The Man Who Ran So Fast He Nearly Died
How framing can help us run so fast we might explode
On May 6th, 1954, Roger Bannister ran faster than any person before him. The wisdom of the day was that to run a distance of 1 mile in under 4 minutes would certainly kill you. This was perhaps a dramatic opinion held by cowards, but it was still thought as true by many.
It stood as an attractive bar to clear most likely because it was a nice even number, and it existed just beyond the reach of everyone who had tried. Clearly the person to beat the record would be a modern-day super-hero, with an unmatched genetic make-up and training regiment designed around a person who did nothing but run.
The first odd fact about this eventual feat was that Roger Bannister was neither of those things. An Olympian, yes, but also more notably a med student with minimal training. Important to note, that’s minimal training even for the day. Compared to today’s kale-smoothie-sucking fitness zombies, Roger Bannister was basically a weekend warrior.
And yet… on that afternoon in May, 1954, Roger broke the record. There was hesitation to get him onto a podium for fear he might simply expire as his body exploded from the exertion. For anybody who’s ever watched an English football match, you can see the hilarious over-the-top sports commentary runs deep in English culture. No, Roger was unlikely to pop like a meat-filled water balloon, but what he had done was considered impossible.
Or at least it was for about a month.
This brings us to the second odd fact about this feat. Roger seemingly opened the floodgates of human ability with his run. John Landy would beat Bannister’s time, running a 3:58 mile, which would stand for a much more impressive 3 years. Shortly after setting his impressive record, Landy and Bannister would race head-to-head, both beating the 4 minute mark, but neither breaking Landy’s impressive 3:58. The event would be turned into a statue, with a bronze Bannister overtaking Landy while Landy shoulder-checks him on the wrong side. You have to admit, that’s unfair and goddamn hilarious. As a Canadian who openly cheered when Michael Johnson apparently tore a quad muscle racing against Donovan Bailey in 1997, it’s just the kind of petty poor sportsmanship I can rally behind.
Now, perhaps we’re taking some dramatic liberties of our own by even suggesting it. Yes, it’s odd to have a record stand for so long and then have it broken 4 times in a matter of a month and a half. Thing is though, records are broken all the time. Perhaps this isn’t so much an unbelievable story as it is a convenient one. A record broken with a bit of a twist of dramatic flair because a white Englishman did it. Still though… hell of a metaphor.
The fact still stands, we often overestimate physical barriers and underestimate psychological ones. When it comes to overcoming obstacles, we’re far more likely to hit the gym than the meditation pillow. As it stands today, the 4 minute mile is simply one of many examples of humans doing “impossible” things with little more than what amounts to a can-do attitude. In certain cases, a must-do attitude can also unlock some confusing potential.
Moms are strong. I’m routinely emasculated (in front of my kids, no less) by my wife and her curious ability to open pickle jars that are obviously defective. Let’s not give her too much credit though, because somewhat more impressive than a pickle jar mom, is a car-lifting mom.
There have been several documented cases of moms lifting vehicles off their children in a fit of what is sometimes referred to as “hysterical strength”. Yes, sometimes it’s men doing it too, but the media loves a good mom-lifting-a-car-off-a-kid story, and can you blame them?
Hysterical strength is difficult to prove scientifically because in order to do so, we may have to drop a car on a child in a laboratory setting. Maybe this one time science can just be cool and take something at face value. It’s been documented enough times that we can probably give it the benefit of the doubt and assume it is a thing that can happen.
There is a way we can test for things that are tragedy-adjacent though. We can answer the question of whether muscles that are working to 100% are actually working to 100%. In an experiment from The University of Cape Town in the early 90s, Dr. Tim Noakes determined that if we were to electrically stimulate a muscle that has worked until failure (subjects lifted a weight until their muscles stopped working), it can continue to output energy far beyond what the person reported as possible. This implies the mind has some form of governor mechanism in place to keep us from snapping our bones and crushing our own vertebrae performing feats of strength our bodies aren’t technically designed for. Like opening defective pickle jars.
Could this governor be what many athletes and high performers are able to quiet when they find another gear at the last possible moment? This type of research is obviously very common in sport, as every sports team in existence has incentive to create their own Hulk. But can we apply it to other fields?
What is your 4 minute mile?
What are the things you’ve merely decided can’t be accomplished? A career change? A difficult hobby? A divorce? What has your mind decided it needs to rope-off to protect you?
I’m not implying that the rules of physics are just guidelines and you could probably fly if you really needed to, but there’s a more-than-reasonable chance you’re holding yourself back from something that is frightfully straightforward.
In the Western world we’re a little slow on the uptake when it comes to the link between body and mind. We’re getting there, but habitually (and to our own detriment) we still tend to view the two as separate systems. They aren’t though.
I bring this up to pose the question: if the mind and body are more alike than we realize, can we apply the studies around muscle boundaries to matters of the mind? If we have invisible boundaries on our muscle output, might we also have them on our capacity to handle stress, anxiety, will-power, and motivation?
This is not meant to say we can merely “think” our way out of hyper-complex problems like depression and trauma, but perhaps we can think our way out of much smaller issues which can then act as stepping stones to more complicated ones.
So go forth and run your 4 minute mile. Or lift your car off that metaphorical baby. Whatever it is that’s holding you back, play around with how you think of it and see what happens.