4 yearsand when I finished, breathless and second last, I was presented with a gift certificate for a lingerie shop, where I could redeem it for a SPORTS BRA. The problem was, I didn't have any boobs yet. 4 years later I went to redeem it, only to find the store closed.

Later, the same year, I was at a Cross Country meet in Vancouver and I happened across a statue of 2runners: Roger Bannister and John Landy. The Miracle Mile. It shows Landy glancing over his shoulder as Bannister surges by. I got the book, I read the story, I got inspired, I got fast! I grew some boobs and I kept running! But the damn boobs, slowed me down.

RunSophia 1/27/09, 10:14 AM  

As a high school runner, I too was captivated by Bannister's milestone. Another book which I highly recommend is "The Perfect Mile" by Neal Bascomb. I'm looking forward to reading your upcoming Bannister tribute articles.

triguyjt 1/27/09, 2:08 PM  

the stories of bannister breaking the barrier were like epic tales of yore for me...even though he broke it...when I was one year old....however it has always held a big place of great events for me...also remembering how jim ryun was doing his thing..breaking four minutes as a high schooler too...

will enjoy your postings on the whole bannister.

Gretchen 1/27/09, 2:54 PM  

As a former miler and 1500M runner, I am definitely looking forward to this tale Donald. I may run ultras now, but I still think of myself as a miler deep down. Definitely the utlimate "romantic distance," even more so that the marathon I think.
My favorite book about the mile-- "Once a Runner." Fiction, but brilliant!

Alisa 1/27/09, 3:29 PM  

I was a swimmer and waterpolo player in HS and college...running was something we "had" to do for dry-land practice...I didn't get "into" running until mid-way through college when I realized after college team sports don't exist much and other than Masters swimming...there aren't many adult swim teams.

Since I'm a relative newbie, I'm always intrigued by other people's stories or of famous runners I've never heard of.

I'm excited to read your 5 minute mile accounts! (I'll be lucky if I ever get to an 8 min mile!)

My Life & Running 1/28/09, 11:38 AM  

Can't wait to keep on reading your Ghost of Blogging Past...

What does/did your dad think of your eventually becoming a runner? Did he pick it back up again?

My dad was a runner as well and I think it had a lot to do with why I chose the sport. I remember looking at his yearbooks when I was little, seeing the big B&W photos of him on the CC & Track pages... it made me want to be a runner too.

robtherunner 1/29/09, 9:26 PM  

I look forward to the series, Donald! I have some catching up to do.

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