A Life Defined-The 60th Anniversary of the "Four Minute Mile", by Peter Thompson, from British Milers Club magazine, May 2014

The following article, by reknowned coach Peter J. L. Thompson, puts the sixtieth anniversary of the first sub four minute mile and Sir Roger Bannister, into a proper perspective. Read it, share it, then, go take a run. 



A Life Defined - The 60th Anniversary of the 'Four Minute Mile'

What defines truly exceptional achievement? It has been said or written many times that more individuals have climbed Mount Everest than have broken four minutes for the mile. That's a fact, it's a thing we can't deny. More then 3,500 people have successfully summited the 29,029 ft. Himalayan mountain peak, whereas by October 2013, just 1,303 people had broken four minutes for the mile.

There are seven billion people in the world, more or less, and to be one of either group, Everest conquerors or sub-4 minute milers, surely defines 'exceptional achievement'. The difference is that you cannot buy a guide to take you sub-4. You simply have to have a 'genetic gift' that is then individually honed.

And, while we are on the subject of numbers, there are probably considerably more articles on Sir Roger Bannister and his achievements than individuals who have climbed Everest. Let us, then, represent Roger Bannister's life as a play in three Acts with a Monologue interjected. And let us, predominantly, have his words define the script. Who could know the man better during his life?

Act I - In which a boy discovers his love for running and develops under the influence of the spires of Oxford

The following is excerpted from 'The Joy of Running', a June 20th, 1955, Sports Illustrated autobiographical article:

"I remember a moment when I stood barefoot on firm dry sand by the sea...
I looked down at the regular ripples on the sand, and could not absorb so much beauty... In this supreme moment I leapt in sheer joy. I was startled and frightened by the tremendous excitement that so few steps could create...

I was almost running now, and a fresh rhythm entered my body. No longer conscious of my movement, I discovered a new unity with nature. I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed. From intense moments like this, love of running can grow.

As a boy I had no clear understanding of why I wanted to run. I just ran anywhere and everywhere... I wonder how much part sheer fright plays in running... I ran for it when I heard my first air-raid siren. I imagined bombs and machine gun bullets raining on me if I didn't go my fastest. Was this a little of the feeling I have now when I shoot into the lead before the last bend and am afraid of a challenge down the finishing straight? To move into the lead means making an attack requiring fierceness and confidence, but fear must play some part in the last stage, when no relaxation is possible and all discretion is thrown to the winds...

... I went up to Oxford in the autumn of 1946 to study medicine. In Oxford, I
had been told, a man without a sport is like a ship without a sail... Of all sports, running seemed to be the only one for which I had any aptitude... Since 1945 when I watched my first international athletic meeting, I had a schoolboy dream of becoming a runner. I had never watched anything more than school sports until my father took me to the White City (where Roger was inspired by the sight of Sydney Wooderson). Perhaps he wanted me to be a runner. He himself had won his school mile and promptly fainted afterward--as many runners did in those days."

Oxford proved to be the fertile soil that Bannister's love and talent for running begged for, with his rapidly developing speed in the mile and 1500m drawing
the attention of the media and athletics authorities. But, he declined an invitation to race in the 1948 Olympics.

By 1951, Bannister had captured the British title in the mile and felt ready for Olympic competition. He finished fourth in the 1500m, breaking the existing Olympic record, but attracted a typically negative and judgemental response from the British sports media.

Bannister's own response to the media's reaction was to take on a new challenge, by setting out to break the world mile record and to take it under the four-minute barrier. He was now studying full-time at St Mary's Hospital Medical School and could commit to train a brief 45 minutes a day. He determined to optimise this time to achieve his goals.

Monologue - The assault on 'Everest' Roger Bannister was very aware that he was not alone in his pursuit of the four-minute mile. Around the world, other groups of athletes were preparing for their races. So, Bannister planned an attempt in the A.A.A. vs. Oxford University match on May 6th, 1954. He was to be paced by his training partners, Chris Brasher and Christopher Chataway. On the day, a strong wind threatened to ruin the attempt but it abated somewhat in the late afternoon and Bannister decided it was "now or never". The athletes assembled for the race. The following is the autobiographical account of the end of the race, excerpted from the First Four Minutes.

"Failure is as exciting to watch as success, provided the effort is absolutely genuine and complete. But the spectators fail to understand - and how can they know - the mental agony through which an athlete must pass before he can give his maximum effort. And how rarely, if he is built as I am, he can give it. ...

... My body had long since exhausted all its energy, but it went on running just
the same. The physical overdraft came only from greater will power. This was the crucial moment when my legs were strong enough to carry me over the last few yards as they could never have done in previous years. With five yards to go the tape seemed almost to recede. Would I ever reach it?

Those last few seconds seemed never- ending. The faint line of the finishing tape stood ahead as a haven of peace after the struggle. The arms of the world were waiting to receive me if only I reached the tape without slackening my speed. If I faltered, there would be no arms to hold me and the world would be a cold, forbidding place, because I had been so close. I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him.

My effort was over and I collapsed almost unconscious, with an arm on either side of me. It was only then that real pain overtook me. I felt like an exploded flashlight with no will to live; I just went on existing in

the most passive physical state without being quite unconscious. Blood surged from my muscles and seemed to fell me. It was as if all my limbs were caught in an ever-tightening vice. I knew that I had done it before I even heard the time. I was too close to have failed, unless my legs had played strange tricks at the finish by slowing me down and not telling my tiring brain they had done so."

The stopwatches held the answer.
The announcement came,
"Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event nine, the one mile: first, number forty one, R. G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which - subject to ratification - will be a new English Native, British National, All- Comers, European, British Empire and World Record. The time was three...".

The roar of the crowd drowned out the rest of the announcement. Bannister's time was 3 min 59.4 sec. The unbreakable record had been broken. At age 25, Roger Bannister had etched his name in history. 

Act II - Running and competing, after May 6th 1954, in which a racing career concludes.

The 'floodgates' didn't open for sub-4 minute miles, as predicted, after that day
at Iffley Road but within a month, the Australian runner John Landy had broken Roger Bannister's record, running 3:57.9 in Turku, Finland. Global interest was focused on the mile distance and this set the scene for an epic meeting, 'The Mile of the Century', to be conducted in July in the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Canada. The mile final would be a showdown between the world's two fastest milers, Landy the front-runner against Bannister the fast finisher and it was as publicised and anticipated as Mo Farah's 
2012 Olympic appearances. In execution it did not disappoint.

Following Landy's front-runnning, Roger Bannister recalls his thinking with 200m remaining, "If Landy did not slacken soon I would be finished. As we entered the last bend I tried to convince myself that he was tiring. With each stride now I attempted to husband a little strength for the moment at the end of the bend when I had decided to pounce. I knew this would be the point where Landy would least expect me, and if I failed to overtake him the race would be his.

When the moment came my mind would galvanise my body to the greatest effort it had ever known. I knew I was tired. There might be no response, but it was my only chance."

What happened next sealed the legendary status of this race. By pure coincidence, Bannister launched his attack right at the exact moment that Landy looked back inside and to his left. The Englishman passed by unseen and gained the vital few metres to go for victory.

The final result saw both runners go under four minutes but Bannister came in first at 3:58.8 to Landy's 3:59.6. Laterthat year, Roger Bannister was awarded
the Silver Pears Trophy, bestowed annually for the outstanding British achievement in any field. He also secured the European 
title in the 1500 metres before retiring from competition, aged 25.

Act III - In which our hero, now retired from athletics' competition, fulfills his professional and personal goals, out of sight of an adoring and respectful public. On stage, the lights dim to almost darkness but the action has continuity and is purposeful for society.

It is perhaps fitting that the third Act be the shortest of all, in script, despite
it covering the longest temporal period, 60 years. This brevity can be regarded as the antithesis of what Sir Roger Bannister perhaps would wish for his own story.

At the end of 1954, Bannister retired from athletics' competition but not running, to pursue his medical studies full-time, becoming a consultant neurologist. He gained closure on his racing career in the well expressed and, at times, lyrical prose of his autobiography, First Four Minutes, published in 1955. It has since been reprinted as, Four Minute Mile and Frank Horwill would always insist that this autobiography should be required reading for all BMC boys and girls and women and men.

After completing his medical studies, he combined a career of clinical practice and research as a neurologist. He continued to run for enjoyment and fitness until 1975, when he suffered a serious car accident that, among other injuries, broke his ankle. 1975 was also the year that he gained recognition from the realm for his combined achievements, being knighted. He has maintained a life-long enthusiasm for Athletics that is evidenced by his appearance and interest in previous and current events.

Recently, "The Bannister Effect' has gained increasing media coverage and is used by many in motivational business, life and sport settings. The argument goes that we humans are subject to believing that all sorts of things that are really only difficult are actually impossible, until it is proven otherwise. Bannister's achievement of the seemingly 'impossible' sub-4 minute mile
is the prime example that unless you can believe that something is possible, it is likely to remain improbable.

Our play concludes with the curtain remaining raised, as the lights once again brighten to reveal our hero, central stage.

Roger Bannister has refused steadfastly to be defined or constrained by his '3 minutes, 59.4 seconds of fame'. Instead the eminent neurologist, Knight of this realm, author of a classic medical textbook and former Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, has insisted that his achievements on the Iffley Road' cinders on May 6th, 1954 pale in his comparison to the other achievements in his life. But, for the rest of the world, he exists primarily as a snapshot, an
image of supreme determination, relief and achievement frozen forever in, and of, time. Roger Bannister was the first to successfully summit athletics' 'Everest' and shall be always remembered and revered for this achievement.

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