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What It Takes - Roger Bannister

What It Takes - Roger Bannister
What It Takes: Roger Bannister
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00:00:02 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:00:08 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:00:14 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:00:19 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:00:32 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:00:35 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:00:40 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:00:53 ALICE WINKLER: This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement. I’m Alice Winkler, and thanks for joining us.

00:01:02 ROGER BANNISTER: The reason sport is attractive to many of the general public is that it's filled with reversals — what you think may happen doesn't happen. A champion is beaten; an unknown becomes a champion.

00:01:17 ALICE WINKLER: For the next 30 minutes, I invite you to try to forget about that long list of calamities conspiring to ruin your enjoyment of the Rio Olympics, not to mention the health and welfare of the athletes themselves. Instead, soak in this inspiring story from a simpler time, before the Zika Virus and state-sponsored doping, a story of the runner who broke the four-minute mile, Sir Roger Bannister.

00:01:50 ROGER BANNISTER: Well, I must be the international athlete who trained least.

00:01:55 In other words, I had worked out from my knowledge of physiology what was the minimum amount of training that would be needed to continue to improve year by year.

00:02:07 ALICE WINKLER: Sir Roger Bannister is 87 as I record this episode and living in Oxford, England. He ran in the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, but that’s not where he smashed through the four-minute barrier, a feat that challenged people’s idea of what was humanly possible. No, Sir Roger Bannister’s greatest athletic achievement came two years later. Cue the historic newsreel.

00:02:33 ANNOUNCER: Twenty-five-year-old Roger Bannister, third from the left, gets away at the Iffley Ground, Oxford for the race of his life. For years, he has dreamed of becoming the first man to run the mile in less than four minutes, and now, with Chris Brasher setting the pace in front, he’s decided that this is the right moment.

00:02:48 ALICE WINKLER: Bannister was studying medicine at the time, working toward becoming a neurologist, which he did, by the way, and that wasn’t the only unusual thing about the path this lanky middle-distance runner had taken.

00:03:02 ANNOUNCER: Bannister, a superb tactician, has suffered some criticism in the past for adopting his own rather unorthodox training methods, but they're paying dividends now. Despite the slight wind, he’s clocking great time.

00:03:14 ALICE WINKLER: We’ll get back to that newsreel. No rush. We know how the race ends, but I want to walk the story back 15 years before it began, to 1939, when little Roger Bannister was living in a suburb of London, his family soon to move to Bath. I said a minute ago that it was a simpler time, but it wasn’t, really, in many respects. World War II was about to begin.

00:03:40 ROGER BANNISTER: Well, I’ve always been very impatient and I, frankly, found life, age 10, in this suburb and at this school, boring. And I can remember, age 9, having the awful thought, as it seems now, looking back on it: “A war! That should liven things up a bit.”

00:04:11 The first air raid siren sounded when I was still in London, and I ran back from the park, where I'd been playing, home, hearing this siren. And of course, nothing happened for six months. We've got what we call the Phony War.

00:04:28 MARC PACHTER: The Phony War.

00:04:29 ROGER BANNISTER: But when I went to Bath, there were some reprisal bombings, and our house was actually bombed. And the roof fell in, and we were sitting in the basement, under the stairs of the basement, and we were quite safe.

00:04:46 MARC PACHTER: Yes.

00:04:46 ROGER BANNISTER: But it brought home realization. In two nights, 400 people were killed in this relatively small town, and so on the third night, I persuaded my parents that we should leave. There was no raid expected, but as it had happened on two nights, we went out of Bath and camped overnight about four miles away in a wood. But my discovery in Bath was of the countryside.

00:05:15 I loved the countryside. I cycled from the age of sort of 10 to 15 all around Bath and Somerset and Cheddar Gorge and the sights of castles and country houses. And I remember that as a time of freedom, often perhaps a bit solitary, but great excitement of discovery and exploration.

00:05:53 With my impatience, I think I enjoyed running to get about more quickly.

00:06:01 And I never found it any effort, and so 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.

00:06:30 So, you know, my childhood was a vigorous one.

00:06:34 MARC PACHTER: Yes, yes.

00:06:34 ROGER BANNISTER: And the concept of a family holiday was going to a guesthouse, usually in the Lake District or Wales, where walking was part of the holiday. You did walk.

00:06:49 ALICE WINKLER: Bannister’s parents were not well-educated. They hadn’t been able to afford university, but they prized education and books, and instilled in their son a yearning for more.

00:07:02 ROGER BANNISTER: I wanted to have some success. I came from quite a simple origin, without any great privilege, and so I also wanted to make a mark, and 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 schoolchildren do, and there was an event which was planned in which races were run, and I simply just won these by a very considerable margin. And so everybody thought, "Oh, this is rather special."

00:07:48 ALICE WINKLER: But what about his parents? What did they think about his talent for running?

00:07:52 ROGER BANNISTER: They were supportive, but at the time I was about to break a world record and had already become well-known, my mother used to say, "Well, it’s all very well, this running business, but I hope it doesn’t distract you from your work as a medical student."

00:08:15 So, in other words, I got the impression that, for her, the only important thing was for me to become a doctor, which, as it were, was a career which had not been possible in her generation and in her society.

00:08:34 ALICE WINKLER: Sir Roger says he never had any doubt that he would become a doctor, and he never had any illusions about his talent for running.

00:08:43 ROGER BANNISTER: Yes. It’s just a kind of gift that you have, to be able to do this better than other people, but it shouldn’t mean that you're something very, very special. Because I suppose it has its intellectual element — or running has. Sport has its intellectual element, but the more important basic quality is a physical one, which is probably genetic.

00:09:20 ALICE WINKLER: Roger Bannister was interviewed twice for the Academy of Achievement, and both times he was exceedingly humble. The first time, in 2000, he spoke with Marc Pachter, who was then the head of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. Two years later, he spoke with journalist Gail Eichenthal. You’re hearing excerpts of both these conversations in the podcast. Okay, so with that little bit of business behind us, back to how Roger Bannister became a runner so beloved, so great, he was named Sports Illustrated Magazine’s very first Sportsman of the Year.

00:09:58 Of course, now called Sportsperson of the Year. Yes, Bannister had a natural love of running. Yes, he found it easy, and yes, he was getting some nice recognition for his speed, and then his father took him to see a meet.

00:10:15 ROGER BANNISTER: There are two parts to running. There is the simple enjoyment as you run through the countryside and — a pure pleasure without any target — and this showed me a kind of forum in which success could be crystallized; those who were watching applauded, and there was a gladiatorial interplay between the athletes.

00:10:45 And I watched an English runner called Sydney Wooderson, who had held the world record for the mile, and it had always been a British preoccupation to hold this mile record. There was a series of English runners who had held it. And I watched him after the end of the war, in 1945, running against the world record holders from Sweden.

00:11:12 And he was not in the same league, but he came up and challenged the world record holder on the last bend. The challenge was easily fought off by the Swede, but there was a feeling of courage that he showed in tackling a Swede who looked physically much stronger, more elegant, and more powerful.

00:11:40 Wooderson was a rather small man, but this exchange, this battle, was, I think, the thing which led me to go on from simple running for pleasure to running with this target of records, Olympic Games, and other events in mind.

00:12:01 ALICE WINKLER: The year after seeing that race, Roger Bannister entered Oxford University on a scholarship. He was only 17 years old and a little out of place on campus.

00:12:13 ROGER BANNISTER: I would say that my athleticism was really the core to social acceptance, but I actually arrived in Oxford in 1946, which was when a large number of ex-servicemen came back, and they had deferred entry to university in order to fight during the war. And so we were alongside veterans who, you know, wore medals and had been injured, and some of them, of course, had been relatively senior — promoted to senior ranks, you know, by losses on the battlefield.

00:12:49 So it was a very strange time, and in a sense, we had nothing in common with them except sport.

00:12:58 ALICE WINKLER: And that was another reason he wanted to race competitively at the college level, but it was not a foregone conclusion that he’d make the team. In fact, Bannister said, it was a big surprise when he did.

00:13:10 ROGER BANNISTER: It was a dreadful winter in 1947. Historically, there has never been a winter like it since, and the track was frozen, and they couldn’t have trials, and so I couldn’t prove that I could be on the team. And my previous best time was about five minutes, you know, won as a freshman’s race.

00:13:38 But I'd been seen shoveling away the snow rather vigorously, and so the captain — and sport is entirely run by students in Oxford — the captain said, "Well, look, just as a third string" — that means the third runner who is not expected to do anything — "why don’t we put him in?" And they put me in, and then on the race itself, I just overtook all the rest of the field and won, which is in a time which was 30 seconds faster than I had done before, but very modest, of course, four-and-a-half minutes.

00:14:16 And that was the beginning of an eight-year process in which every year I improved, and then after eight years I was near the world record.

00:14:30 ALICE WINKLER: But back in 1947, a four-and-a-half-minute mile was considered a great time. Everyone assumed Roger Bannister would compete in the ’48 Olympics, which were held in London, for goodness’ sake. He was invited to compete, but he declined.

00:14:46 ROGER BANNISTER: In those days, I didn’t train very much. We didn’t really know how to train in modern terms, and there was this thing called “burning yourself out,” and I didn't want to burn myself out at 18, and I had a notion that if I looked after myself, trained carefully, I would go on improving, not by training two to three hours a day, but by training three-quarters of an hour a day.

00:15:15 It seemed to me logical that you could go on improving and you didn't have to spend all day running. To me, running was an experiment. Here were muscles. Here was a heart. Here were lungs. To what extent can this bit of machinery be trained to do a very specific skilled task?

00:15:43 And I knew that the training had to fit the event. How do you manage to release physical and nervous energy over four minutes?

00:15:58 ALICE WINKLER: He approached training, in other words, as someone who’d studied physiology, which of course he had, and that’s why he decided he could go it alone without a coach.

00:16:10 ROGER BANNISTER: There was a coach, but I fell out with him. He said, "You do this," and I said, "Why do I do this?" And he said, "Well, you do this because I'm the coach and I tell you to do it." And he made me do a time trial, and he'd be holding a watch, and I'd say, you know, "What time did I do?" and he said, "Oh, don't worry about that."

00:16:34 So although he’d been quite well-known — he was actually a coach to someone called Jack Lovelock, who won the Olympic 1500 meters in Berlin in 1936. But, you know, I suppose I was always independent, and I felt about running that it was my task to find out what suited me and what didn't suit me. How much training could I do and then improve my performance and not let my performance go down because I was training too hard?

00:17:13 These were things which seemed to me so individual that nobody else was going to understand me to this degree. That was the reason why I pursued a rather lonely furrow, and I made the decision that I wouldn’t compete in the Olympic Games, and I reached a position in which I was being criticized in the press for not racing often enough. They said, "Here’s this chap, you know, and we think he’s good. We want to see him."

00:17:45 And I said, "Well, no. I mean I run if I want to run. There's nobody paying me to run. If I think that five races a year is right, and if I feel that I’ll work up towards a peak in the middle of the season, that’s what I’m going to do."

00:18:03 But everything came unstuck in a very big way because I pursued this kind of approach with a lot of press criticism, and eventually they said, "Well, okay, you know, if he wins the gold medal in Helsinki in 1952, he'll be right. He’s done the right thing."

00:18:25 ALICE WINKLER: And so Roger Bannister just went ahead, doing it in his own unorthodox — and you might even say eccentric — way.

00:18:34 ROGER BANNISTER: Every year, I suppose, I would be reducing my mile best time by two or three seconds, you know. Starting at 4:18 and then gradually coming down, and basically I was doing interval training. I had so many other interests that I wanted to have my evenings free, and I would usually miss lunch, and sometimes there were rather unimportant lectures at twelve o’clock.

00:19:07 So I would tend to take about two hours off to travel to a track, spend about 35 minutes running, but running very hard, and then just have a shower. Didn't warm up. Didn't warm down. Had a shower, would get something to eat and get back to the hospital by two o’clock.

00:19:31 ALICE WINKLER: And four years later, in 1952, he was ready to go for the gold.

00:19:38 ROGER BANNISTER: The management of the events in the Olympic Games was left to local organizers, and it was said afterwards that there had been a rather deliberate attempt just three weeks before the Helsinki Olympics — because I was the favorite — to change the program, and they had three races on three successive days, which were unnecessary.

00:20:06 Previously it had always been the heats, a day’s rest or two day’s rest, and a final, and that was what I was planning for. And I could have coped with it, but by the third day of these successive races, I didn't run. I knew in my heart that it was a virtually impossible task for me, and of course, with that frame of mind, too, it did prove impossible. I came fourth.

00:20:35 No British gold medals in the Helsinki Olympics, except for a horse called Foxhunter who won an equestrian event. Disaster, criticism for Bannister: "We told him he should train differently, and now it is proved."

00:21:00 It’s a defeat and a kind of humiliation which, yes, I had to get over it and prove to myself, if not to other people, that that was not the best I could do.

00:21:19 If I had won the gold medal, I would probably have retired because, you know, Olympic gold medal, 1500 meters, there was nothing higher, and would just go on with my work. But I felt angry with the press, angry with myself, angry with the organizers of the event. And I thought about it, and so, after thought, I decided it would be possible to work and go on training — medical training.

00:21:53 ALICE WINKLER: He wanted a chance to prove himself, and so he plotted out how he would improve his time enough, not just to beat his rivals, but to reach the holy grail, the sub-four-minute mile. He figured it would take him about two years using his slow and steady method. Bannister was now a full-time doctor in training at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, so his running regimen was even more restricted, but he was determined to prove his goal was possible, despite what anyone else thought.

00:22:29 ROGER BANNISTER: John Landy, my rival, ran four minutes and two seconds three or four times, and he used the phrase, “It’s like a wall.” Now, logically, I could not understand, as a physiologist, why a human being can run a mile in four minutes and two seconds and four minutes and one second, and why somebody else won't inevitably come along, train a little better, know that there's a target to be beaten, and beat it.

00:23:02 So that was my mental approach to it. It was just fortunate for me that the pathway of record-breaking, which continues in all aspects of athletics, had just reached this magical, critical four minutes, four laps, one minute each, on a quarter-mile track. That was really the reason why it had conspired to become a possible barrier, physical or psychological.

00:23:37 It wasn't, in my view, physical, but it did become, to some extent, psychological, and it was really an example — I don't know whether the word “paradigm” is correct — a paradigm of human achievement in a purely athletic sense. What limits are there to what the body can do?

00:23:58 MARC PACHTER: Yes.

00:23:58 ROGER BANNISTER: So it acquired this aura.

00:24:01 ALICE WINKLER: Roger Bannister didn’t wait for the European championship or any other grand competition. There was an upcoming meet at Oxford, his alma mater, and he thought it might just be the right moment. Bannister was running for the British Amateur Athletic Association against the Oxford team, and the race would be on the Iffley Road track, terrain Bannister knew very well. The date: May 6, 1954.

00:24:32 ROGER BANNISTER: The real problem was that May is a very early time in the year and the weather is usually bad, and 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.

00:25:11 So the opportunity was there. The question was: Was the weather, which was very bad — it had been raining and it was windy — such that it was impossible to do it? And to try to do something when external circumstances make it impossible would have, you know, made me feel that it was a more difficult task. “Maybe there is a barrier about four minutes.”

00:25:41 My colleagues Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, who had agreed — were running on my side in the race against the university — had agreed to set a reasonable pace, and 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?

00:26:07 So about 20 minutes before the race, the weather seemed to improve. I said, "Let’s do it," and so there we are. That was the setting.

00:26:17 ALICE WINKLER: Rumor has it that Roger Bannister actually made hospital rounds the morning of the race. He says that’s an exaggeration.

00:26:26 ROGER BANNISTER: I went into my hospital in London, St. Mary's, and I didn't do rounds, 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, and your spikes, which were really quite long then — not as they are now — would catch the material of the track and your shoe would get heavier.

00:27:09 And 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.

00:27:45 You might think that you have to have it in your mind actually honed on doing it continuously, but in my case, that wasn’t true. When I decided that it — the weather — I had to take the chance. The real thought in my mind — by then I did have a coach, Franz Stampfl, and we met by chance on the train. I didn't plan to do it, and 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.

00:28:29 But the second thing he said is that "If you have an opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don’t take it, you may never have another chance," and it was that thought, I think, which eventually led me to attempt it.

00:28:44 ALICE WINKLER: The Iffley Road track, where the race was held, by the way, was later renamed the Roger Bannister Running Track, and 50 years later, Bannister’s running legs would end up on the 50 pence coin. Here’s Roger Bannister’s description of the race that day.

00:29:03 ROGER BANNISTER: I had done nothing for five days. I hadn’t trained. I’d just rested, and so I felt very full of running, and in the first lap I was following him, and I said, "Faster, faster," you know, an order, and in fact, he was going at absolutely the right pace. It was just that I was so full of running that I didn't feel that I was running fast. He ran the first lap very correctly in 00:58.

00:29:30 He took us to the half-mile in two minutes. Then Chataway took over, and he passed the three-quarter mile in three minutes, exactly as planned, and then I knew that I had — so we were then slowing down, inevitably, and I had to do the last lap in under 60 seconds.

00:29:56 ANNOUNCER: Any moment now, and we’ll see the famous Bannister burst.

00:29:59 ROGER BANNISTER: Then I overtook Chataway at the beginning of the next to the last bend, the end of the last — end of that bend — overtook him, and then just had to run as fast as I could to the finish.

00:30:14 ANNOUNCER: And here he comes. Bannister goes streaking forward with about 250 yards to the tapes. Just look at his action as his long legs carry him nearer that world record.

00:30:26 ROGER BANNISTER: I did collapse at the end, I think partly because if you don’t keep on running, keep your blood circulating, then you get a kind of failure. The muscles stop pumping the blood back, and you get dizzy, and I did lose my sight for a bit because I was crowded in by everybody rushed onto the track.

00:30:52 ANNOUNCER: And Bannister has done it! Though he's out on his feet, his coach and team manager tell him he's achieved his ambition, the mile in 3:59.4 seconds — a magnificent win for Great Britain.

00:31:04 ROGER BANNISTER: And then the whole of the track exploded, so that was it.

00:31:11 ANNOUNCER: Bannister, a medical student, has clipped Gunder Hägg's record by two seconds. With disarming modesty, he has this to say about his triumph.

00:31:19 ROGER BANNISTER: Well, all I can say is that I'm instantly overwhelmed and delighted. It was a great surprise to me to be able to do it today, and I think I was very lucky.

00:31:29 ALICE WINKLER: Soon after the race, Roger Bannister took six weeks to write down his thoughts about the gifts of running in a book called First Four Minutes. Its title was later changed to The Four-Minute Mile. After that, he went back to his love of running simply for pleasure. He became very involved in promoting sports for young people, and he used his celebrity to that end, but other than that, he didn’t have too much use for it.

00:31:57 ROGER BANNISTER: This is something that is a feature of the young. It’s simple, and it can be completed when one is 20, 25, as I was, and then it's finished. And in my case, I then turned to medicine, which was what my life was going to be. But it is a very curious exposure to fame and publicity, and it also gives you the opportunity to realize that these things are transient and essentially unimportant.

00:32:35 ALICE WINKLER: The practice of neurology became Roger Bannister’s primary passion. He worked as a clinical doctor and researcher. He wrote the first textbook about the diseases connected to the autonomic nervous system. That's the part of your nervous system that controls unconscious actions like breathing, sweating, and circulation. He made contributions significant enough to earn him a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Neurology. Those are the contributions, he says, that he is most proud of in his life.

00:33:12 Just a year ago, in 2015, Sir Roger decided to raise money to help others carry on the medical research he devoted his career to, so he put his history-making running shoes up for auction. What better use for the fame and glory he earned as a 25-year-old? They sold for 266,000 British pounds or over 400,000 dollars.

00:33:41 This is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement. I’m Alice Winkler. What It Takes is generously funded by the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation.


What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.