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3:59.4 – what’s your four-minute mile?

May 6, 2014

It’s 60 years ago today that 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 remarkable comeback in 1945. Eight years after setting the mile record and seeing it surpassed during the war years by the great Swedish runners Arne Andersson and Gunder Hägg, Wooderson regained his old form and challenged Andersson. Wooderson lost to Andersson but set a British record of 4 min 4.2 sec in Gothenburg on 9 September.

Bannister thus started his running career in the autumn of 1946. He had never worn running spikes or run on a track, but he showed promise in running 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 harder and more seriously. His increased attention to training paid dividends. In 1951 at the Penn Relays, Bannister broke away from the pack with a 56.7 final lap, finishing in 4 min 8.3 sec. Then, in his biggest test to date, he won a mile race on 14 July in 4 min 7.8 sec at the AAA Championships before 47,000 people.

After his relative failure at the 1952 Olympics, Bannister 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, and at the end of the year, Australian John Landy ran 4 min 2.0 sec. Bannister had been following Landy’s attempts and was certain his Australian rival would succeed. But knowing that Landy’s season-closing attempt on 19 April would be his last until he travelled to Finland for another race, 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, where he sharpened his racing spikes and rubbed graphite on them so they would not pick up too much cinder ash. 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 to do the last one in 59 seconds. Chataway continued to lead around the front turn until Bannister began his finishing kick with about 275 yards to go (just over a half-lap). He flew past Chataway onto the last straight and threw everything at the challenge ahead, 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. The announcer excited the crowd by delaying the proclamation of the time Bannister ran as long as possible:

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. 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, when Bannister, a medical student at St Mary’s Hospital left Paddington after a morning of work, took the train to Oxford and by the evening he was among the most famous men in the world.

But Bannister’s record only lasted 46 days. Bannister later said that he believed Landy had lost heart – the four-minute mark had become a barrier for him. And yet, just 46 days after Bannister broke the record, Landy beat his time on 21 June in Turku, Finland, with a time of 3 min 57.9 sec.

On 7 August, at the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Bannister, running for England, 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 (of four), but was overtaken on the last bend, and Bannister won in 3 min 58.8 s, with Landy 0.8 s behind in 3 min 59.6 s.

The crucial moment of the race was that at the moment when Bannister decided to try to pass Landy, Landy looked over his left shoulder to gauge Bannister’s position and Bannister burst past him on the right, never relinquishing the lead.

Bannister went on that season to win the 1,500m at 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 4-minute mile.  It wasn’t just dangerous; it was impossible. In the 1940′s, the mile record was pushed to 4 min 1 sec, where it stood for nine years, as runners struggled with the idea that, just maybe, the experts had it right.  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. It took a sense of extreme certainty for Bannister to do what was considered un-doable.  He alone was able to create that certainty in himself without seeing any proof that it could be done.

Bannister turned his dream into reality, expanded his mind 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 – 24 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 being told by parents, friends, teachers, television, and colleagues 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. A pessimist approaches life with statements of what can’t be done instead of asking how it can be done.

To dispel the pessimist in each of us, 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.

Instead of saying That can’t be done ask the question How is it possible? Equally we should not compare ourselves to so and so, rather we should ask, Am I doing my personal best? It is by pushing ourselves to our current maximum that we open the door of growth and opportunity to a new maximum.

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 mins 46.32 sec 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 min and 43 sec. 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. He believed that his unique training methods would enable him to do it. I believe this is not a dream. It is my reality. And, in the end, his convictions and confidence carried him to world-renowned prominence.

So, what’s your four-minute mile? It might be something that others have accomplished, 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. A goal you think you can’t reach. It is mental. You need to treat this goal as a four-minute mile, and know you can do it, that you can break your four-minute mile.

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.

The lesson here is as Henry Ford says, If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.It’s about mind over matter, stepping outside your comfort zone and overcoming mental barriers. Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,  move out of it. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new. If you put yourself in a position where you have to stretch outside your comfort zone, then you are forced to expand your consciousness.We cannot become what we want to be by remaining what we are.

The first sub-four minute mile would 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.

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