Roger Bannister was born in Harrow, Middlesex, England. He began school in a suburb of London, where he early showed a talent for running. University education had been beyond the reach of Bannnister’s working class parents, and he resolved at a young age to win a place in one of England’s elite universities and study medicine. At the outbreak of World War II, the family moved to historic Bath, England, where Roger Bannister had daily opportunities to practice his running on the way to and from school. At first, his studiousness made him unpopular with his less motivated classmates, but his exceptional speed on the running track soon won him the acceptance he sought, and his scholastic efforts paid off with a scholarship to Oxford University.
At Oxford, Bannister’s speed in the mile and 1500 meter events drew the attention of the British sports press. To the consternation of many British track enthusiasts, the young miler declined to compete in the 1948 Olympics in London, preferring to concentrate on his training and his medical studies.
By 1951 Bannister had captured the British title in the mile and felt ready for Olympic competition. Unfortunately, last minute change in the schedule of the events at the 1952 games in Helsinki forced Bannister to compete without resting between events as he was accustomed to. He finished fourth in the 1500 meter run and endured the scorn of the British sports media, who blamed Bannister’s rejection of conventional coaching and training methods.
Bannister sets a new goal
After his failure at the 1952 Olympics, Bannister spent two months deciding whether to give up running. He set himself on a new goal: To be the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. Accordingly, he intensified his training and did hard intervals.
On 2 May 1953, he made an attempt on the British record at Oxford. Paced by Chris Chataway, Bannister ran 4:03.6, shattering Wooderson’s 1945 standard. “This race made me realize that the four-minute mile was not out of reach,” said Bannister.
On 27 June, a mile race was inserted onto the programme of the Surrey schools athletic meeting. Australian runner Don Macmillan, ninth in the 1500 m at the 1952 Olympics, set a strong pace with 59.6 and 1:59.7 for two laps. He gave up after 21⁄2 laps, but Chris Brasher took up the pace. Brasher had jogged the race, allowing Bannister to lap him so he could be a fresh pace-setter. At 3/4 mile, Bannister was at 3:01.8, the record – and first sub-four-minute mile – in reach. But the effort fell short with a finish in 4:02.0, a time bettered by only Andersson and Hägg. British officials would not allow this performance to stand as a British record which, Bannister felt in retrospect, was a good decision. “My feeling as I look back is one of great relief that I did not run a four-minute mile under such artificial circumstances,” he said.
But other runners were making attempts at the four-minute barrier and coming close as well. American Wes Santee ran 4:02.4 on 5 June, the fourth-fastest mile ever. And, at the end of the year, Australian John Landy ran 4:02.0.
Then early in 1954, Landy made some more attempts at the distance. On 21 January, he ran 4:02.4 in Melbourne, then 4:02.6 on 23 February and at the end of the Australian season on 19 April, he ran 4:02.6 again.
Bannister had been following Landy’s attempts, and was certain his Australian rival would succeed with each one. But, knowing that Landy’s season-closing attempt on 19 April would be his last until he travelled to Finland for another attempt, Bannister knew he had to make his attempt soon.
6 May, 1954 – The Day The 4-minute Mile Was Finally Broken
This historic event took place on 6 May 1954 during a meet between British AAA and Oxford University at Iffley Road Track in Oxford. It was watched by about 3,000 spectators. With winds up to 25 miles per hour (40 km/h) prior to the event, Bannister had said twice that he favoured not running, to conserve his energy and efforts to break the 4-minute barrier; he would try again at another meet. However, the winds dropped just before the race was scheduled to begin, and Bannister did run.
He had arranged for his friends Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher to set the pace for the first laps so he completed the first three quarter-mile laps in under three minutes. Finishing the last lap in less than a minute, Bannister broke the tape and collapsed as the announcer delivered his time to the cheering crowd.
The roar of the crowd drowned out the rest of the announcement. Bannister’s time was 3 min 59.4 sec.
The unbreakable record had been broken. At age 25, Roger Bannister had made history.
Roger Bannister Tapped on His Powers of Visualization
To achieve something that’s not been done before, requires tremendous belief and confidence. Where did Bannister get his confidence from? The answer – Visualization.
He had visualized himself breaking the 4 minute barrier over and over again…each time with intense emotional intensity like he was really living the moment. He would literally experience in his visualizations what he would experience while running – muscle twitching, facial muscles contortion, feeling of breathless, and tremendous heartbeat. He would do it so many times in his mind, that by the day of the historic event, he was ready.
Aftermath…The Incredible Power of Belief and Reference
For years, many have tried and failed to break the 4 minute mile barrier. In fact, many wondered whether it was even humanly possible to do so.
Perhaps, the greatest achievement for Roger Bannister is not on his record breaking endeavor, but on providing a reference for other runners that its is within everyone’s ability to to achieve the “impossible”. How so? Within a year after Bannister broke the record, 37 other runners ran below 4 minute! And in the year after, more than 300 runners ran below 4 minute. This after years of failure by many.
Each one of them had the potential to run that fast, but it wasn’t until someone else showed them that it was possible, it wasn’t until they believed it, that they tapped into the potential that was always there.
When asked in an interview, whether he thought it was humanly possible to break the 4 minute mile, since many have tried but did not succeed, he replied, “John Landy, my rival, ran 4:02 three or four times, and he used the phrase, “It’s like a wall.” Now logically, I could not understand, as a physiologist, why a human being can run a mile in four minutes and two seconds, and four minutes and one second, and why somebody else won’t inevitably come along, train a little better, know that there’s a target to be beaten, and beat it. So that was my mental approach to it. It was just fortunate for me that the pathway of record breaking, which continues in all aspects of athletics, had just reached this magical critical four minutes: four laps of one minute each, on a quarter mile track. That was really the reason why it had conspired to become a possible barrier, physical or psychological. It wasn’t, in my view, physical, but it did become to some extent psychological. And it was really an example — I don’t know whether the word paradigm is correct — paradigm of human achievement in a purely athletic sense. What limits are there to what the body can do?”