Earlier this week, news trickled in about the death of Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile in under 4 minutes in 1954, a feat largely thought of as impossible at the time.
The previous record, a shade over 4 minutes, had stood for nine years, and his own record—3 minutes and 59.4 seconds—stood for just over a month. His legacy, as confirmed by the eulogies that poured in after his death, was breaking the mental barrier, proving that there was no such thing as impossible if you put your mind to it.
Cursory reading about Bannister paints a picture of simpler times. Nigel Miller, one of the seven men entered in the race, didn’t make it to the starting line-up because last-minute attempts to borrow a running kit failed. Bannister, who was studying to be a doctor, trained for less than a couple of hours a day. In fact, even the morning of his successful attempt started at a hospital in London, where he spent his days overseeing a 40-patient ward.
The image you’re left with is of a natural talent who was born to run fast, who kept going faster until, one fine day, everything fell into place and he achieved what no man before had thought possible.
But to paint Bannister as just a natural—to paint his achievement as the triumph of human spirit alone, as we often end up doing—would be both simplistic and inaccurate.
“There was no logic in my mind that if you can run a mile in 4 minutes, 1 and Qths, you can’t run it in 3:59,” he told the Associated Press in an interview before the 2012 London Olympics. “I knew enough medicine and physiology to know it wasn’t a physical barrier, but I think it had become a psychological barrier.”
In The Perfect Mile, a detailed account of the transcontinental three-way battle to break the 4-minute mile (American Wes Santee and Australian John Landy being the other two protagonists), Neal Bascomb goes into great depth about the science behind Bannister’s feat.
“Running the mile was an art form in itself,” Bascomb writes in the preface. “The distance, unlike the 100-yard sprint or marathon, required a balance of speed and stamina. The person to break that barrier would have to be fast, diligently trained, and supremely aware of his body, so that he would cross the finish line just at the point of complete exhaustion.”
To do this, Bannister split his training regimen into two parts—he trained his body to run 60-second laps with minimum effort, taking short breaks between laps. He fine-tuned his running style, getting rid of all unnecessary movements, to make sure he was maximizing speed while minimizing effort.
Then, in his laboratory, he designed punishing routines on his treadmill to build stamina (Bannister met Edmund Hillary a couple of years after the latter scaled Mount Everest, convincing the mountaineer to try his routine. He found during this experiment that he was in much better shape than the man who had recently climbed to the top of the world).
He had trained his body to set a hard pace from the start, and still have enough left for that gorgeous, lung-busting sprint down the final straight.
He trained his pacemakers as well, using his limited training time to focus on shaving off seconds. He got special shoes made from a cobbler in London. “They need to be light. I need them only for three races, for 12 laps.” The shoes were 50% lighter than his previous pair.
Back in 1996, Michael Johnson ran the 200m in 19:32 seconds, a record that looked like it would never be broken. In 2008, Usain Bolt ran the 200m in 19:30 seconds, and in 19:19 seconds a year later. This, too, will be broken one day.
“We must wake up to the fact that athletics is not, nor ever can be perfected,” legendary long-distance runner Arthur Newton has been quoted as saying. “There will always be more to learn.”
Bannister’s achievement was, without doubt, a triumph of the human spirit. But was it lighter pair of shoes that sealed the deal?
Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa.
He tweets at @deepakyen.