Roger Bannister, the first man to run the mile in under four minutes, died earlier this week. For track aficionados like me, his story is for the ages. For those that participate in a mediation, his accomplishment demonstrates how human tenacity can make the impossible something possible.
The sub-four minute mile in the 1950’s was widely believed to be humanly unachievable. There were more than 50 medical journals featuring articles supporting the theory that human body lacked the cardiovascular capacity to run a mile in under four minutes. The research suggested that such a feat would be physically unattainable because the human heart would fail if forced to work at such a pace. The world believed that a sub four-minute mile would be deadly.
As a medical student that worked out over the lunch hour, Bannister was well aware of the literature. The world record at the time was 4:01.4, held by Gunder Hagg of Sweden, and had stood for nine years when other track records were being broken regularly. Bannister was a casual runner blessed with a combination of speed and endurance, as well as a positive outlook for this historic challenge. Everyone, but Bannister, shared the belief that it simply was not possible. No one on Earth could break that barrier.
Until the day that Bannister did so.
On that May afternoon, at Oxford’s Iffley Road track in front of a crowd of about 1200 spectators, Bannister shattered those beliefs with the time of 3:59.4. After that race, Bannister was quoted as saying “the earth seemed to move with me; I found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never knew existed.” Bannister willed his way to do the physically impossible.
And then the world found that same source of power.
With the psychological barrier broken, something extraordinary happened. Within two months of Bannister’s record, Australia’s John Landy also ran a sub four-minute mile. And then another runner went sub-four. And another. Over the next 64 years, over 1,000 athletes have run a sub four-minute mile, something previously thought to be impossible. The current record for the mile in comparison is an astounding 3:43.13 held since 1999 by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj. What once was considered impossible is now viewed as commonplace.
In mediation, there have been more than a few times that the parties have said that a case is impossible to settle. The positions are intractable. Parties unbending. A dispute that is just not possible to get resolved. Yet, I have found over time that tenacity can make the impossible something that is possible. With perseverance and patience, just about every human dispute can find a resolution. Dr. Bannister’s feat on that windy afternoon shows what happens with positive thinking and tenancity.