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Remembering the Life of Roger Bannister: What the First Sub-4 Minute Mile Meant to the World

Very seldom does any single individual’s accomplishment change the trajectory of a sport or a society.  Roger Bannister, being the first runner to run a mile in under 4 minutes was one of those sport and society altering achievements. Sir Roger Bannister passed away on March 4th in Oxford, England at the age of 88 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.  His passing has us reflecting on just how impactful that feat actually was on a world that really needed it.

The Race That Almost Didn’t Happen.

On May 6th, 1954, on a track at Oxford University, Roger Bannister laced up his running shoes in front of a large crowd, waiting and rooting for him to accomplish a feat many had been attempting for decades; the elusive 4 minute mile.  The rest, as they say, is history.  But what people don’t realize is that the race almost didn’t happen. 

At the time of race, Bannister was a 25 year old medical student that had a less then ideal training schedule.  His medical school responsibilities meant he had only about half an hour during lunch to train during the week.  So he focused on intense speed workouts to help boost his lung capacity.  The morning of the race he completed his hospital duties and caught a midday train to the track.  The weather was terrible; a steady rain and stiff 20 mile per hour winds put the whole event in question.  

Bannister had doubts that given his unorthodox training and with the poor weather, should he even run the race at all.  In an interview with The Times, Bannister reflected on that moment;  “It’s amazing that one can be indecisive up to the point of decision,” Bannister said. “When I noticed that the wind had settled the flag, I talked to myself and realized I must do it.” Thank God he did, because on that day, as history has documented, he ran is best race and broke the barrier in 3:59.4.  He crossed the line with a gaping mouth gasping for air as the crowd roared as they knew instantly that he had broken the record.

Why Was This So Significant?

Many might ask why this was such an accomplishment.  Bannister’s barrier-breaking race seemed at the time to symbolize England’s and the world’s emergence from a war-torn era of WWII and into a time of heroic aspirations.  History has not only documented that but has solidified that accomplishment along with the likes of the conquest of Everest, the Wright Brothers First-In-Flight, and landing on the moon. 

For years scientists had made the determination that the human body was not capable of such exertion, and if one did so, would they survive it?  But the closer athletes got to that four minute mark, the more it became apparent that the barrier was more mental than it was physical.  When Bannister broke the barrier It taught the world that barriers could indeed be broken.  This rang true far outside of sports, but into all endeavors we may face in our lives.  To this day that accomplishment is heralded as proof that through dedication and persistence, that nothing is impossible.

The idea that this was a mental barrier and that people are capable of pushing themselves and achieving great things through first believing that they can was proven true by the fact that two other runners ran sub 4 minute miles within 6 weeks of Bannister’s achievement.  To date, thousands of runner’s have eclipsed the 4 minute mark, including 487 Americans.

Bannister… After the Race.

He went on to have a fantastic career in medicine and neurological research, author several books, serve time in the military, and in 2012, at the age of 83 carried the Olympic torch along the same track he gained immortality so many years before. Bannister was knighted by the queen of England in 1975 for the significance of his athletic achievements and his service as the first Chairman of the Sports Council, a sporting regulatory authority in England. 

He also held several very influential posts as the Director of the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, President of the International Council for Sport and Recreation, and Master of Pembroke College, Oxford.  But through his achievements in sports, medicine, and science Bannister always carried himself in a very humble way, often denying the significance of his achievements.

“Sir Roger Bannister was a great British sporting icon whose achievements were an inspiration to us all. He will be greatly missed.” – Theresa May

What’s Next?

The next running record that has captured the world’s attention is the quest for the first sub-2 hour marathon.  The record is currently 2:02:57, set by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya on 9/28/2014.  It will be a great accomplishment when it’s broken, but will it have the same impact as Sir Roger Bannister’s record breaking run in 1954?  Only time will tell…

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