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If you like Roger Bannister's story, you might also like:
Tenley Albright,
Ben Carson,
Edmund Hillary,
Richard Leakey,
Oliver Sacks,
Herschel Walker
and Chuck Yeager

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Sir Roger Bannister
Sir Roger Bannister
Profile of Sir Roger Bannister Biography of Sir Roger Bannister Interview with Sir Roger Bannister Sir Roger Bannister Photo Gallery

Sir Roger Bannister Interview (page: 2 / 8)

Track and Field Legend

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  Sir Roger Bannister

What was the background of this race that made such history, and broke the four-minute mile?

Sir Roger Bannister: Well, the world record had been stopped for eight years, so there hadn't been any progress. That was why people said, "Well, maybe it can't be done. Is it a psychological or physical barrier?" But John Landy had run four minutes and two seconds the previous year. So had I, and so had an American runner. Gunder Haegg, a Swede, held the record. The Swedes weren't involved in the war and learned some techniques from the pre-war Germans about how hard you could train and they put it to good effect. The war had set back our progress in Britain because nothing happened for four or five years.

Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo
Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo

Is it true that you did hospital rounds that morning?

Sir Roger Bannister: I went in to my hospital in London, St. Mary's, and I didn't do rounds. But, I was a clinical student. But, what I did was I went into the physiological technician's lab and I sharpened the spikes. Because those were sticky tracks made of electricity ash with oil in them. Your spikes, which were really quite long then, would catch the material of the track and your shoe would get heavier. I was simply filing them down and rubbing some graphite on the spikes, so that I thought I would run more effectively. I then got a train up to Oxford. I then had lunch with some long-term friends and then spent the rest of the afternoon looking at the weather and going through. It was so strange really to be able to withhold the decision. You might think that you have to have it in your mind, the actually honed on doing it continuously. But in my case that wasn't true.

So on the day of the race, you were having lunch with friends and weren't sure you were going to do it. You weren't sure you were even going to enter the race?

Sir Roger Bannister: I would have entered the race because I couldn't disappoint people. But I would have disappointed them, because I would not have made a record attempt. I did not want to fail and exhaust myself, because I was the kind of runner who trained so little that I couldn't race again within another ten days if I had put all my hopes and energy into it. That was the problem.

The particular background was the race in May in which the Athletic Association competed against the University. So, there was an event. You cannot break world records unless it is an established event and you have three timekeepers and the whole thing is organized. The real problem was that May is a very early time in the year and the weather is usually bad. You cannot run a fast mile race if there is a strong wind because the wind, although it may be behind you part of the time, it makes your running uneven. The only way that you can achieve a four-minute mile is to run it as evenly-paced as possible, so that your energy expenditure is spread out, and you mix your aerobic and anaerobic energy supplies in an appropriate and efficient way. So the opportunity was there. The question was, was the weather, which was very bad, and it had been raining, it was very windy, such that it was impossible to do it. To try to do something when external circumstances make it impossible would, (a) have made me feel that it was a more difficult task; maybe there is a barrier about four minutes. My colleagues, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, who had agreed were running on my side in the race against the University and had agreed to set a reasonable pace. Would I be able to get them to cooperate on some future occasion? Or, might John Landy, who had then gone to Finland to be given the perfect opportunities in pacing, would he do it first? So about 20 minutes before the race the weather seemed to improve. I said, "Let's do it." So there we are. That was the setting.

What was it you said when you saw the flag moving in the wind? "A man in England can't wait for good weather."

Sir Roger Bannister: That's right.

When I decided that the weather [was right], I had to take the chance. The real thought in my mind -- and by then I did have a coach, Franz Stampfl, we met by chance in the train -- I hadn't plan to do it. He said, "If the weather is bad, what you have to remember is that (a), I think you can run it in 3:56," which is what a coach would say, so I didn't pay too much attention to that. The second thing he said is that, "If you have the opportunity -- not a perfect opportunity -- and you don't take it, you may never have another chance." It was that thought, I think, which eventually led me to attempt it.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

What brought you to this point? You've said that while you were still a child in London, you discovered a talent for sudden and abnormal athletic effort. How did you realize that you had this unusual gift?

Sir Roger Bannister: I was always a great bundle of energy. As a child, instead of walking, I would run. And so running, which is a pain to a lot of people, was always a pleasure to me because it was so easy. I wanted to have some success. I came from such a simple origin, without any great privilege, and I would say I also wanted to make a mark. It wasn't, I suppose, until I was about 15 that I appeared in a race. I was playing rugby and the other games English school children do, and there was an event which was planned in which races were run, and I simply just won these by a considerable margin. So, everybody thought I was just rather special.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

You were an athletic young person. Was running always going to be your sport? Were you interested in other sports or was it always going to be track?

Sir Roger Bannister: I did play other sports. In English schools you're expected to, so I played rugby at school. I did a bit of rowing, but I didn't have a real skill in ball games. I was adequate enough to be in some school teams, but running was really quite a separate skill and I enjoyed. With my impatience, I think I enjoyed running to get about more quickly, and I never found it any effort.

Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo

I was training myself when I went to school in Bath. I lived on the top of one hill and the school was at the top of another hill. Nobody ever went to school by car. We didn't have any cars during the war. So that to and from school was itself a training, which you might think is now the equivalent of a Kenyan farmer who spends a lot of time, and when a child he has eight miles to go to school, and then as he grows up he looks after the herd. So, you know, my childhood was a vigorous one.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Our concept of a family holiday was going to a guest house in the Lake District or Wales where walking was part of the holiday.

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This page last revised on Nov 26, 2013 01:02 EST
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