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Finish Strong – Like Bannister

On May the 6th, 1954 Roger Bannister of England ran a mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. Before that day, no one had ever run a mile in under four minutes. Much has been written about that moment in history (including a memoir by Bannister himself). In 2000, Sports Illustrated named it (along with Sir Edmond Hillary's Mt. Everest Ascent) the greatest athletic feat of the 20th century.

Kids don't know who Bannister is, though. Out of a class of 30-35 students, maybe two or three have ever heard of him. So, I tell them about him. About how he failed to medal in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. So, before his feat, he wasn't well known.Determined, but not well known.

"Experts" said a sub four-minute mile was a physical impossibility. That anyone who attempted it would pass out before finishing. Bannister didn't agree. He believed that if he combined his physical gifts – extraordinarily long legs and enormous lung capacity – with hard work, he could do what most everyone said couldn't be done.

He trained relentlessly. Each day, he would attempt to run ten consecutive quarter-miles, each in 59 seconds or less. A medical student, Bannister believed the "experts" were wrong. He knew the barrier wasn't physical. It was psychological.

On the day of the race, two of his competitors, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, agreed to be his "rabbits." That is, they would sacrifice any chance they had of winning in order to set a blistering pace. If Bannister could stay with them for three and a half laps, then sprint to the finish, he'd have his chance to leave a legacy.

Four laps around the track make a mile. Bannister ran the first lap in 57.7 seconds and followed that with a 60.6 second lap. He was halfway there in less than two minutes. Then he struggled. A 62.4 third lap put him at 3:00.7. He'd have to battle winds and exhaustion and run the final lap in less than 60 seconds. Running away from Brasher and Chataway, Bannister willed himself around the track one more time. He ran the final lap in 58.7 for a 3:59.4 total. He did it! The world celebrated.

But why teach it? Why should every kid know the Roger Bannister story? What are the lessons?

  • The obvious one is pushing past the mental limits that keep us from achieving our dreams. Less than two months after Bannister broke the four minute barrier, former mile record-older, John Landy, broke his record. (Bannister later bested Landy in the "miracle mile" when they both ran sub four-minute miles.) Since then, thousands of runners have broken four minutes. Some barrier.

  • The "experts" aren't always "experts." We should respect them and listen to them, but what they preach shouldn't necessarily be accepted as gospel. The world isn't flat. The sun doesn't revolve around the Earth. Pluto isn't a planet.

  • How Bannister developed confidence. His belief that he could do it came only after determined, tenacious training. Real confidence is earned with a ruthless work ethic.

  • Failure motivates. If Bannister had been successful in his quest to win an Olympic medal, he may have retired afterward. Because he "failed," he set his sights on a goal that ended up being grander than a gold medal and gave him something few Olympians ever achieve – immortality.

  • Bannister didn't do it alone. He had help. If we want to achieve something special, something great, we need others working with us. Bannister had great coaches, he had Brasher and Chataway helping him on that historic day and…

  • He had a role model/mentor from whom he majored in success: He patterned his running style after 1936 Olympic champion John Lovelock.

  • Eventually, it's up to us. Despite all the help, by the end of the race, Bannister was running by himself. Help is wonderful, but we can't totally depend on others. We have to take personal responsibility for our own success.

  • Talent matters. The vast majority of humans, no matter how hard they train, could never run a four-minute mile. To reach our ultimate potential, we need to combine a solid work ethic with whatever our gifts are. Bannister could have worked just as hard or harder at throwing the shot put, but he still wouldn't have been any good at it.

  • Learn to cook without a recipe. The best cooks start out following recipes. But once they've mastered cooking fundamentals, they don't need no sticken' cookbook! They create new, unique concoctions. In his own way, that's what Bannister did. He mastered running fundamentals and training methods, then went against accepted practices (running long distances) and set up his innovative quarter mile split training method. Interval training is now widely practiced, but it wasn't then.

  • Don't be afraid to be the first. Someone has to start the trend, change the belief or do something in a totally different way. Moreover, we remember the first person who does something important and cool. Nobody remembers who won the gold in the 1952 1,500 meter race. But we remember Bannister.

  • Finish strong! Because of the way he finished the race, I teach my students about Roger Bannister on the first day of class after spring break. Even though he was fatigued as he entered the final lap, he wouldn't allow himself to relax. Instead, he pushed harder. He knew that after the fourth lap was complete, he could rest. He didn't start resting 200 yards from the finish as kids so often (metaphorically) do. James Cleveland, in his great and timeless spiritual (often quoted by the civil rights activists John Lewis and Andrew Young) sings, I don't feel noways tired! So often, fatigue is a state of mind.

If we start to rest before the race is over, it's no thrill when we cross the finish line. So work hard right through the last day of school, the last part of practice, the last moment of the game, the last hour of work, the last seconds of studying, right down to the last moment of your life. Don't rest when there's still work to be done. There will be plenty of time for rest later… Be like Roger Bannister.

Finish strong.

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