Roger Bannister died over the weekend at 88, the first person to break the four-minute mile. At the time, breaking that record was akin to sending a man into space or breaking the sound barrier in flight: the world was younger, simpler, and thresholds of human capacity were still being established. Bannister wasn’t just a runner, he was a symbol of human potential. A beacon of human endurance and strength.
Bannister also had a day job. He was a neurologist and while he was a runner, he was also a husband, father of four, and known throughout sports as a gentleman. He was modest and reserved; humble and curious—he didn’t put himself up on a pedestal, even though he was the first person to do what he did.
The triumph of Roger Bannister—who trained at lunchtime while at medical school and wore shoes with heavy spikes and certainly ate a much more rudimentary diet than what our heroes consume today—is yet another shining example of what it means to be a runner. Even when he was competing at his strongest, he remained good natured. Indeed, he struck a close friendship with his competitors and didn’t see himself as a superstar. He had a methodical approach to the four-minute mile. If someone could run 4:01:4, why not break four? The record feels very much like the two-hour marathon record that we’re trying to break today.
“I’ve had quite an interesting life, doing a number of things, some of them related to sport, but quite another life as a doctor,” he once told the Globe and Mail. And I love that and think it’s a good message for all of us. Here was the best runner of his time, maybe even the best runner of all-time, and running consumed part of his life, not his life in totality. As we get into race season and spring goals heat up, Bannister’s example serves as a reminder. Running is a lot of things. But it can’t be everything. You’ll run better for it. Just like Roger did.