The Extraordinary Ordinary Greatness Of Sir Roger Bannister

Nate Boyle
roger bannister training
Photo by Matt Brown on Roger Bannister plaque

In the summer of 1952, the whole world was watching as the Olympics came to Helsinki. An uncomfortable, wet heat hung over the city that summer as athletes from all over the world prepared for one of the most prestigious events in any sport. For 24-year-old Roger Bannister, it wasn’t an easy time – he’d been forced to withdraw from his previous race at a small meet in Belgium due to illness. And as he arrived at the Olympic village, even he wasn’t sure whether he would be able to compete at all.

And after his perceived failure at the 1952 Games (finishing just outside the medals), Bannister spent two months deciding whether to forgo the track before becoming a true student-athlete. He decided to keep running and accepted the challenge of being the first man to break the notorious four-minute mile barrier.

The reason sport is attractive to many of the general public, not to some intellectuals, is that it’s filled with reversals. What you think may happen doesn’t happen. A champion is beaten, an unknown becomes a champion, and I had set my mind on winning the 1500-meter gold medal in Helsinki in 1952. My ambition was always to do, say, what Lovelock had done, and win a gold medal. And, it all came disastrously wrong when I came fourth instead of winning. The reasons why I came fourth are unimportant. I mean, it was a reorganization of the pattern of the races, and my very slender training let me down. I did not have the capacity to recover quickly, but still, it doesn’t matter. Instead of retiring in order to devote myself to medicine, I decided to go on for another two years while I was still a student, working clinically in London, and I did that. The targets that would have justified this failure, as I saw it, were the Commonwealth Games, or Empire Games as they were then called. This was a race in Vancouver against John Landy or Oliver Reynolds. But Landy was the most famous.

Sir Roger Bannister

Fast forward into the spring of 1954, Roger Bannister is a 24-year-old medical student at Oxford. He has been running on tracks for only seven years now.

Records are meant to be broken.

Early 20th-century sportswriters had claimed that it was impossible to run a mile in less than four minutes. Still, when New Zealander Jack Lovelock won gold in the 1500m at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, his 3:47.8 converted to a 4:05 mile, people began talking about breaking the barrier. Yet to this day fewer people have run a sub-four-minute mile than have summitted Everest.

So nearly 70 years ago, back on a cinder track at Oxford University’s Iffley Road Stadium in 1954, one of the most extraordinary student-athletes of all-time threw down a record-breaking performance that many believed was not humanly possible.

That will never go away, Sir Roger Bannister — he’s the man to do it first. He was also representative of the change of Corinthian ideals that athletics still had going into the 50s, so the change into a more professional time when people would set real targets and be more scientific of what they’re trying to do and set training methods which he was really into as well.

Sebastian Coe

The iconic image of the lanky Oxford medical student, his head tilted backward, eyes closed and mouth agape as he stretched across the finish line, captured the public’s fascination, made him a local folk hero, and inspired global runners to new heights.

HIIT during lunch breaks at medical school

Thanks to insights he discovered during medical school, Bannister prepared for the mile with a self-prescribed routine of relatively short, intense workouts. The idea was to push himself to the extreme limits of his aerobic capacity and develop an alternative approach for making himself ‘empty the tank‘ on the home stretch.

To cut wind resistance and conserve energy, Chris Brasher led the field for the first half-mile, with Bannister close behind, and then Chataway took up the lead. The lead reached the three-quarter-mile mark in 3:00.4, with Bannister at 3:00.7 seconds.

“He was running on 28 training miles a week,” Sebastian Coe, who set the world record in the mile three different times, once said. “He did it on limited scientific knowledge, with leather shoes in which the spikes alone probably weighed more than the tissue-thin shoes today, on tracks at which speedway riders would turn up their nosez.

Sebastian Coe

Paced through the first three laps by the Chris’s, Bannister used his explosive closing kick to become the first to run a sub-four-minute mile. Shattering the mystical barrier in 3:59.4 and creating a seminal moment in sports history.

Then mere months later, Bannister defeated his great rival when he flew past Landy in the home stretch. Perhaps, fearing the famous Bannister kick, Landy turned and looked for him on the inside only to finish right behind him.

More interesting to history than the victory, the epic “Miracle Mile” showdown between two legends of the track would have both men clock sub-four-minute miles together. A feat Bannister considered more remarkable than his Iffley Road monument.

The previously unapproachable was becoming more attainable.

A cerebral approach to world record training

Landy had done it with a more traditional but continuously evolving methodology.

In 1953 to 1955, his training took more shape and variation. After the season, he’d take a period of time where he’d run mostly mileage. After the 1953 season, he ran 300 miles of easy mileage before starting anything specific. In other words, Landy happened upon the idea of building a base. In later years, he would run up to 50-60 miles per week during this base period, along with supplemental hiking and walking.

The Science of Running

But new school high-intensity training (HIIT) is just old school VO2 max for Sir Roger Bannister. The same athlete who broke the four-minute mile barrier, Dr. Bannister, contributed more to applied sports science than any other former athlete has before.

The barrier-busting miler worked out during his lunch hour from medical school rounds to win the Empire Games and European Championships in 1954. Then, promptly shock the world by hanging up his spikes at 25 – in his absolute prime – to focus on medicine.

“As soon as I ceased to be a student, I always knew I would stop being an athlete,” Bannister once said.

Roger Bannister adds some titles to his accomplishments.

Some have argued that he did not belong to the category of the extraordinary. As if his ordinary appearance and demeanor was endearingly underwhelming despite his athletic achievements.

But most significantly, he brought together a group of researchers to develop the first test for anabolic steroids. A performance-enhancing drug (PED) that Bannister and many others believed the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations were using to supplement athlete performance and recovery.

“I foresaw the problems in the 1970s and arranged for the group of chemists to detect the first radioimmunoassay test for anabolic steroids,” he told Mike Wise at The Washington Post in 2014. “The only problem was it took a long time for the Olympic and other authorities to introduce it on a random basis.

Roger Bannister to Mike Wise

Perhaps it was because, for all his modesty, he instinctively understood that his story would always have the power to inspire. But science, and the right athlete at the right time, proved that four minutes of effort could create a lifetime of achievement as a ground-breaking neurologist, scholar, academic, drug-testing pioneer, sports administrator, and student-athlete.

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