Remembering Sir Roger Bannister


I was saddened to wake up to the news of Sir Roger Bannister’s passing at the age of 88 two Sundays ago, and found myself at a bit of a loss while sipping my morning coffee and scrolling through the mini memorials in my Twitter feed. Eventually I decided to put on my running shoes and head over to the local high school track to honor his legacy with a hard mile of my own. It just seemed the appropriate thing to do. Bannister, the first human to run under 4 minutes for the distance, inspired a generation with his performance on May 6, 1954. He made the impossible possible and showed that barriers largely exist in our minds.

“It is the brain, not the heart or lungs, that is the critical organ,” he’s been quoted as saying. “[Breaking the 4-minute mile] is on par with things like climbing Mt. Everest, or landing on the moon,” author David Epstein says in the film, Bannister: Everest On The Track. “It’s a question of, ‘Can we actually do this?’”

The answer, of course, was yes. And while Bannister’s historic mark might place him near the back of many competitive mile races today, his 3:59.4 clocking not only represented a watershed moment for middle-distance running—“Après moi, le déluge,” or “after me, the flood,” he said famously—but it will forever serve as an example of the transformative power that sport can have on society, history, and humanity as a whole. So what’s YOUR 4:00 mile? That seemingly impossible goal you’ve been fearing, forgetting, or pushing aside for some time now. Put your shoes on, get out there, and go smash the shit out of it. You never know what you might learn—and who you might inspire—along the way.

A lot’s been written about Bannister since his passing, of course. Here are a few of my favorite pieces:

+ David Epstein’s short tribute for Sports Illustrated. “After I wrote about him in 2011, Bannister stayed in touch,” Epstein writes. “On occasion, I got an early morning call: ‘Hello! It’s Sir Roger! I have three things to tell you….’ Always quick, wide-ranging and delightful.”

“But most of us, at some point in our lives, can for a few fleeting moments propel ourselves forward at Roger Bannister’s pace,” Malcolm Gladwell writesin a piece for The New Yorker entitled The Ordinary Greatness of Roger Bannister. “In the gray days of nineteen-fifties Britain, the act of making the unattainable attainable was considered a greater accomplishment than achieving the impossible. It still should be.”

+ What We Can Learn From Roger Bannister. “For me, Bannister will always epitomize this “amateurish” approach to sports,” Alex Hutchinson writes for Outside. “We’ll remember him because his greatest day on the cinders happened to coincide with a round-number time over an arbitrary distance. But we’ll also remember him because he reminds us that sports were a game and a journey of self-knowledge before they were a profession.”

+ Given the timing of Bannister’s passing, it seems somewhat poetic that my latest podcast guest, Lou Serafini, recently became the 514th American to break 4 minutes in the mile, running 3:59.33 at the Boston University Last Chance meet two weekends ago. The self-described blue-collar runner works full-time as the community manager at Boston-based Tracksmith and has established himself as one of the most recognizable figures on the local scene. The 26-year-old Serafini isn’t just known for his wheels, however; he has an infectious enthusiasm for the sport and has demonstrated an uncanny knack for connecting with runners of all levels. Listen in here.

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