The drama of running is not apparent, but still very real. Football and baseball keep you excited for seconds: “Wow, did ya see that catch? And now a word from our sponsors.”
Before you read any further, Google this: “Roger Bannister First 4-Minute Mile.” It will keep you engaged for 4 minutes and holding your breath even though you know the outcome. This is not a routine sports story. This unique race raises significant questions: Why and when was it run? Why it would be illegal by today’s track rules? And, finally: Who was Roger Bannister?
It had been raining for a month at Oxford, England, the track was soggy and slow, and Roger was suffering from cold. An Australian runner was making significant progress to run a mile under 4 minutes. The lesson here is, if you can do something that shocks the world, do it first! (Here on Shelter Island, we’re in the same anxious position since our local track star, Kal Lewis, is within seconds of breaking 4 minutes.)
Yes, Roger clearly ran the distance under 4 minutes. The violation was using an “orchestrated” effort of other runners that preceded the final quarter-mile lap. While unheralded, these runners’ contribution was essential to Roger’s success.
The first lap had to be under 60 seconds; however, if too fast (even by a second), Roger would not have the speed needed in the final lap. It followed that the second and third quarters must also be precisely timed. Roger was running with a team of selected runners, each one trained to precisely achieve those times and keep on the necessary pace.
Roger did not take the lead until midway through the last lap — exactly as required. The film shows how completely spent Roger was at the finish. And the world was shocked.
Who was this Roger Bannister, and why so famous? It’s because he was more than a gifted athlete. In 1954, he’d already graduated from medical school and was a practicing physician performing research on human neurology at Oxford.
His 4-minute-mile quest was not for fame, but to show that the human body could do it. The science of the day believed that breaking this 4-minute barrier was a death sentence. Running at that speed for that distance would rupture your heart, collapse your lungs, and bring on a host of other dreadful maladies.
More than a talented athlete, Roger was a scientist. He developed the technology for testing human endurance routinely used today. Check out our FIT Center and appreciate that Roger adapted the treadmill for his training. He tested the benefit of higher oxygen levels than the 20% we usually have available. His talent was immense, but his dedication more incredible.
He characterized the introverted personality of long-distance runners in contrast to flashy media hounds that we see in most other sports. He had the confidence to prove his theories on the one subject that he could entirely control: himself.
At the race finish line, there were no electronic clocks displaying times in the thousandths of seconds. Watch the film and see the timers carefully coordinating their results from individual stopwatches. After deliberation, they gave their account to the excited crowd. Only one number needed to bring the crowd to celebration: “ … and the winner, with a time of ‘three” … that was all the crowd needed. Roger Bannister had broken the 4-minute mile and had survived.
Roger held the world’s record for only weeks. The Australian, whom I already mentioned, John Landry, broke Roger’s record by a second. It’s true that when any record is broken, it enables and provides the opportunity for others to follow. The fastest time for a mile today is 3 minutes 43.13 seconds, 17 seconds faster than what Roger did in 1954.
Roger represented Great Britain in the Olympic Games and beat his Australian rival in their only head-to-head contest. He then moved from athletics and into his long and prestigious medical career, pioneering new orthopedic treatments.
Roger Bannister never measured his life by running fast, but by helping others to simply be able to walk,