Friday, June 28, 2013

The Four Minute Mile: Thoughts on its 60th Year

When the broad sweep of life is viewed, sport, though instinctive, physical and ephemeral, illustrates a universal truth that most of us find effort and struggle deeply satisfying, harnessing almost primeval instincts to fight, to survive.  It gives us a challenge, a sense of purpose and freedom of choice.  It is increasingly difficult to find this in our restricted twenty-first-century lives.  The particular target we seek may not be important.  But what is important is the profoundly satisfying effort in thought, feeling and hard work necessary to achieve this success.
--Roger Bannister, in the Introductory to the 50th Anniversary Edition of The Four Minute Mile

What drove the men that first broke the four-minute mile ?

Is it far removed from what drives even the lowliest of us at Church Creek?

Do we still, as Bannister did, "find effort and struggle deeply satisfying?"


Several years ago my brother, the Hulk, sidled up to the table at Merton College where he was teaching for a year.  Sunday dinner, as always at Merton, was a formal affair, with servers bringing plates of food and students and faculty in full gowns.  Across from the Hulk sat a tall old alum with a pleasant demeanor, a medical doctor, now in his 80th year but still vivacious enough.  Less than a mile away, across Christ Church Meadow, lay an athletic field on whose brick is hung a small plaque about this man and his achievement: "Here at the Iffley Road Track the first sub-four minute mile was run on 6th May 1954 by ROGER BANNISTER."

The Hulk said hello to Sir Roger Bannister.


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The Perfect Mile is Neal Bascomb's telling of the four-minute-mile story.  In his telling, it's not only a story about Bannister.  It's also a story of the other two men--Australian John Landy and Kansan Wes Santee--capable of breaking the barrier and of the press, the sports authorities, and public that gave the barrier meaning.  To break the barrier meant something for humanity.  As Bannister himself wrote, the four minute mile was a "challenge of the human spirit."  Exceeding that barrier meant we were suddenly a different kind of creature than we had thought we had been

We were fast!  

The breaking of the four minute mile not only let us revel in the speed of gifted men, it also taught us something new about our own bodies.  We discovered something counter to everything we had previously believed about the human body.

The pursuit of the four-minute mile led us to discover training.

As strange as it seems now, before Bannister and his competitors, common knowledge held that hard endurance training was previously considered dangerous, possibly suicidal.  The pain of a hard effort was not weakness leaving the body, as T-shirts now assure us; it was the body weakening.  Painful exercise was held to be deadly exercise.  Looking at the long lists of deaths common at endurance events of the early 20th century, their beliefs about effort causing death were not unreasonable--a huge number of cyclists, for example, died young.

Bannister and his competitors discovered, wonderfully, not only the joy and rewards of hard training, but also that it did not lead rapidly to the grave (Bannister is now 84).  As a young man, Bannister's headmaster warned of his love of training, "You'll be dead before you're twenty-one if you go on at this rate."  Thankfully, Bannister ignore the warning and kept running, even if efforts often left him "wheezing for breath by the end."

When the idea of training, of short-term suffering for long-term gain, did appear in that post-World War II period it was revolutionary.  Muscles, Charles Atlas assured us, could be built up.  Stan Lee gave us superheroes, many made strong through dedicated suffering.  And Jack LaLanne proclaimed a new gospel of physical development: "Billy Graham is for the hereafter.  I'm for the here and now...physical culture and nutrition - is the salvation of America."

Bannister willfully set out to break the record, but he did it within the limitations of traditional amateurism--that is, as a hobby.  Bannister was a medical student whose busy schedule rarely allowed him more than 7 hours of training weekly.  Often, his training consisted solely of highly intense 35-minute lunchtime runs.

Imagine the expectation of breaking a world record with only the Hains noon goon as training!

When Bannister broke the record, as you can see in the clip, he was aided by two pacesetters.  These men won World Championships and Olympic gold medals, yet they sacrificed a portion of their career to aid Bannister.
The men who broke or attempted to break the barrier were, as we are, otherwise employed.  Bannister was a medical resident.  Landy was an agriculture student.  Santee was a student at KU.  Still, their training volume and intensity pushed the limits of what was then considered healthy and sporting--Bannister in particular fought the notion that the pursuit of the mile record should be all-consuming.

One of Bannister's contemporaries, chain-smoking Sir John Chataway, used to leave a lit cigarette on the edging of the track while he ran, and upon finishing immediately pick it up and resume smoking.  Bannister himself regularly followed training sessions with long pub sessions.  He wrote:
My ideal athlete was first and foremost a human being who ran his sport and did not allow it to run him.  He was no racehorse nor a professional strongman.  He drank beer, he might smoke, and he listened to coaches when he felt inclined.
Our notions about age have also changed.  We believe athletes should continue competing as long as they can, and we often praise older athletes for their lengthening our notions of how long peak performance may be sustained.  We now believe endurance athletes tend to peak in their late twenties and early thirties, an age considered ancient in Bannister's time.  The three milers who pursued the four-minute barrier had stopped running competitively by the age of 25.  Santee's career, banned from competition at the age of 23, was particularly short-lived--in fact he never broke the four-minute barrier, having run 4:00 on four separate occasions.

One conclusion from the story is that Bannister, Landy and Santee were driven by failure.  At the 1952 Olympics in 1952 the three performed poorly, earning no medals or accolades.  This failure, it's clear, drove their subsequent attempt on the mile record.  They needed redemption, and they were willing to struggle for it.  Failure led them to take up harder training and employ the methods of the winning runners--particularly, those of the Czech master Emil Zatopek.

And it's a good thing they did, because their struggle--anguished faces and collapsed bodies caught on hundreds of film reels shown around the world--changed us.  Instead of sport effortless, which had been the ideal of the first half of the 20th Century, Bannister, Santee and Landy bravely elevated struggle, a notion they copped from a godless communist, as the source of sport's beauty.

This is, of course, one view of sport, the one both competitors and spectators can feel.  This is the one where the outcome is uncertain, where the nerves show through the bravado, the one of empathy, where the athlete unveils his soul to the spectator because he does not care, he is driven by the struggle, not the spectacle.

That, I guess I was trying to explain to myself, is why Church Creek matters and why the struggle of it matters.  No one cares.  No one is watching.  But that's OK.  What is important and redeeming, as Bannister writes, is the "profoundly satisfying effort."

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