It’s 65 years ago since Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile – 6 May 1954 at Iffley Road Track in Oxford. Two years earlier, in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Bannister set a British record in the 1500m, but did not win the medal he expected. This strengthened his resolve to be the first 4-minute miler.
Bannister was inspired by miler Sydney Wooderson’s British record of 4 min. 4.2 sec. in Gothenburg on 9 September 1945, and started his running career in the autumn of 1946. He had never previously worn running spikes or run on a track, but ran a mile in 1947 in 4 min. 24.6 sec. on only three weekly half-hour training sessions. He was selected as an Olympic possible in 1948 but declined as he felt he was not ready to compete.
Over the next few years, improving but chastened by this lack of success, Bannister started to train more seriously. It paid dividends. In 1951 he set a personal best of 4 min/ 8.3 sec. Then he won a mile race on 14 July in 4 min. 7.8 sec. at the AAA Championships.
Bannister then set himself a new goal: to be the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. On 2 May 1953, he made an attempt on the British record at Oxford. Paced by Chris Chataway, Bannister ran 4 min. 3.6 sec, shattering Wooderson’s 1945 standard. This race made me realise that the four-minute mile was not out of reach said Bannister.
But other runners were making attempts at the four-minute barrier and coming close. American Wes Santee ran 4 min. 2.4 sec. on 5 June, the fourth-fastest mile ever, then Australian John Landy ran 4 min. 2.0 sec. Bannister had been following Landy’s attempts and was certain his Australian rival would succeed. Bannister knew he had to make his bid.
6 May 1954. Aged 25, Bannister had begun his day at a hospital in London as a junior doctor. He took a mid-morning train from Paddington to Oxford, nervous about the rainy, windy conditions that afternoon. With winds up to 25mph, Bannister said that he favoured not running, and would try again at another meet.
Just before the start, he looked across at a church in the distance and noticed the flag of St George was moving but starting to slow. The wind died. The conditions were far from perfect, but Bannister knew at least one obstacle had been eased. As the run began, the conditions did worsen, with a crosswind growing, but by then Bannister was in his stride.
The race went off as scheduled at 6pm with Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher providing the pacing. Brasher led for the first two laps, recording a time of 1 min. 58.2 sec. Bannister stayed close and then as the race reached lap three, Chataway came through to maintain the pace. The time at three-quarters was 3 min. 0.5 sec. but Bannister knew he had to bide his time.
Bannister began his last lap – he needed a time of 59 seconds. Chataway continued to lead around the front turn until Bannister began his finishing kick with just over a half-lap to go. He flew past Chataway onto the final straight, his tall, powerful style driving him on. Could he do it? He knew this was it. The world stood still. It was just him and the track. He was being carried by history. 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 minutes 59.4 seconds. He’d done it. He’d broken the world record. He’d done what so many believed was impossible. He’d made history. It was an extraordinary end to an ordinary day.
But Bannister’s record only lasted 46 days, as Australian John Landy on 21 June in Turku, Finland recorded a time of 3 min. 57.9 sec.
Then on 7 August at the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Bannister competed against Landy for the first time in a race billed as The Miracle Mile. They were the only two men in the world to have broken the 4-minute barrier, with Landy still holding the world record. Landy led for most of the race, building a lead of 10 yards in the third lap, but was overtaken on the last bend, and Bannister won in 3 min. 58.8 sec., with Landy 0.8 seconds behind.
Bannister went on that season to win the European Championships with a record in a time of 3 min. 43.8 sec. He then retired from athletics to concentrate on his work as a junior doctor and to pursue a career in neurology.
It was doubted that a man could break the four-minute barrier for the mile. Experts said for years that the human body was simply not capable of a sub 4-minute mile. In the 1940′s, the mile record was pushed to 4 min. 1 sec, where it stood for nine years. Perhaps the human body had reached its limit.
As part of his training, Bannister relentlessly visualised the achievement in order to create a sense of certainty in his mind and body. He alone was able to create that certainty in himself without any proof that it could be done.
Bannister turned his dream into reality and accomplished something no one had done before. But once he crashed through that barrier, the rest of the world saw that it was possible, and the previous record that had stood for nine years was broken routinely – twenty four people broke the 4-minute mark within a year of Bannister.
Many people have been conditioned with thoughts of what can’t be done. Studies have shown that within the first eighteen years of our lives, the average person is told ‘no’ more than 148,000 times. We are constantly told what we cannot do. This conditioning causes many of us to achieve a small fraction of our potential and result in a negative approach to life.
To dispel this pessimism, we must transform our approach to life by finding solutions instead of excuses. This small change in our approach to life will produce great outcomes. Elbert Hubbard wrote The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.
Once Bannister proved that once you stop believing something is impossible, it becomes possible. He decided to change things. He refused to settle. When no one believed his goals were possible – he did. When he failed publicly, he picked himself up, and carried on. When his competitors were hot on his heels, he picked up his pace. He took things into his own hands, and decided to tell a better story. And in doing so – he did the impossible.
In the next 30 years the record was broken 16 more times – including British runners Ovett, Coe and Cram (3 minutes 46.32 seconds is the British record, set in 1985), with the current world record held by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, set 7 July 1999 in Rome at 3 minutes and 43.13 seconds. But Bannister was the first.
Despite what the experts said, Bannister thought otherwise. In his mind, it was not a question of whether or not someone could run a sub-four-minute mile. For Bannister the questions to be answered were who and when. He believed that someone would break the four-minute barrier. He believed that he was capable of doing it. I believe this is not a dream. It is my reality. And, in the end, his convictions and confidence carried him to a truly remarkable achievement.
The story of Bannister’s success is a lesson in that what others believe to be our abilities and limitations has absolutely no bearing on how high we can take ourselves. What does matter ultimately however, is what we believe we can achieve.
We simply need to believe. Each of us needs to believe that within us is a sub-four-minute mile performance, regarding our personal or professional achievement. We need to believe that we have that performance where we cast aside all self-doubt. We need to endeavour to refute the naysayers – and those little voices.
It’s about mind over matter, stepping outside your comfort zone and overcoming mental barriers. Life begins at the end of your comfort zone, so move out of it. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new. We cannot become what we want to be by remaining what we are.
Most people are living under someone else’s rules. Society encourages people to play it safe and avoid loss. Risking big for big payoffs is discouraged, labelled foolish and irrational.
Like Bannister, if you want to achieve success bigger than you’ve ever had, you’ll have to do things you’ve never done before, but the safety of the crowd is more appealing than the freedom of going out on your own.
Most people aren’t committed. They are simply ‘interested’. If you’re interested, you come up with stories, excuses, reasons, and circumstances about why you can’t or why you won’t. If you’re committed, those go out the window. You just do whatever it takes.
If you want extraordinary success no one else has, you need to adopt a new mindset. You need to become more. To do something truly original requires a deep sense of courage and vision. The interesting paradox here is that often those who do new things also have a healthy disrespect for what has already been achieved. They use the past not as a boundary, but as the frontier upon which to innovate.
In this sense, those seeking to truly innovate find reassurance in the discomfort of originality, as those who strive to create new things are quickly confronted by the stark reality that we live in a world that finds comfort in doing what is tried and tested. The battle against conventional wisdom, therefore, becomes the innovator’s greatest encounter.
It’s about going beyond incremental advances in search of great opportunities that have the potential to upset the status quo, and open up a nexus of possibilities. As Alan Turing said, We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.
The first sub-four minute mile could have belonged to someone else, but Bannister wanted it more than anyone else. Three minutes and 59.4 seconds that changed history. Few other sporting moments have been crystallised in a nation’s memory in the same way as the first sub-four-minute mile. It’s still special too – more people have climbed Everest than run a sub-four-minute mile.
So, what’s your four-minute mile? It might be something that others have accomplished that you want to emulate, but it just might seem impossible to you. It might be something that you’ve always aspired to, but that you think you can’t do. You need to treat this goal as a four-minute mindset, and know you can do it, that you can break your own four-minute mile barrier.