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Bannister recalls the day he conquered the four-minute mile

May 11, 2014 at 4:14 PM EDT
Just over sixty years ago this week 25-year-old British runner Roger Bannister did what many athletes, and even doctors, had deemed impossible. He broke the four-minute mile. Bannister reflects on the barrier he somehow knew was psychological not physical.
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TRANSCRIPT

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tonight, we look back at a moment sixty years ago this past week – a feat by a 25-year-old British runner who did what doctors had called impossible.

As he crossed the finish line that day in Oxford, England, Roger Bannister’s anguished face told the story. He had just done what no man or woman had ever done before.

He had run a mile in less than 4 minutes — 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds to be precise.

The medical student had a little help that day. Two teammates purposely set a fast pace. And one of them still led as they reached the three-quarter mile mark, now slightly behind pace.

ROGER BANNISTER: So the third lap was 62 (seconds) and that made 3:00.05, and then I had to decide whether to overtake him then, or just wait for another bend. Another bend meant I didn’t have to run wide and I didn’t want to run an extra six yards

HARI SREENIVASAN: Bannister knew one of his chief American rivals had come close to doing a four-minute mile again and again before finally concluding it just couldn’t be done.

ROGER BANNISTER: Six times, he ran around 4 minutes and 2 seconds in that previous year and that’s what led him to say it is insurmountable. It is like a cement wall. And I think he had slipped into the frame of mind of believing there was a physical barrier.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But Bannister was convinced the barrier was psychological not physical, and he had the willpower to succeed that day.

He later described the last lap — the one that put him in the history books — this way: “I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well. I drove on, impelled by a combination of fear and pride. Those last few seconds seemed an eternity. I leapt at the. Tape like a man taking his last desperate spring to save himself.”

Roger Bannister is now 85 and battling Parkinson’s Disease — a condition he has treated in his many decades as a neurologist.