On Saturday, the world lost one of the greatest sports legends to ever live. In my mind, it’s sad that more people know of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali, or Wayne Gretzky than of Roger Bannister. There have been many articles published about Bannister since his death on March 3rd. Just search his name on the internet and you’ll pull up a host of excellent pieces recounting his life and achievements.
I have a copy of his autobiography at home. It’s fittingly titled The Four-Minute Mile, and I’d encourage anyone to go read it. The remarkable things about the book, much like Bannister and his life, is how unremarkable a character he is, at least in his own eyes. His early days as an athlete were incredibly inauspicious. He was, in his own words, “…not very strong physically. Until I was about thirteen the week often ended with a nervous headache and an attack of violent sickness.” He did have some success in his early days as a runner when he won his school’s annual cross-country race at just twelve years old. In Bannister’s opinion, his success was due chiefly due to his mental fortitude, more than his physical prowess. “I am sure that I was not a better runner than the others, in the sense of having more innate ability. I just knew I had to win for the sake of peace. It was as simple as that.”
A mere 13 years after winning that junior cross-country meet, Bannister placed his stamp on history when he became the first man to run under four minutes for the mile. He was a full-time medical student at the time, preparing to embark on a long and successful career in neurology. He was often criticized for his training regimen, which consisted of only 25 miles of running a week (because that’s all a busy medical student has time for). But to Bannister, none of that mattered. Instead of making excuses for himself he simply went out and did.
In the same year he broke the four-minute mile, Bannister retired from competitive running. The mark he set was quickly bettered by other runners in the coming years. Though he only held the World Record in the mile for a few short months, Bannister will be forever remembered as the guy who did it FIRST. Just like many of the great explorers before and after him, Christopher Columbus, Sir Edmund Hillary, Robert Perry, Neil Armstrong, and more, Roger Bannister showed us what is on the other side of the mental block we create for ourselves. John Landy of Australia had already run three one-mile races that spring of 1954, each within two seconds of the four-minute mark, and with each one Bannister was sure that Landy would be the first. But he wasn’t. The mental block was too great until Bannister showed that it could be done. Within a month after Bannister broke four minutes, Landy did so as well, and lowered the World Record to 3:57.9, dropping four seconds from his previous best.
Sport was a powerful part of Bannister’s life, but it wasn’t all of his life. And maybe that’s part of the secret.
“However ordinary each of us may seem, we are all in some way special and can do things that are extraordinary, perhaps until then even thought impossible. When the broad sweep of life is viewed, sport, though instinctive, physical and ephemeral, illustrates a universal truth that most of us find effort and struggle deeply satisfying, harnessing almost primeval instincts to fight, to survive. It gives us a challenge, a sense of purpose and freedom of choice. It is increasingly difficult to find this in our restricted twenty-first-century lives. The particular target we seek may not be important. But what is important is the profoundly satisfying effort in thought, feeling and hard work necessary to achieve this success.”