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Thank You Roger Bannister for Teaching Us About Class - in less than 4 minutes

David Yon, March 5, 2018

I am not sure anyone will ever fully understand or explain the allure of running four laps around a track in less than 240 seconds. Especially when the most prevalent competitive distance, and the one used in the Olympics, is (and has been forever) 1500 meters (0.932 miles).

Of course, viewed another way, 240 seconds is 4 minutes. In 1954, most tracks in the United States were still a quarter mile long – meaning 4 laps equals one mile. So, perhaps it is the mathematical poetry of running 60 seconds, or 1 minute, per lap for 4 laps.

I am sure it also had much to do with the fact that in 1945, Gunder Hagg from Sweden ran a mile in 4:01.3 seconds. It was a world record at the time and would remain so until Roger Bannister’s magical run. The fact that the record had stood unbroken for more than nine years when a lanky medical student stood at the starting line, in 1954, of the 440-yard track called the Iffley Road Track was not for lack of trying. Many runners tried taking down the record and breaking the 4-minute barrier, all without success.

In fact, the futility of their efforts created a buzz at the time that it was physically impossible for a human to maintain a 60-second per 440-yard pace for four laps.

Ironically, that lanky young medical student, attending Oxford University at the time, was instrumental in getting the Iffley track upgraded and converted from a distance of ⅓ of a mile to ¼.

On May 6, 1954 a gun went off and started the mile race in the annual match between the Amateur Athletic Association and Oxford University underway. Perhaps it was his background as a medical school student that gave Roger Bannister the confidence that he could finish the race in under 4 minutes. He had two pacers to help him through the effort, but it would be a tremendous accomplishment if he succeeded.

His start was powerful as he ran the first lap in 57.5. As all who have run the mile hard know, the “fun” doesn’t start until later. Still, lap 2 showed it was going to be tough as the pace slowed to 60.7 (1:58.2 for half).

The other thing milers learn is one’s race is usually made or lost in the third lap. It is too far to the finish to rely on “getting to the finish line” and more than far enough from the start for your body to begin giving in to the demands of the pace. Bannister managed a 62.3 second lap. With 440 yards to go the clock ticked at 3:00.4. Bannister would not only have to stop the slide, but also turn things around and finish with a 59.5 second last lap.

I am certain that as he passed the ringing bell signaling the start of the last lap all the negative things about a human not being physically able to break down the 4-minute barrier started knocking on his head, trying to wreck his confidence.

He probably thought, “if I get under 4:01, I will have world record. That should be good enough.” But he pushed all those thoughts aside. The medical student did more than listen to the chat room chatter. He studied and trained his body. In fact, he declared that: “As it became clear that somebody was going to do it, I felt that I would prefer it to be me.”

And so, Bannister pushed around his last competitor. He wrote later: “The world seemed to stand still, or did not exist. The only reality was the next 200 yards of track under my feet. The tape meant finality – extinction perhaps. I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well. I drove on, impelled by a combination of fear and pride.”

Steve Scott, one of the US’s best milers has run 136 sub 4 minute miles in his career. Bannister’s time would only stand as a record for about 46 days before John Landy broke with a 3:57.9. Perhaps as many as 1000 miles have now been completed in less than 4 minutes. It is certainly a lesson in how we are capable of holding ourselves back because of fear and failure to approach an issue with clear logic.

Bannister died on March 3, 2018 at the age of 88. Always a class act, he felt what he accomplished as a doctor and neurologist far outweigh what he did on the track. Perhaps, in terms of physical prowess that may be true. But in terms of his message to the world: “It became a symbol of attempting a challenge in the physical world of something hitherto thought impossible…” Now more than ever we need that spirit of solving problems.

Banister was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the age of 82, went public with it at the age of 85 and then died at the age of 88. I do not know if the Parkinson’s played a part in his death or not. His attitude about it was great, though perhaps his words signaled something more.

Noting the irony of a neurologist suffering from the disease, he also announced he was having trouble walking.

“Just consider the alternatives – that is the way I look at it. One of my pleasures in life apart from running, is walking. Intellectually I am not [degenerating] and what is walking anyway?”

As someone who gets to do battle with Parky every day, I appreciate Bannister’s message about not accepting what gets characterized as an impossible barrier. I hope he knew to keep pushing those walks and runs every day. And never stop using the thinking side of the brain. When you do, Parky is quite happy to use what you don’t.