Roger Gilbert Bannister was born on March 23, 1929. He was a Neurologist who made large advancements in the areas of autonomic nervous system, cardiovascular physiology, and multiple system atrophy. Reading this, I would assume that most of you didn’t know that. You probably know him better as the man who smashed the 4-minute mile barrier for the first time in history.
In 2014, Bannister said in an interview: “I’d rather be remembered for my work in neurology than my running. If you offered me the chance to make a great breakthrough in the study of the automatic nerve system, I’d take that over the four minute mile right away. I worked in medicine for sixty years. I ran for about eight.
And yet, we know him for doing something that most said, up until that time, was impossible for the human body to do. There was no way any man could run a mile in less than 4 minutes. It would never happen.
And while people were making those claims, one man set out to change that conversation.
It wasn’t easy. It didn’t just happen. He tried and failed more times that you can count. In fact, at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, He was defeated and disappointed with his fourth place finish and almost quit running altogether. Then, when he decided he would go after breaking the four-minute mile, he started to train for that by running intervals and pushing his body to new limits.
In May of 1953, he ran 4:03, which was a new British record. He knew at that point, the goal was in his sights. In June of that year, he ran a 4:02. During these attempts, there were two other runners making a push toward the 4 minute mark. Bannister wasn’t the only one it seemed who had this goal. He began to realize that this may never happen for him. Yet, he pushed on and kept trying and failing.
May 6, 1954. Oxford, England. Roger Bannister became the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile. 3:59.4. What was once impossible was now done. He took an “I can’t” that was well known, and turned it into an “I did” that would change the course of athletes’ mindsets forever.
The behind the scenes story of Bannister is even more impressive. As most other athletes were spending most of their time training to break this feat since the 1880’s, He was an outlier. He was studying medicine and didn’t spend a lot of time training or with coaches who could help him. Which proves something to us all. The feat of doing what he did and the barrier that existed for so many for so long was so much more mental than it was physical.
Just 46 days later, an Australian runner broke the record again with a time of 3:58. A year later, three runners did it in the same race. And, over the past 50 years, more than a thousand runners have done it. Something that once seemed like it was completely ridiculous to think could be done. Something that people once thought was impossible.
Once one person proved it could be done it was like a veil was lifted. Like in a moment of clarity when things seem so hopeless, when we see there is light and the reality of a positive, our brain chemistry changes. In that one moment. We rewrite the story of what we couldn’t do and we set out to find ways. We seek and we conquer because now we know we can.
In a strange irony of sorts, Roger Bannister, the neurologist who smashed ceilings and broke records on the track ended up being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2011.
He almost retired from running before ever even breaking the record. He failed at many attempts to do it once he decided to try.
His legacy is one we can all learn from daily. Perseverance, belief, strength.
Roger Gilbert Bannister died on March 3, 2018. And even though his light has gone out here on earth, we are all better for knowing his story and for rewriting ours as we see fit.
May we all continue to carry his torch.