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February 8, 2009

Indelible Images

Admin note: By this point of the series, I was clearly perseverating – and not in a good way – on the amount of pain that would be involved with trying to run a five-minute mile. The training had been largely completed, and I was just counting the days until an upcoming track meet where I’d finally step up to the challenge.

In the meantime, all I could do was to dwell on all the horrifying aspects of racing the mile – which in hindsight, shouldn’t have surprised me. I turn into a madman during a marathon taper; there’s no reason for me to think that awaiting a one-mile event would have been any different.

Finally … there are a lot of great rock songs about pain out there, wouldn’t you agree? Another one of my old-school favorites follows this post.

Chasing Roger Bannister

Part 7: Indelible Images

Nowadays, whenever people think about Roger Bannister’s historic race, they probably have one particular mental image burned into their memory.

Norman Potter’s photograph of Bannister crossing the finish line on May 6, 1954 has become one of the most iconic images in sports. It captures Bannister just before the tape, his head tilted back, thrusting across the finish with what Neal Bascomb describes (in The Perfect Mile) as a “tortured yet glorious expression of abandon” on his face. Recounting the moment later, Bannister wrote, “I leapt at the tape like a man taking this last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him.”

Over the next 50 years, the photo of the man breaking through a seemingly impossible barrier has come to symbolize the struggle of all athletes to accomplish ambitious goals. It is often reprinted in running magazines alongside articles about pushing through mental boundaries, or the power of positive thinking.

Yet the more I learn about Bannister’s run, the man himself, and in particular, his psychological approach to racing, I’m much more impressed by some of the less famous images of Bannister taken shortly after running the four-minute mile.

Immediately upon crossing the finish line, Bannister’s legs buckled and he, in his words, “collapsed almost unconscious”. Two men took him by the arm on either side and pulled him off of the track so that other runners wouldn’t stumble across him as they finished the race. Bannister eventually tried to stand again, but his legs simply gave out, and he “felt like an exploded flashlight with no will to live.” Finally, his coach Franz Stampfl made his way over, lifted Bannister up, and supported him while awaiting the official results of the race.

Newsreel footage shows him resting his head on Stampfl’s shoulder, with his arm draped around the neck of another supporter. Shortly after this moment, an AP photographer snapped another remarkable image of Bannister - still in a state of near collapse and agony, unable to support himself while awaiting the results.

Several minutes had elapsed since the race, and Bannister remained unable to stand under his own power. He hadn’t yet been able to speak, either - and to make matters worse, he still didn’t know if he had broken the barrier. Indeed, the first words he would eventually utter were “Did I do it?”

Much more than the finish line photo, it’s these lesser-known photographs that accurately capture the supreme exertion that was put forth that day, and the tremendous physical toll it exacted. Such an effort is even more admirable when you realize just how much Bannister feared it. He had known going into the race what the necessary cost would be, and it intimidated him.

As physically gifted as he was, Bannister considered himself somewhat fragile mentally. He found it difficult to summon up courage for an all-out effort, and was often fearful of doing so during his buildup to an important race. He was apprehensive of both the effort and the results: if, for example, he were to run a ¾ mile time trial in 3:00.3 seconds instead of 2:59.8, it would create a pocket of self-doubt about his ability to run a four-minute mile. He admits in his book that, “racing has always been more of a mental than physical problem to me.”

The added stress of racing in front of a crowd created an increased sense of dread for him. He wrote, “The spectators fail to understand the mental agony through which an athlete must pass before he can give his maximal effort. And how rarely, if he is built as I am, he can give it.” Nobody would ever accuse Bannister of excess bravado before a major event.

But in the days preceding May 6th, Bannister decided the time had finally arrived to give that maximal effort, and stayed determined to see it through. He knew that he was not capable of many such attempts, and later wrote, “In my mind I had settled on this day when, with every ounce of strength I possessed, I would try to run the four-minute mile.”

There are times in life when only an incomparable effort will suffice to accomplish a goal – and Bannister knew that May 6th, 1954 would be such a day. He wasn’t necessarily excited about it, but he knew that no alternative would be acceptable.

I often think of Bannister’s post-race pictures as I’m on the verge of exhaustion in the midst of a track workout. Although I’ve made noticeable improvement this summer, the prospect of racing the mile remains somewhat daunting. My workout history tells me that even if I have the ability to finish under five minutes, I probably won’t break the barrier by a large margin. Ultimately it will require a Bannister-like effort to have a breakthrough race - and I must admit to being a bit intimidated by it.

I’ll have the immense advantage, however, of knowing that many others have faced those same demons and ultimately found success. Bannister was a true pioneer in that he showed us what is possible and how it can be done; afterward, those of us who have similar struggles merely try to emulate him and follow in his footsteps.

Doing it the right way - in this case, by giving one supreme effort, with every ounce of strength I possess – seems like the best way to honor his accomplishment. If doing so leaves me unable to stand or speak for several minutes afterward, so be it.

“I feel the pain of everyone –
And then I feel nothing.”

- Dinosaur Jr, “Feel the Pain” (click to play):

See previous installments of this series on sidebar at right.


Bjorn 2/9/09, 11:21 AM  

Ok, I never did a mile race...

But I think you were way to worried about the pain. My PR for the 1500m (yes, I am a Euro) is 4:50, and that was at the end of a decathlon. Even more telling is the fact that we did not train for the 1500 at all... Yes, it hurt! But be assured... 400m hurt WAY more :-)
Oh, the last eight miles of a marathon too... I learned that last fall...

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