There are certain names, achievements and events that just simply are. Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the moon. The Wright Brothers, the first to fly. Roger Bannister, broke the 4 minute mile barrier. In these stories of great achievement, of individuals doing what moments before seemed impossible, come great lessons. Roger Bannister died Saturday. Though he will forever be remembered for breaking the 4 minute barrier, it is the lessons he shared that I found myself reflecting on this weekend.
Once the impossible is made possible, it becomes common. History is riddled with things once thought impossible. Flight, going to the moon, running a sub 4 minute mile. All examples of things that could never be done. While they might not be entirely common, they are certainly not impossible, and short of the moon, not even news worthy. If one believes something is impossible, it will never happen. But if one accepts that something is possible, they are on the path to achievement.
Amazing achievement demands sacrifice. So much goes into that simple sentence, but breaking the 4 minute mile barrier is a story of sacrifice and pain. It hurts to run fast. Any runner suffers, but running fast for any amount of distance really, really hurts. The mental fortitude to endure such self-inflicted pain is the true strength of a runner. Running at an elite, world-class level, is a monastic existence. Roger Bannister sacrificed in all other aspects of his life to achieve his goal. Things thought impossible are not made possible without unfathomable sacrifice.
Focus and Commitment. It was the most amazing part of the entire Roger Bannister story…he was going to medical school when he broke the 4 minute barrier! It was the era of “Amateur Athletics” – one could not profit from athletics; it was unseemly. Roger Bannister was in medical school, would train over his lunch hour (an hour to change, run, cool down, shower and change – an hour), and then occasionally run at meets strictly for the competition and only when his academic schedule allowed. There were no endorsements, no shoe contracts, no government programs or athletic assistance. He had to cover his own costs, buy his own shoes, sharpen his own spikes, all of it. He had to focus and commit to the goal, then do everything required to achieve his goal.
Nothing is ever done alone. The track optimizes individual effort. It is the runner, on the track, against the clock. Yet in his efforts to break the 4 minute barrier, Roger Bannister had help. He had a coach and trainer, he had teammates and mentors, and on that fateful day he had pacers. There literally were men who went before him, breaking the wind, setting the stage for his final lap push to finish in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. Nothing, even the most solitary of endeavors, is every done entirely alone.
Competition. Having rivals. Being pushed. Having someone to chase, someone nipping at your heels. It matters. Roger Bannister was not the only person chasing the 4 minute mile. The rivalry with American Wes Santee and Australian John Landy was en epic contest. They all were running in the 4:02 range and were desperate to be the one who broke the barrier. They each pushed the other, chipping away, gradually going just a bit faster, training a touch harder, honing their craft and demanding more from the others just by competing. Just as it was a “space race” to the moon, so it was with Bannister, Santee and Landy, and so it is with each of us who compete. Thank the competition, they make you better.
The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb was the book that introduced me to the full story of the 4 Minute Mile. Like most everyone, I knew Roger Bannister broke the barrier, but knowing what it took, how it was done, the rivalry with Landy and Santee, the worldwide quest to do it, the mental and physical barriers. That book sets atop one of my book shelves for a reason. It is that good and taught me so much. Sir Roger Bannister made the impossible absolutely common. Yet when asked, he holds his work in medical research as his greatest personal achievement. That last part is what makes the loss of Roger Bannister so great and the lessons his quest illustrates all the more telling. He was a regular, and by all accounts, a good guy, who repeatedly did amazing things. He achieved because he believed, he sacrificed, was focused and committed, had and accepted help, and embraced the competition.
You know, all the things any of us can do.