By Jason Koop
CTS Coaching Director, author of “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”
Not all speed records age well. Technology and science move forward and make some accomplishments seem pedestrian years later. The 4-minute mile is not as elusive as it once was, but for a period in the early 1950s its pursuit captured the sporting world’s imagination. Entire books have been written about the pursuit of the record, and as we mourn Roger Bannister’s passing at age 88, here are some thoughts on his life and accomplishments from a coaching point of view.
The First Time-Crunched Athlete
As is well known, Roger Bannister trained with the intention of breaking the 4-minute mile while also attending medical school. In the early 1950s there wasn’t much opportunity to be a professional runner, and Bannister had his eyes on a different set of career goals. An Olympian in 1952, he clearly had a big aerobic engine, and he trained on lunch breaks and after hours as he and a select few around the world all vied to be the first to run a mile in less than 240 seconds.
We may not all start with an Olympian’s aerobic engine, but Roger Bannister showed following generations you can achieve greatness in sport and academics/career/family at the same time.
The 4-minute mile captured the public’s imagination, partly because it was a nice, round number. Four 60-second quarter miles, one mile in 4 minutes. What Bannister and others knew from a medical and physiological standpoint was that the human body was capable of producing the energy necessary for the task. The science said it could be done, and as runners inched ever closer to the record, it became clear it would eventually happen. Bannister told the Associated Press in 2012, “There was no logic in my mind that if you can run a mile in 4 minutes, 1 and 2/5ths, you can’t run it in 3:59. I knew enough medicine and physiology to know it wasn’t a physical barrier, but I think it had become a psychological barrier.” He added, “As it became clear that somebody was going to do it, I felt that I would prefer it to be me.”
The 2-hour marathon has become today’s version of the unbreakable barrier. The Nike Breaking2 project came tantalizingly close, but ultimately fell short. Sports scientists know it’s possible. We can calculate the energy output required to maintain the necessary pace, and that output is achievable by a human. It’s going to take a very special human, on the greatest running day of their lives, and in near perfect environmental conditions for it to happen, but someone will do it. And if history is any guide, once the psychological barrier is broken others will break 2 hours soon after.
Controversies Fade, Performance Endures
When Bannister broke the 4-minute mile he caused a lot of controversy by running with two pacesetters. When aero bars first appeared on triathletes’ bikes – and later on Greg Lemond’s time trial bike in the 1989 Tour de France – they were controversial, too. The Nike Breaking2 project took the concept of pacesetters a step further, using not only runners, but also a bit of a draft from a Tesla. Innovations in sport are often met with resistance at first, but over time the controversies subside, the performance is what is remembered, and the innovations become accepted practice. The controversy around whether Bannister would have run sub-4 without pacesetters subsided when he and Australian John Landy raced head to head, both finishing in less than four minutes.
The Illusion of Control
The weather was not cooperative the day Bannister ran 3:59.4, and the event kept getting delayed in hopes the wind would subside. Around 6pm in the evening the winds calmed and the conditions were as good as they were going to get, and the rest is history. Today, we try to manipulate and control an ever-increasing number of variables in the pursuit of the perfect scenario. But try as we might, nothing is ever perfect, and eventually the athlete just has to go ahead and start!
Many – if not most – of the greatest achievements in sport were accomplished in imperfect conditions. The athlete just did it anyway. If you wait for everything to be absolutely perfect, you’re likely to miss your chance altogether.
Roger Bannister stated many times he was more proud of his accomplishments as a neurologist and grandfather than he was of anything he had done in athletics. Perhaps, the thing he’d most like us to glean from his life would be just that. Make sport a component of your life, but don’t let devotion to sport deprive you of the rest of life’s riches.
Farewell, Sir Roger Bannister, and congratulations on a life well run.