How Fear Broke the Four-Minute Barrier

On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister ran a one-mile race in three minutes, 59.4 seconds. This established a new world record for the distance and shattered a number of widely held beliefs about the abilities of the human body and the risks involved in this degree of speed. Bannister’s feat served to set a new standard for long-distance speed and shattered the misconceptions held by numerous respected authorities in the scientific and medical fields.

Fear of Failure

Bannister himself has pointed out that the fear of failure was a significant motivating force in his achievement. Many other runners came remarkably close to managing the four-minute mile prior to 1954; none, however, had broken that barrier prior to Bannister’s run at the Iffley Road track at the University of Oxford. Far from being an obstacle for him, however, the risk of failing to achieve his goal drove him to train harder and to push himself to faster speeds and better performance.

Fear of Medical Problems

Although Bannister and other long-distance runners were not deterred by the opinions voiced by some in the medical community regarding the serious risks of running so quickly, these fears were widely echoed among members of the public. Some suggested that bones could snap or muscles could tear due to the extreme stresses present at this high rate of speed. While injuries can occur during long-distance races, the risks of these accidents happening to properly trained and experienced runners are significantly reduced. The dire consequences predicted by certain elements within the medical profession never came to pass.

Fear of an Unrealistic Goal

Along with the predicted health risks, many authorities believed that a four-minute mile was impossible. They argued that the human body was simply not capable of reaching that level of speed and pointed to the top limits often demonstrated in the animal kingdom. A factor not often considered in these calculations, however, was the force of will and determination exhibited by runners striving toward this goal. The human drive to achieve and to succeed likely played a major role in allowing Bannister and other runners to break this barrier.

Overcoming Fears

Bannister’s achievement effectively silenced the naysayers and established a new paradigm in the sport of running. By facing the risks and persisting in his efforts, he was able to reach his goal and to demonstrate the amazing capabilities of the human body in this highly competitive arena. His persistence and sheer grit allowed Bannister to reach the pinnacle of his sport and to earn his place as a legendary distance runner.

Today, top athletes in track and field routinely achieve four-minute and under times for the mile distance. Their accomplishments are worthy of praise and acclaim. These runners have been inspired by the courage and determination of Roger Bannister and his contemporaries in the sport.