Impossible Until Someone Does It

One of the things I have noticed in life is the number of times that people declared that things were impossible. It was not necessarily impossible via the laws of physics, but that it was something that just couldn’t be done. Perhaps the most famous example of something that was “impossible” was the four-minute mile.

Records Made to Be Broken… Except One?

As someone who ran track and cross-country for four years, one of the things that I know well in the world of sports is the pursuit of records. Whether it is a personal record, a team record, a county record, a state record, a national record, a junior record, a collegiate record, or a world record, the pursuit of records is vital to the world of distance running. One of the most prestigious is the mile. Four laps, one minute per lap was something that people thought was impossible for decades.

Professional runners in the 19th century could muster no better than the 4:12 3/4 posted by Walter George of Great Britain in 1886, a record that would not be surpassed until 1915, which was broken in turn by the great Paavo Nurmi of Finland in 1923, when he ran 4:10.4. The 4:10 barrier was finally crossed Jules Ladoumegue of France in 1931. Then, the record steadily fell for the next 14 years, to 4:01.6 by Gunder Hagg of Sweden in 1945. Then, the record held. There was a fear that runners would literally die before their bodies would allow them to run a four-minute mile.

A Medical Experiment

One of the people determined to test that notion was a British medical student, Roger Bannister. Devoting his lunch breaks to training, while taking weekends off, Roger Bannister tested his body and did his best to determine what made a great distance runner. He developed his confidence when running a 2:59.2 1200m in 1952, which convinced him that he could run the fourth lap fast enough to do the impossible. He finished a disappointing fourth in the 1952 Olympics, despite running under the previous world record for 1500m. The next year, he ran a 4:03.6 mile, convincing him that he could trim another four seconds off his time and become the first to do the impossible. While he was making his run, John Landy of Australia was also making his push for history, running a mile in 4:02 in January 1954. A sense of excitement was in the air in the world of track and field.

Not Ideal

On May 6, 1954, 25-year-old Roger Bannister was entered in a race in Oxford. Before the race, winds were over 25 mph, and the cinder track was soggy from the rain. Roger Bannister considered withdrawing to conserve his energy for another day. However, he changed his mind, and decided to run. However, he ran, and when the track announcer said the number three, there was a deafening roar. Roger Bannister had done the impossible! He had run four laps in under four minutes! His final time was 3:59.4, and his immortality was guaranteed.

Who We Remember

Landy would not be denied, however. Only six weeks later, Bannister’s world record would fall to Landy, who ran the mile in 3:57.9. The two would race in August at the Empire Games in Vancouver, the first time that two sub-four milers ever raced, and the only time that all of the sub-four milers in the world were gathered in one place. In an iconic moment, Bannister won the race when he passed Landy on his right, and Landy looked over his left shoulder to see where Bannister was.

However, Roger Bannister never owned the world record again, and he retired from racing at the end of the month after winning the 1500m in the European Championships. The four-minute mile has become so commonplace that four high-schoolers in the United States alone have accomplished this feat. Today, the world record stands at 3:43 by Hicham El-Gharrouj of Morocco. Then again, Roger Bannister will always be remembered because he was the first, and no one can ever take that away.

What new grounds will you blaze? After all, everything seems impossible… until the first time someone does it.