Marks Thought Impossible: Myths, Bullshit & Perspectives

For those in cycling it is well understood that Jack Bobridge is a great young talent. This article explains further but he has just broken a mark considered by many as a time for the individual 4km on the track as being something almost impossible to break. The thinking comes from the idea that former holder of the record Chris Boardman's time set back in 1996 was in the now banned 'super man' position. The advantage of this position meant it was thought that to beat the time would possible never happen due to aerodynamics to power ratio required for someone to go that fast.

Well it has been broken... Surprise, surprise.

This reminds me of a few key moments in sport that I am aware of which has seen thoughts like this dis-proven. The notion that something is not humanly possible really frustrates me.

The 4 min mile was another such mark. And when Roger Bannister broke it some many other went past the mark. Like some collective believe trigger being set off saying, "we can do it!"

Bannister held the best time for the shortest time in history 2 months or so. Once passed improvements on that time took off again.

After his failure at the 1952 Olympics, Bannister spent two months deciding whether to give up running. He set himself on a new goal: To be the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. Accordingly, he intensified his training and did hard intervals.

On 2 May, 1953, he made an attempt on the British record at Oxford. Paced by Chris Chataway, Bannister ran 4:03.6, shattering Wooderson's 1945 standard. "This race made me realise that the four-minute mile was not out of reach," said Bannister.

On 27 June, a mile race was inserted onto the programme of the Surrey schools athletic meeting. Australian runner Don Macmillan, ninth in the 1500 m at the 1952 Olympics, set a strong pace with 59.6 and 1:59.7 for two laps. He gave up after 2 1/2 laps, but Chris Brasher took up the pace. Brasher had jogged the race, allowing Bannister to lap him so he could be a fresh pace-setter. At 3/4 mile, Bannister was at 3:01.8, the record - and first sub-four-minute mile - in reach. But the effort fell short with a finish in 4:02.0, a time bettered by only Andersson and Hägg. British officials would not allow this performance to stand as a British record which, Bannister felt in retrospect, was a good decision. "My feeling as I look back is one of great relief that I did not run a four-minute mile under such artificial circumstances," he said.

But other runners were making attempts at the four-minute barrier and coming close as well. American Wes Santee ran 4:02.4 on 5 June, the fourth-fastest mile ever. And, at the end of the year, Australian John Landy ran 4:02.0.

Then early in 1954, Landy made some more attempts at the distance. On 21 January, he ran 4:02.4 in Melbourne, then 4:02.6 on 23 February and at the end of the Australian season on 19 April, he ran 4:02.6 again.

Bannister had been following Landy's attempts, and was certain his Australian rival would succeed with each one. But, knowing that Landy's season-closing attempt on 19 April would be his last until he travelled to Finland for another attempt, Bannister knew he had to make his attempt soon.

"Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event 9, the one mile: 1st, No. 41, R.G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which - subject to ratification - will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire and World Record. The time was 3..."

The roar of the crowd drowned out the rest of the announcement. Bannister's time was 3 min 59.4 sec.

Quote from:

ON the wiki page it does go on to explain the notion of the mark being impossible was a little bit of a myth. Bannister him self explains...

The claim that a 4-minute mile was once thought to be impossible by informed observers was and is a widely propagated myth created by sportswriters and debunked by Bannister himself in his memoir, The Four Minute Mile (1955). 

The reason the myth took hold was that four minutes was a nice round number which was slightly better (1.4 seconds) than the world record for nine years, longer than it probably otherwise would have been because of the effect of World War II in interrupting athletic progress in the combatant countries. The Swedish runners Gunder Hägg and Arne Andersson, in a series of head-to-head races in the period 1942–45, had already lowered the world mile record by 5 seconds to the pre-Bannister record. (See Mile run world record progression.) 

What is still impressive to knowledgeable track fans is that Bannister ran a four-minute mile on very low-mileage training by modern standards.

The fact that others spread the idea of the impossible mark goes to the heart of this post. While Bannister the athlete was clear in his view of how to run his best. Clear in his view of what the mark really meant. Clear in retrospect about his life verses just a single moment.

As the athlete guys like Bannister, Bobridge and co it appears the focus cuts through all the speculation. The rubbish around what's possible and impossible is not something they seems to buy into. I am putting Bobridge in this category with Bannister because it feels right to do so. I love these break throughs and the athletes and moments involved. From a distance it seems like a very different story and pathway but the 4min mile mark was a huge focus for runners at that time. The World was also drawn into it and watching eagerly. Boardman's time in cycling has held something special to. I can't help but wonder when will the 4min 4km become a mark on the track?

And what about perspective:

On the 50th anniversary of running the sub-4-minute mile, Bannister was interviewed by the BBC's sports correspondent Rob Bonnet. At the conclusion of the interview, Bannister was asked whether he looked back on the sub-4-minute mile as the most important achievement of his life. 

Bannister replied to the effect that 'no, he rather saw his subsequent forty years of practicing as neurologist and some of the new procedures he introduced as being more significant'. 

His major contribution in academic medicine was in the field of autonomic failure, an area of neurology focusing on illnesses characterised by certain automatic responses of the nervous system (for example, elevated heart rate when standing up) not occurring.

For many these marks are made out to be more important than they are. Even as I write this post I am in part adding to that. My intent is to highlight that these marks are like any other. Moments in time and points of reference. As people we like reference points and like to create stories of significance about them. This is not to say they are not important, but maybe not as big a deal as we think.

How these marks do help though needs to be understood. For Boardman to get the time he did he and another rider Graeme Obree were innovators in there sport. The later was probably as great at innovating and finding new ways to go fast as any other person in sporting history.

In high jump the Fosbury Flop was another great innovation to enable athletes to go further. When a perceived limit arises some accept it and become focused on it. Some see it and look beyond it at the possibilities. Other don't worry about it and focus instead on being the best they can be. These limits or marks can be fuel, they can be hurdles, they can be inspiring and they can be distracting.

In rowing I have experienced this and continued to be amazed at the ongoing improvements. Every 4 - 6 years the World's Best times seems to surge forward. It is as if bottle necks are created by athletes and perceptions of what's possible or who can be beaten or not. Obvious environmental conditions play a huge part and it is once every few years the weather at a regatta really turns it on.

At this stage two boat classes I have been involved in that come to mind.

The pair mark went from 6.20+ to sub 6.19 with GB dominating the event from 1991-1996. The a number of crews did 19's for many years including our pair with James and I. Then in 2002 in Seville with everything dialed in GB went 6.14. A huge jump and now I suspect that the NZ and GB crews are ready when the conditions are right to go sub 6.10. Personally with Duncan I felt in 2007-08 that we would have been capable of sub 6.10 but it wasn't to be. So how fast can the Kiwi's and Poms go? I sense that in the next two years one of them will crack 6.10 and even lower the mark to 6.08 possibly.

In the four I recall the original Oarsome Foursome improving the mark to 5.52 with the distinct style on and off the water. Then the Italians in 1994 went 5.48 which was huge and the way they did it was impressive. It had the Austalian based four scratching there head a little at the time when I joined them. Much talk was about how to approach racing the four when crews like the Italians had moved on from the 1992 period. Then in the lead up to 2000 the fours went 5.45 and by 2002 and yes Seville again the German's and GB crews went 5.41. Wow, was what I remember think that day. I had just rowed a poor race to get fourth with James in 6.16 when Matt and James did that 6.14. Then we saw the fours fly down the course.

So in 10 years the four improved over 10sec and the pair about 8sec. It is assumed oars made a difference. Ideas around training and the approach to racing certainly must have advanced. More importantly I feel it is the expectation and standards being focused on daily made the greatest difference. The athlete involved in rowing, cycling, running etc all have one thing in common when improving and going beyond these limits or marks. They believed they could go faster. This belief was fostered daily and fueled by competition. It's inspiring stuff to consider just how far we can go.


RCaroe said…
These are great points. do you think psychology has a larger part to play than training methods or equipment improvements?
Certainly athletes train harder now then they did when you started (training volume particularly)
Rebecca Caroe
Unknown said…
Hi Rebecca,

I do believe the psychological elements end up playing the biggest part. But with out the physical or genetical aspects being within in range it means you have even more ground to make up.

So I believe motive counts hugely and emotional sensitivity and control are key. The mind set in the end makes the biggest difference with attitude and how we relate to self, others, equipment, the sport, event and what is required being very significant.

Getting to the level verses perform extremely well at the highest end I feel is different.

Now as for training hard or volumes I am not so sure there is much of a difference.

In 1996 the Oarsome Foursome was a crew who people believed did less work. But my experience was different. The lead up to the games intensity wise and volume was significant. Difference being I guess was the focus was on quality and real attention to detail. I do here some crews and athletes these days doing more km's but not by much. In 1996 I recall the Australian eight in Germany training and doing 30+ km row's each morning for weeks with other rowing and training in the afternoon.

From what I am aware of back in the 70's and 80's some international crews clocked heaps of volume.

Would be interesting to get some accurate info on intensities and volumes over the years.

Popular Posts