Overcoming The Impossible

In May 1954, something of significance took place that left its mark on history and the memory of many. 

At Oxford University’s Iffley Road track, Roger Bannister lined up against a field of notable distance runners including Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher.

With 3000 eager spectators on the edge of their seats, the starting gun was fired and the race was on. Roger Bannister made sure he ran at the pace he had been practicing over and over and over.

It was a make-or-break moment for Bannister. Failure here meant hanging up his running shoes for good. Many of us are familiar with the tale of Bannister’s mile run but there are behind-the-scenes details of his now legendary feat that are not so well known…. 

Like the fact that he nearly threw in the towel after a dismal Olympic performance in 1952? But after two months of deep contemplation, instead of giving up altogether, his decision was to train harder. Training harder was limited as his medical studies only allowed him an hour a day for this.

He knew mere sweat and toil wouldn’t cut it, not after the disappointment of 1952. Like many of us when faced with a challenge, Bannister needed something different—a game-changer; something that would give him the edge over his rivals. Especially as his aim was to break the elusive 4-minute mile barrier.

Some “informed” folks argued such a feat was physically impossible. The medical profession supported this claim, adding that such a fast pace could risk organ failure.   

But Bannister wasn’t swayed, especially with times coming in by rival runners Wes Santee and John Landy of 4 minutes and 2 seconds. 

Bannister knew this could be done. And so he started visualising his races.  Every evening before he went to sleep, Bannister ran the mile in his mind. Every step of every lap; pace by pace. His individual lap times were mentally measured and he visualised himself breaking the tape at the finish, looking up and seeing the clock that showed a time of under 4 minutes.

Day in, day out, he trained both body and mind until race day arrived. The scene was set for its 6:00pm schedule. As soon as the starter gun went off Brasher and Bannister went immediately to the front of the pack.

Brasher (wearing No. 44) led both the first lap in 58 seconds and the half-mile in 1:58, with Bannister (No. 41) tucked in behind, and Chataway (No. 42) a stride behind Bannister.

Chataway moved to the front after the second lap and maintained the pace with a 3:01 split at the final lap bell. 

Chataway continued to lead around the front turn until Bannister began his remarkably strong finishing kick with over half a lap to go, running the last lap in just under 59 seconds.

On the final bend Bannister unleashed a Herculean pace, breaking the finishing tape at 3:59.4 seconds. The crowd’s roar drowned out the announcement as Bannister, spent, collapsed in triumph.

He’d not only achieved the impossible but shattered a belief. What many don’t realise is that Bannister’s new world record was broken a mere six weeks later by Aussie speedster John Landy.

And that’s not where the story ends. 18 people ran a sub 4 minute mile that year; 34 runners achieved it in 1955, debunking the myth of the impossible.

Records show that a total of 1,497 runners have recorded times of under 4 minutes for the mile. 

The current record for the mile is 3:43.13 held by Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999. That’s almost 17 seconds below the “impossible” time of 4 minutes. Sifan Hassan holds the women’s record of 4:12.33.  These records are unlikely to be beaten as today’s runners contest the 1500 metres, a slightly shorter distance.

I love this story because it reminds me that shattering beliefs about what’s “impossible” is not what they teach people – especially those informed observers and experts.

When I start on a project and come up against blocks, I think of Roger Bannister and find a way to overcome whatever is preventing me from moving forward.

In March 2018 the nation mourned at the news of Roger Bannister’s death. He was 88.

Yet his message was invaluable. If he can overcome the impossible, so can we.

Here is.a video of this race (3:16)\

Dr Elmar Jung

Dr. Elmar Jung
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