Achieving the Impossible: A Story of Human Determination and “The Everest on the Track”

fast man placing both hands right behind the starting line to take off to run the track

In one of the most iconic moments in Sports History, a 25 year old British Medical student broke a record that was said to be impossible.

Roger Bannister’s story of running a 4-minute mile is full of unlikely events, crushing defeats, and ultimate glory, but it isn’t just entertaining; it’s packed with actionable ideas that can help you crush your own impossible goals.

By the time you finish reading, you will:

  • Understand the power of teamwork.
  • Learn why grit is absolutely essential.
  • See how inspiration is converted into action.
  • Know how to commit all the way to the end.
  • Discover what it means to truly “change the game” and leave a lasting legacy.

 

Running the “Impossible” Four-Minute Mile

“Roger Bannister is the best example of doing something where your brain says ‘No,’ but your heart says, ‘Yes you can.’”
—Sebastian Coe, “Bannister: Everest on the Track

Above the roar of the crowd and the raucous beating of his heart, Roger Bannister heard the words: “Three minutes and one second!”

He was on the third lap of a four-lap race, and had another quarter mile to go. He would have to run the final lap faster than he had run the third—a pace greater than 15 mph—or he would fail in his goal.

It was a goal that had seemed so insurmountable, so impossible, that it had come to be known as “Everest on the Track.”

On that day in May 1954, Bannister was attempting to do something that had never been done before—running a full mile in less than four minutes. At the time of his attempt, the previous best time of 4:01.4, run by a Swedish track athlete named Gunder Hägg, had stood unchallenged for nearly 10 years.

Sports writers, and even some scientists, speculated that the four-minute mile was physically impossible.

There was fear that a person could even die attempting it.

Bannister, however, thought that the four-minute barrier was more psychological than physiological. He was a medical student, and to his scientific mind it seemed improbable that the four-minute barrier was unbreakable.

Perhaps more importantly, though, he thought he could do it.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Bannister realized that conquering the four-minute mile would require some help.

To that end, he enlisted an eccentric but effective coach named Franz Stampfl, as well as two other accomplished milers, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway. Under the watchful eye and relentless encouragement of Stampfl, Bannister, Chataway and Brasher pushed their bodies to the limit in short but brutal training sessions.

The training was intense—a protocol we would refer to as interval training today—and sometimes after a hard workout, the men’s confidence would falter. When that happened, Stampfl would take them out to dinner.

Over a bottle of wine, he would regale them until they were utterly convinced that, as Chataway recalled years later, “If you could get a world record it would be as good as painting the Mona Lisa; that your place in world history would be secured.”

Grit

Over the course of his career, Bannister had tasted equal portions of success and defeat.

His early career was promising. He gained admission to Oxford by way of a track scholarship, and quickly became a national-level competitor. He was lambasted by the British press when he didn’t compete in the 1948 Olympic Games, the first to be held after WWII.

But after a string of solid performances, he was favored to win gold at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.

During the Helsinki games, though, Bannister found that his training had been insufficient. He was unprepared for the unexpected announcement of a semi-final round in his event, the 1,500-meter race. He struggled through the semi-finals, and by the final round reportedly felt “blown and unhappy.”

He ultimately placed fourth, and saw his Olympic dreams shattered.

Bannister considered retiring from running, but the promise of a new goal, a new dream reignited his passion.

On June 2, 1953, Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the British throne. On that same day, Edmund Hillary became the first person ever to summit Mt. Everest. After the horrors of WWII and the long road to recovery, these events gave the British people a sense of hope and optimism that they had almost lost.

Roger Bannister was among those inspired by this momentous day, and he began to think that conquering the “Everest on the Track” could be his contribution to his nation’s healing.

Earlier that year he had set a British national record of 4:03.6—so he only had to improve this time by 3.7 seconds. But Bannister wasn’t the only person who had his sights set on the four-minute mile. An international cadre of rivals included an American runner named Wes Santee, who had run a 4:02.6, and an Australian named John Landy, who had come even closer with a 4:02.

Go Time: Turning Inspiration into Action

After four months of hard training, Bannister and his teammates decided it was time to pull the trigger.

For the record to be considered valid, it had to occur during an officially sanctioned meet, so a match between Bannister’s club, the Amateur Athletic Association, and the Oxford University team was set.

On the day of the race, conditions at the track were not looking good. There had been rain earlier in the day, and winds as high as 25 mph. Bannister debated calling the whole thing off, but just prior to the start, the wind died down and he took it as a sign that the race was meant to be.

The men gathered at the start, and a hush came over the crowd. As the countdown began, the starting gun went off in a false start. The tension that had been building intensified as everyone retook their places and the countdown began again.

“3, 2, 1,” bang! This was it, and Bannister, Chataway, and Brasher quickly moved to the front of the pack.

The plan to beat the four-minute mile was simple: Running at a 60-second-per-lap or better pace, Brasher would stay ahead and pace Bannister for the first two laps, for the third lap Chataway would replace Brasher in the lead position, and for the fourth, Bannister would take the lead himself.

Brasher held up his end of the deal, hitting two 60-second laps with Bannister tucked tightly behind him.

But as Chataway moved ahead for the third lap, their time had gone slightly off pace. As they crossed the mark for the third lap, the clock read 3:01, and they had less than 59 seconds separating them from their goal.

It’s Not Over Till It’s Over

Sports science has shown that most of the energy a runner expends is devoted to fighting air resistance, so running in his teammates’ wake spared Bannister precious units of energy. Knowing this, Chataway didn’t back down after finishing the third lap, fighting bravely on for another 50 meters.

Coming around the final bend, Chataway peeled off, allowing Bannister the opportunity to take the lead and sprint for the finish.

Fighting against otherworldly fatigue, Bannister commanded his legs to move. He knew that this could be his last opportunity to do the impossible—to break the four-minute mile, and to secure his place in the history books.

A final kick and he was through the tape, and within a few steps, he collapsed into the arms of an official. The crowd screamed in excitement and rushed the field.

Several agonizing minutes followed as the race organizers confirmed Bannister’s time. Finally, the announcer’s voice cut rang out:

“Event 9. One Mile.”

The announcer paused for effect before continuing. “First; R.G. Bannister with a time which is a Ground Record, a British Record, a British All-Comer’s Record, a European Record, a British Empire Record and a World Record of three…”

Before the announcer could finish, the crowd went wild. The arithmetic was simple, and the unbelievable had come true.

Roger Bannister had conquered the “Everest on the Track,” breaking the four-minute barrier by 0.6 seconds for a time of 3:59.4.

The Game Had Been Changed

When word got out that Bannister had broken the four-minute mile, there were some who still refused to believe their ears. But only 46 days later, Bannister’s rival John Landy would improve upon Bannister’s time with a 3:57.9.

Since then, another 1,300 men have followed in Lannister’s footsteps, including several high schoolers and an Irish runner, Eamonn Coghlan, who joined the “sub four-minute club” at the age of 41. In 1997, a Kenyan named David Komen ran two back-to-back sub-four-minute miles with a time of 7:58.61. And in 1999, Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj set the current world record for the mile with a stunning 3:43.13.

Some might argue that the sub-four-minute mile was inevitable, and that technological innovations such as improved track surfaces made the accomplishment easier for modern runners.

But such rationalizations ignore the enormity of Bannister’s accomplishment. His feat was one of imagination, collaboration, resilience and inspired action.

Maybe others could have broken “Everest on the Track”—but Roger Bannister is the one who did.

What’s Your Four-Minute Mile?

Researchers from the University of Toronto recently studied a process called “self-authoring,” which requires students to reflect on important moments in their past, identify key personal motivations and write down specific plans for the future.

The researchers found that students who did this were more likely to stay in school and earn more credits than the students that didn’t.

Going through a process like self-authoring can be powerful. It’s an opportunity to work ON your life, rather than just being IN your life—but you have to write things down.

Putting pen to paper is often the most important step in bringing a goal to life, so our challenge to you is to take five minutes right now to write down your goals—and get started on your dream.


Also published on Medium.