‘I was startled and just went on running faster and faster’

Bill Heine interviews Sir Roger Bannister at Iffley Road running track in 2004

Bill Heine interviews Sir Roger Bannister at Iffley Road running track in 2004

First published in News

Sixty years ago this week, Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. Everyone knows about the race, but I had an opportunity to look at the run-up to that race.

Now he has Parkinson’s Disease, but 10 years ago Sir Roger and I met up at the famous track for a couple of circuits.

During our trot down his track, I asked about his childhood. Was there a moment when he knew he was a ‘runner’?

“Our images and memories of childhood are often ill-formed; we can’t say quite how old we were, or where we were when things happened. But I can undoubtedly remember being on a beach, probably at the age of four or five… sunshine, clouds scudding by, barefooted on the sand… and feeling suddenly alive to the desire to run. I was startled and started to run and I went on running just faster and faster; and then I probably lay down on the sand and laughed, exhausted. I can remember some experience like that.

“As I grew up I started running cross-country, running with friends for the sheer enjoyment in the countryside; and eventually this became a track event with more and more people watching and people concerned with stopwatches.

Oxford Mail:

Roger Bannister beats the tape at Iffley Road, Oxford, on May 6, 1954, to record the world’s first sub-four minute mile

“When I came up to Oxford in 1946 at 17 there were eight years of medicine and research ahead, so I looked for something else I could do as well.

“I went to find a place to run first of all, because I didn’t really dare go down to the athletics track. I went to the Exeter College rugby ground to run with a friend. I remember meeting the groundsman who had looked after Jack Lovelock, the great Oxford Rhodes scholar, Olympic 1,500m winner in Berlin – I don’t think one could dignify it by saying he was Jack Lovelock’s coach.

“He said to my companion, ‘I think you could run very well’ and then he turned to me and said, ‘I don’t really think you’ve got the physique for it’. I suppose I was rather ungainly and was loping along. But I learned then that other people’s opinions are not to be taken too seriously.”

The young Roger Bannister rose through the ranks of the athletics hierarchy to become president of the University Club.

Oxford Mail:

Chris Brasher, Roger Bannister and Chris Chataway after the run

The first thing a new president does is set out his goals in a speech.

“I realised that you have to keep cool and calm and have rehearsed what you want to say, but detach yourself in such a way that you don’t become confused and muddled. I think that was the first time I learned that particular lesson.”

It was a seminal speech and after he fluffed it, he ripped up the sheets of paper and started all over again – this time speaking from the heart.

“I knew what I wanted to do while I was president, and instead of thinking about my performance and their judgements of me as a speaker, I connected with my ideas for changing the track.”

So what was wrong with Oxford’s track?

“It had been built in 1890 and was three laps to the mile. We ran the wrong way around it for some obscure reason, and there was an elm tree whose roots went through it. The unwary, usually our opponents from other universities, might catch their spikes in it, and if they entered or approached the area of the roots in the lead, by the time they passed the tree they certainly weren’t leading. So I said we had to build a new track. We had to raise the money.”

“In those days Oxford undergraduates organised the sport. It was not dons or senior people. It was the president who arranged things.”

So how did he pull that one out of the hat? “Well, there was a generation, in school terms, who were eight years older than me, who had been flying Hurricanes at the age of 19. They had been shot down and had performed acts of bravery in the armed forces. So 19 is an age at which you probably have high levels of competence although less confidence.

“With my secretary, a good friend, we went through the Yellow Pages and picked a constructor from Reading. We got £37,000 which came from the University Rugby Club. They were the only club that earned money because the annual match against Cambridge at Twickenham was a big event immediately after the war. We had very good rugby players.

“The money from Twickenham went into the central athletic fund and when it came out, I persuaded the bodies who controlled the money that it should help replace our old athletics track which I said was a disgrace to the university.”

I wondered if there was any master plan at work here.

Was it his idea to get the track first and then focus on using it as the venue where one day he would break the four-minute mile?

“It certainly wasn’t as conscious as that. At the time I was president of the athletics club, I had won the mile race in successively quicker times over four years.

And what was his view of having a coach?

“One of the early coaches said to me: ‘I am the coach, you are the runner and I will tell you the running times when I think it is proper and useful for you to know them.’ There was this mystique of having an athlete who was an automaton, who was directly under the instruction of the coach, although not all relationships were like that. So in the early years I asked a number of coaches their opinions, but I never believed everything they said or did everything they thought I should do.

“To me, running was a sport in which control over your own destiny and style of training was part of the game. If you ran well or badly you had to find out why and it was a matter of trial and error which only you could feel from the effects of the training or degree of fatigue which would enable you to modify your training accordingly. This was a perfectly logical way of conducting my training. Running is very simple. It can be reduced to terms of simple self-expression and effort.”

Effort, of course, but success requires a lot of little things. When he came to Oxford on that May day in 1954, it was rather blustery. I asked him what the weather was like exactly.

“Well, I think ‘blustery’ is an understatement. There was a gale and there was a storm and it looked like an early May day at the time of the equinox when the weather can’t make up its mind. So I was very doubtful whether it was worth attempting, because to run in high winds means you have to run four seconds faster, at least, in order to break four minutes.

“I was very doubtful – until about half an hour before when I looked at the flag of St George on the church opposite the Iffley Road track and it seemed that the wind was slackening. I still say it was only 50-50 but I realised that if I didn’t make the attempt then, when the conditions were just possible, I might never get another chance. I might never forgive myself; and I would have a long time to think about it afterwards.”

He said that with a decisiveness and a chiselled jaw which clearly indicated, to borrow an image from another sport, how far the archer had pulled the bow before this particular arrow hit the bull’s eye.

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