Friday, April 16, 2010

Why I love Roger Bannister.

I don't usually talk about what I'm reading on this blog, but this book bears mention. The Four Minute Mile by Roger Bannister is an autobiographical account of the first man to run a mile faster than 4 minutes. First published in 1955, the text has a notable British lilt to it, as though Bannister himself is sitting next to me, recounting his amazing running career. Funny: as a kid, he always had a desire to run, and "being good at nothing else" (or so he claims), Bannister began racing in his early teens. By 20, he was able to run the mile in 4:12, with no more than THREE training days each week.

The following passage caught my eye, in part, because there are so many blogs (take, for instance, this one) and websites and books about running: how to train for it, how to be the best, etc. There are training plans that require one to know exact miles or pace; others that request minute readings of the palpitations of one's heart. Bannister, however, claims that none of these are really what is important, which is why I have grown to love him so much. It is, he insists, the desire to run that makes a runner great. PRs and races won come from an individual's ability to push themselves. Fancy gadgets, data and even coaches, he claims, distract one from the necessary drive it takes to be a successful runner. In lieu of paraphrase, however, I want to quote a the paragraphs that caught my eye, made me smile and re-examine many of the notions I've developed about what it really takes to be elite.

"There is no established technique for running. It was thousands of years from the time when cavemen attempted to draw running movements, before the cinema camera accurately analyzed the relation of arms and legs in motion. But this in itself has produced no great improvement in running, The human body is centuries in advance of the physiologist, and can perform an integration of heart, lungs and muscles which is too complex for the scientists to analyze.

Improvement in running depends on continuous self-discipline by the athlete himself, on acute observation of his reactions to races and training, and above all on judgment, which he must learn for himself. The runner has to make his own decisions on the track-- he has no coach there to help him. If a man coaches himself then he has only himself to blame when he is beaten.

My ideal athlete was first and foremost a human being who ran his sport and did not allow it to run him. He was not a racehorse nor a professional strongman. He drank beer, he might smoke, and he listened to coaches when he felt inclined. With so many other interests and activities there was no danger of mental staleness. The man who mumbled about his weight chart and his pulse ratio was left to the tender merits of his fellow fanatics. All this may be wrong: but it had already produced twelve Olympic champions [in England] -- men whose personality and determination were sufficient to enable them to achieve balanced lives" (Bannister 49-50).

Amen, brother!

I think if the internet had been around in Bannister's time, he might have well produced something like Miles and Pages. In reading (and re-reading) this passage, I'm comforted by the notion that hard work might really be what it takes to be a great athlete-- hard work, not perfection. There have been so many moments, especially following minor injuries and setbacks, when I tend to question my actions, looking for every fault in my mind and body.

Yet, perhaps I'm going about this injury business the wrong way: after all, Bannister's "ideal" athlete is no "ideal" at all. He drinks, he smokes and gives any coach a flippant shrug instead of hanging on his every word. Banniter's runner, in other words, is a human being. It's an idea I like a lot and one I want to strive to become, especially in coming months when I'll be at St. Mary's College as a full time grad and a full-time runner. I anticipate stress: but perhaps I should also anticipate happiness. While there, I'll get to read great literature with great people. I'll get to run in a beautiful setting and act as assistant coach to a running program in its promising infancy.

I get to be a writer AND a runner, in other words, which is what the Miles and Pages project is all about.

It's funny that Bannister had this all figured out in the 1950s and even wrote a book about it, and yet there is this tendency among athletes to be one-sided, especially today. I wonder what the world would be like if there wasn't such a desire to be just one thing. Isn't that part of post-modern theory: that the individual is not one thing, but instead a multiplicity of various things? Or perhaps we're no longer post-modern.

In any case, Bannister's words have made me a far happier runner. Each time I'm able to step outside my door and slip into a peaceful cadence of miles, I'm grateful. Grateful for my ability to run, to live and breathe in this wonderful place. And that, my friends, is what it's all about.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did you catch the Bannister interview on NBC? Just saw it this friday night. Very cool guy, indeed!