Roger Bannister, famous across the globe for being the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes, died recently at the age of 88.
It’s difficult to describe now the awe his feat generated 64 years ago. To people of a certain age, Bannister was nothing less than a living, breathing testament to human potential.
Denie and I met Bannister and his wife about 15 years ago at a traditional Sunday lunch at a friend’s house outside of London. At first, we did not imagine he could be THE Bannister I had admired so many years before. He was a sedate, somewhat overweight, recently retired doctor—very modest and quiet—and a pleasant conversationalist. It took a while to tease out the truth that, indeed, he was the guy. It was, he insisted, no big deal. He gave a favorable breeze a good deal of the credit.
Bannister went on to explain that his interest and expertise in psychology convinced him that the 100th-of-a-second differences between competitors in his sport were due more to a runner’s state of mind than of body. He had been uncertain that day in 1954 of both the weather conditions and his personal preparation. He had started the race somewhat unconfidently and stayed just short of the leader for most of the distance when he suddenly felt good and decided to test the water. He put on a burst of speed and moved into first place. When he sensed the competition was tiring, he decided to go for it. He was surprised at the time—at that moment—and somewhat overwhelmed. His life was never the same.
Bannister pretty much quit while he was ahead and became revered for his accomplishment and admired as the modest man he really was.
His insight and belief that the psychology involved in running (as in life) was amazingly important has influenced generations of athletes and left a mark on history that won’t soon be forgotten—one made more impressive by his modest bearing.