Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile in under four minutes, died peacefully March 3, 2018, at age 88. Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute-mile at age 25 May 6, 1954 in Oxford, England at a dual meet.
On his record-breaking day, Bannister ran for the British Amateur Athletic Association against the far better trained Oxford University athletes. At the end of the race, though, it was Bannister who finished first with a world-record smashing time of 3:59.4. The previous record time was 4:01.4. This record broke through a supposed barrier in running. At the time it was commonly thought that no man could possibly run a mile under four minutes.
Shortly after his record-breaking run at the Iffley Road track, Bannister left running to continue work on his medical degree at St. Mary’s College, Oxford that led to a career in neurology.
Bannister made many medical breakthroughs in autonomic failure, a subset of neurology that focuses on illnesses caused by the loss of certain automatic responses of the nervous system. In total, he published more than 80 academic papers on the automatic nervous system and other medical topics. Bannister himself said he would rather be remembered by his contribution to medicine than running.
“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,” Bannister said in a 2014 interview.
Nevertheless, his contributions to running are undeniable. In his memoir titled “The Four-Minute Mile,” published in 1955, Bannister offered some insights on running. For example, he argued that strategic and sustained bursts taken later in the race are better than spontaneous sprints, which tend to end fast and result in a loss. But it is his views on failure that made his advice distinctive.
“Failure is as exciting to watch as success, provided the effort is absolutely genuine and complete… But the spectators fail to understand — and how can they know — the mental agony through which an athlete must pass before he can give his maximum effort,” Bannister wrote.
Bannister was only 10 years old when World War II began, and it affected his life so much that it motivated his running.
“I imagined bombs and machine guns raining on me if I didn’t go my fastest… Was this a little of the feeling I have now when I shoot into the lead before the last bend and am afraid of a challenge down the finishing straight? To move into the lead means making an attack requiring fierceness and confidence, but fear must play some part in the last stage, when no relaxation is possible and all discretion is thrown to the winds,” Bannister wrote.
His passion for everything he did, from running to medicine, was rooted in his life experiences and his genuine desire to improve upon the situations in which he and others live.
Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times