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January 27, 2009

Sir Roger (and Me)

Administrative note: I need to establish a few ground rules before we jump into this series …

1) First, my intent was to publish these articles exactly as they were written five years ago – but where appropriate, I’ll put 2009 updates in brackets if there’s something new that bears mentioning. Otherwise, think of this series as my ghost of blogging past. On a related note …

2) I didn’t realize it until I started reviewing these – but in several cases, my writing is pretty lame. Go easy on me; I had 5 fewer years of practice under my belt than I do now. And finally …

3) My goal is to crank these out in a once-per-weekday fashion until we’re through the 10-part series – with previous entries found in the new sidebar at right. However, I reserve the right to interrupt the series as events warrant - like if someone uncovers an American Idol sex scandal, or if I come up with some theory as to why Ben Linus is working for Faraday's mother, or if Bruce Springsteen inadvertently tears some girl’s clothes off at halftime of the Super Bowl this weekend. You know … important stuff. We’ll see how it goes.

With that, we’re off!


Chasing Roger Bannister

Part 1: Sir Roger (and Me)

Late in the afternoon of May 6, 1954, 24-year-old Roger Bannister stood in the bleachers of the Iffley Road track at Oxford University, staring at the flagpole.

He had planned to enter the one-mile race that day - but most of the morning and afternoon had seen swirling winds and intermittent rain, and he arrived at the track convinced that he would defer the effort until a later date. However, as he gazed upward just prior to race time, the flag of St George - which for most of the day had stood nearly horizontal - sagged and fluttered against the pole.

At that moment, a curious thought crossed his mind: an Englishman who waits for good weather will never get anything done. Somewhat pessimistically, Bannister laced up his spikes and stepped onto the track.

(The start line: May 6, 1954)

The rest of that afternoon is now legendary. Bannister, paced through three laps by teammates Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, surged ahead and broke free in the final 440 yards, crossing the tape in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, thus becoming the first man to run the mile in less than four minutes. He later recalled that the race “was my moment to do one thing supremely well.”

(Brasher, Bannister, and Chataway)

Over the next 50 years, the one-mile world record would be held by eleven different men, and lowered by nearly 20 more seconds – but that blustery May afternoon at Oxford remains the defining moment in the history of the event. The magnitude of the achievement sent shockwaves through the entire athletic world, and permanently changed the conventional rules of human achievement.

For several decades prior to May 6, 1954, the four-minute mile was considered the “absolute zero” of physical performance: something that could be approached, but never eclipsed. Many sporting and scientific experts – including some of the most esteemed physicians of the day – considered it the outer limit of athletic potential. (In fact, there were published medical opinions about what might happen to the body if pushed at such an unfathomable pace; one particularly disturbing prediction was that the heart tissue would simply explode.)

(The finish - and the start of a new era)

Bannister’s run demonstrated that the true potential of the body is yet unknown, and that the limits imposed upon it are mainly psychological, influenced only marginally by laws of nature and physics. Indeed, Bannister held the world record for only 46 days, and in the 12 months following his watershed run, the sub-4 mile was accomplished by four other runners. Once the so-called “impossible” barrier was broken, the collective mindset amongst elite runners was forever changed – and within a few years, performances that were once inconceivable became prerequisite just to stay competitive in world-class events.

Bannister was one of the last true amateur athletes in an era just before professionalism overran nearly every sport. He was a medical student at the time of his record run, went on to become a distinguished neurologist, and championed many charitable causes throughout his life. His goal was never to become a professional athlete; above all else, he considered a well-rounded man to be the noblest goal one towards which one could strive. In his mind, there was no glory to be found by excelling in one particular interest - especially one as insignificant as athletics - to the exclusion of all others.

Although he describes himself as reclusive and awkward in person, Bannister is remarkably philosophical and idealistic in his writing. In his book The Four-Minute Mile, written the year after his historic run, he speaks passionately about such topics as amateurism, the importance of balancing athletics with other endeavors, over-reliance on coaching, and the purity of competitive racing as opposed to simply making attempts at records. He authored the book when he was 25 years old – and aside from updated introductions to future versions (such as the 40th anniversary edition I own), he has not written about the four-minute mile in all the years since. [2009 update: the above link is to the 50th anniversary edition.]

For many years, Bannister resisted offers of knighthood from the Queen of England, displeased that the honor would be bestowed upon him due to a singular performance. It was only after persistent negotiation that he finally agreed, under the condition that the designation recognize his entire life’s work - his contributions to medicine and science, and his love of philanthropy - in addition to his historic race. To modern day elite athletes, such notions may seem quaint and na├»ve - but for millions of recreational competitors all over the world, they still resonate with ideological clarity.

Sir Roger Bannister is alive and well and living in London in the year 2004 [2009 update – he still is], fifty years since he ran the world’s first four-minute mile. Among all of the influential athletes in my life, he has always been a towering presence.

My objective for this year is to recognize his accomplishment in the most appropriate manner that this idealistic amateur runner can think of. To that end, I plan to commemorate the anniversary by temporarily retiring from my marathon exploits to start training and racing the mile.

I have absolutely no idea how this project will end. Check that – there’s one thing I know for certain: it’s almost 100% legitimately impossible for me to run a four-minute mile. However, the next closest barrier - breaking five minutes - just may be within my reach. I’ll have to turn my distance training upside down, and venture into workouts and zones of discomfort that I’ve never experienced – and if I don’t reach my goal, hopefully I’ll at least collect some interesting stories to tell along the way.

If nothing else, I hope to make the whole process a fitting tribute to a remarkable man.

See previous installments of this series on sidebar at right.


Martin 1/28/09, 6:32 AM  

When I was a school kid in UK during the 60's and early 70's Roger Bannister was one of my heroes. My running distances were 800 and 1500m (the mile had already been abandoned)so he was someone to look up to and at least try to emulate.As an 18 year old I managed to get my time in the 1500 down to a little over 4 minutes but by then the fast times were already well under 3' 50". There was no way to compete with people like Coe, Ovett and Cram, even if I found myself a good coach and the time to train. You have brought back some great memories for me. Thanks.

Dave 1/28/09, 6:37 AM  

Donald, two things: Don't you think it is interesting 1.)Of how many people blew through the 4 minute/mile mark very shortly after Bannister did it? Which confirms what we all know (at least what I believe) that 75% of running is mental (maybe more) the rest of the 25% is divided up to hard work and God given ability.
2.) That Bannister considered being a well rounded individual was better than being exclusive in one area...something that many runners (and myself) sometimes struggle with.

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