The Bookshelf – The Perfect Mile

The Perfect Mile CoverBy Monty Hagler

(Part of a a continuing series on the books that made the journey to our new office.)

Let’s start with the fact that I’m a swimmer, not a runner. I’m not even fond of walking. So many people are surprised to see The Perfect Mile in my office. This book by Neal Bascomb recounts how the English runner Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute-mile barrier at a track meet on May 6, 1954.

While the task at hand was on the athletic field, I’ve drawn multiple lessons from the story of this historic accomplishment:

If you’re stuck, change your routine

Bannister was a great runner for many years, but he and every other runner chasing the 4-minute-mile kept coming up short. Under the guidance and workout routines of a new coach, Bannister adopted different training techniques that allowed him to build up both his stamina and his speed.

Work harder

Part of changing up your routine should include a commitment to intensity. It’s often said that it’s better to work smarter rather than harder. I believe that to achieve great things, you must do both. At the very beginning of their relationship, Bannister’s coach Franz Stampfl told Bannister: “You have to train harder.” When Bannister replied that he was in medical school, Stampfl replied “Do both.”

Measure yourself against the best

Competitive running was a hugely popular sport in the 1950s. In addition to Bannister, two other runners — one from the United States, one from Australia – were capturing headlines as they steadily lowered their times in the mile race over the course of three years. They all paid close attention to what the others were doing as they got closer and closer to the magic barrier. The competition pushed Bannister forward and inspired him to think if Landy or Santee could run a 4:02, he could run faster than that.

Balance individual effort with teamwork

In addition to his coach, Bannister had great training partners. They pushed each other, encouraged each other and on race day they set the pace for his historic run. Running may be an individual sport, but success is elusive without a team mentality.

Manage your time

The entire time Bannister was training and racing, he was also a full-time student and working to become a doctor. He was the true definition of an amateur athlete, competing not for money but for what it fueled inside him. He described it as “a challenge of the human spirit.” He balanced school, medical hours and training by being disciplined and focused. Bascomb writes that each day during the week “…he hurried from the hospital with his running gear and took the Underground train for two stops. He had 35 minutes to train before showering, grabbing a bite to eat and returning to the hospital.”

Expect Setbacks

When Bannister went to the Olympic Games in 1952, he was the favorite to win the gold medal in the 1,500-meter race. But days before the event, the committee added a semi-final heat which completely changed things for Bannister. He had trained to run a qualifying heat and then the finals. He had a limited training schedule because of his medical studies, and he generally needed 3 to 4 days to recover after a taxing race. Bascomb writes that on the last lap of the final race, Bannister “gave the order to his legs to go. But for the first time in his life his kick wasn’t there. When he should have leapt ahead, he stalled.” He finished fourth. But that disappointing finish served as the springboard for the record-setting performances to come.

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