Book review - Roger Bannister

"The First Four Minutes"

10 messages
27/03/2004 at 10:06
It's the 50th anniversary of Roger Bannister's 4-minute mile, and this has been re-issued to celebrate. It's his memoirs written in 1956, with a couple of chapters at the end written more recently, providing some reflections on his life since then and his views on modern sport.

Some of it sounds a bit dated now - small vocabulary points like calling black people "coloured" give away its age, and his descriptions of university life and travel at the time sound amazingly old fashioned - more Chariots of Fire than what we would recognise today. Some of his youthful musings on the beauty and grace of running also sound vaguely Leni Riefenstahl too, but he really makes up for this in the closing chapters with some unanswerable observations on the achievements of Sport For All and the small club cross-countries which are the life-blood of what running is really all about.

From a training perspective, there are a number of really striking things: what a born natural he must have been, and how lightly he used to train, especially for we distance runners for whom a 40-mile week is a taper. His approach for much of his career was to rely on his "nervous energy" to carry him on the day; at one point, he runs within 4 seconds of his PB having not trained at all in six weeks. He readily admits that this left him ill-prepared for multiple races, but for one-offs he was near-unbeatable, and his description of his Empire Games showdown with John Landy is breathlessly exciting, much more so than the relatively uneventful sub 4-minute run at Iffley Road.

All this is written in a nice engaging style, where the polite, educated doctor doesn't quite fully mask the obsessive, spiky competitor.

Would definitely recommend it, in particular to those (like me) who are maybe a bit too obsessed with training volume. Almost made me want to dig out my school spikes and find a track.

27/03/2004 at 10:40
Sounds interesting.

I've raced on the Iffley Road track where he set the record - feel very priviledged.
27/03/2004 at 11:12
I trained on it briefly, but would have loved to race there.
Would be intrigued to hear John Landy's side of the story too. He was clearly an awesome athlete.
27/03/2004 at 16:45
It was the Teddy Hall relays - Oxford uni athletics cuppas. 4 people team relays, much fun. We began and ended on the track, and ran the other 3 miles around the river.

And I still have the T-shirt!
27/03/2004 at 21:53
Possibly my best athletics moment was being in the winning team at the Teddy Hall Relays. Especially as I was on the last leg and won in a sprint finish.

Anyway, there's a new book out soon called 3:59.4 - The Quest For The Four-Minute Mile By Bob Phillips
Described as follows:-
In 2004 the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous achievements in the entire history of sport will be celebrated - Roger Bannister's first sub-four-minute mile.
No athletics event has aroused such excitement. No single performance has attracted such feverish worldwide attention. Such is the magic of the mile that it remains the only non-metric distance which is still recognised for official World-record purposes.
The record has now been taken down to 3 minutes 43.13 seconds by Hicham El Guerrouj, of Morocco, and he would have left Bannister 120 yards behind, had they raced each other at their best. But is El Guerrouj, competing in an age of rampant professionalism, really a better miler than Bannister, who fitted in his training and racing between hospital duties as a doctor? Is Bannister better than Walter George, who ran a time of 4 minutes 12.75 seconds in 1886 which it was thought would never be beaten?
Bannister and George, together with Sydney Wooderson, Derek Ibbotson and then Coe, Cram and Ovett, have established Britain in the forefront of the mile event over the years. But four Americans, three New Zealanders, two Australians, two Swedes, a Finn, a Frenchman, an Algerian, a Tanzanian and now a Moroccan have each in turn held the World record. No other event has grasped such imagination of runners in every corner of the globe.
The mile was first contested seriously in the 17th Century. Running footmen raced on behalf of their lords and masters for wagers. There are stories of four minutes or faster having been run on public highways in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Of course, they cannot be true... or can they?
The story of this fascinating event is told in vivid detail in a book to be published next year, written by Bob Phillips, one of the world's foremost athletics historians, who has seen all the great milers of the last half-century in action and talked to world record-holders of an earlier era.
27/03/2004 at 21:58
Another book out soon is "The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It" by  Neal Bascomb

There was a time when running the mile in four minutes was believed to be entirely beyond the limits of human foot speed. And in all of sport it was the elusive holy grail. In 1952, after suffering defeat at the Helsinki Olympics, three world-class runners set out individually to break this formidable barrier. Roger Bannister was a young English medical student who epitomized the ideal of the amateur -- still driven not just by winning but by the nobility of the pursuit. John Landy was the privileged son of a genteel Australian family, who as a boy preferred butterfly collecting to running but who trained relentlessly in an almost spiritual attempt to shape his mind and body to this singular task. Then there was Wes Santee, the swaggering American, a Kansas farm boy and natural athlete who believed he was just plain better than everybody else. Santee was the first to throw down the gauntlet in what would become a three-way race of body, heart, and soul. Each young man endured thousands of hours of training, bore the weight of his nation's expectations on his shoulders, and still dared to push to the very limit. Their collective quest captivated the world and stole headlines from the Korean War, the atomic race, and such legendary figures as Edmund Hillary, Willie Mays, Native Dancer, and Ben Hogan. Who would be the first to achieve the unachievable? And who among them would be the best when they raced head to head? In the answer came the perfect mile. In the tradition of Seabiscuit and Chariots of Fire, Neal Bascomb delivers a breathtaking story of unlikely heroes and leaves us with a lasting portrait of the twilight years of the golden age of sport.

There is also a film adaptation of this book in production - it is being made by the same that did "Seabiscuit" and is due to be released just before the Olympics. The Perfect Mile alluded to in the title is not actually the first Sub-4, but the Empire Games race later that year in which Bannister beat Landy.

I love old stuff!
27/03/2004 at 22:04
Also... in my view, runners from that era could get away with less training than those of current generations because they had a much better base level of fitness than we have. We have to run loads of miles to make up for the deficiencies in our modern lifestyle.
27/03/2004 at 22:07
There's also a Radio 4 doc in production about the first sub-four minuter. I'll post details when I have them.
28/03/2004 at 09:14
I've just been to Amazon to order Bannister's The First Four Minutes but I see he has another book called The Four Minute Mile. It is hard to see what the difference is from the reviews. Anyone know?

I also pre-ordered The Perfect Mile and John Bryant's 3:59.4 so should have a nice little parcel coming my way soon. Anyone read the Bryant book?
28/03/2004 at 17:58
I had a first edition of "First Four Minutes" (there isn't a "The" in the title) complete with dust jacket and in near mint condition. Sadly my canine running companion when a pup decided that there might be useful training pointers in it - so he ate it! I've since procured another first edition but without the dust jacket, sadly.

If you're into historical stuff there's also "No Bugles, No Drums", Peter Snell's autobigraphy from 1965.

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