Before May 6, 1954, it was a popular opinion that to run a mile under four minutes would be an unattainable achievement. Some athletic professionals and physiologists agreed with this simply because no known person had ever run that fast. It was a “humanely impossible” task, like drinking a gallon of milk within an hour (I’ll come back to that).
But on that Thursday afternoon in May, Roger Bannister, a British neurology student, ran the mile in 3:59.4, defeating his Oxford opponents on the Iffley Road track.
How did Bannister achieve something that was deemed unreachable? His secret was one of mental and physical preparation.
Put the Pedal to the Mental
Before breaking the record, Bannister’s best mile was recorded at 4:03.6. He was chasing the world record of 4:01 that was set nine years earlier. This was proof to the running world that a sub-four minute mile was close. Bannister was one of the fastest men in the world, exuding maximum effort in every run, but was still coming up short. It was the logic behind the theory that troubled him. So, he deemed it as unacceptable. He knew his body, his speed, his ability — how could he not shed the extra four seconds on the run?
“This race made me realise that the four-minute mile was not out of reach.” — Sir Roger Bannister
Bannister visualized his success before it ever happened. He imagined himself running through the tape, exhaustion coursing through his bones as hundreds of people swarmed the track while they announced he had broken the world record. He looped this mental image in his mind and it propelled him forward. The closer he got to the goal the deeper the reality sunk in — he was going to be the first person to achieve the impossible.
“I imagined bombs and machine guns raining on me if I didn’t go my fastest.” — Sir Roger Bannister
Avoid Mental Barriers
Once mental clarity was obtained, Bannister became laser focused. This is our first lesson in success. If we believe that our goals are impossible to achieve, our brains solidify them as impossible.
But if we are convinced of something so resolutely, breathing the belief that the impossible goal is obtainable, our brains do something interesting. They funnel out unnecessary information that distracts us from the objective. This collection of nerves in our brainstem is called the reticular activation system(RAS). It helps us stay hyper-focused on mission, goals, and purpose when we break over the mental barriers.
As Matt Frasier puts it, with the RAS, “…you pay special attention to things that help you achieve what you’re after, things you otherwise would have never noticed.”
Breaking the Barrier
Check out this process for breaking your own mental barricades. I will use one of my goals as an example.
STEP 1: Think of the goal or situation that you would like to set your intent for.
Write a Children’s Book
STEP 2: Set intent for yourself in terms of the experience that you want to have in that situation, or in achieving your goal.
I want to create a fun story that helps children connect unique characters to life lessons.
STEP 3: If there are other people involved, then set your intent for the kind of interaction that you would like to have with them. Perhaps you would like to have fun, learn something new, be productive, feel peaceful, be happy or loving, feel respected, be calm and helpful, or feel connected with others.
I would like to learn techniques from other writers and learn the publishing process. This area is the scariest barricade for me because I am delving into an unknown arena.
STEP 4: Create a mental movie of what you will be like in that optimal, future situation. Notice what you are experiencing in the situation once you have set your intent. What are you hearing? What are you saying to yourself? What are you seeing and what are you feeling?
I imagine myself sitting around a group of kids, with my book in hand, and reading to them as they laugh. I can see them asking questions about the story and sharing their own experiences with their own pets (which is what the story would be about).
To show this mental process in action, let me give you a sillier example. In college, my friends and I learned that it was impossible to chug a gallon of milk within an hour. We attempted it a few times with no success. I didn’t get far before my stomach started to curdle. My dad is an avid milk drinker. He would get up early in the morning to chug down a couple glasses allowing it to put him into a sleep coma for the rest of the night.
When I told him about the milk challenge, he immediately refuted it. He had been drinking milk his whole life, he loved it. He even felt he must have drank a gallon in an hour at some point. He could easily visualize himself achieving this task. So he asked me to test him, despite my warnings that experts claimed there could be serious health risks.
That night I purchased a gallon of milk, started the timer and watched as he chugged half a gallon in five minutes. Then he needed to rest. Thirty-minutes later he chugged a quarter of a gallon — rested some more. At the five-minute mark he gulped down the last bit, all under an hour. He knew that he could do that. He had no mental barriers at all. It’s not something I would recommend, but definitely my personal testimony to the way we can overcome mental challenges.
My dad is perfectly healthy and suffered no “brain-damage” (or added brain-damage).
Let’s Get Physical
Visualization is not like “The Secret” where you just place a request in your mind and the universe gives you what you desire, without any effort on your part. Visualization uses mental energy as much as physical energy. Because you can see success clearly beyond barriers, it motivates you to become resourceful, pushing you to vigorously work on achieving the goal.
You have to be goal-focused.
Roger Bannister knew he could break the mile record, but just knowing that didn’t make him accomplish it. That was the first step. He had to destroy his mental enemy in order to make room for his body.
“Failure is as exciting to watch as success, provided the effort is absolutely genuine and complete, but the spectators fail to understand — and how can they know — the mental agony through which an athlete must pass before he can give his maximum effort. And how rarely, if he is built as I am, he can give it.” — Sir Roger Bannister
In preparation to break the world record, Bannister was running 28 miles a week. His shoes were leather, thicker than modern day running sneakers. His body was long and gangly, challenging him to discover his perfect stride. He had to put in the physical training. He needed his body to listen to his brain during each run. In turn, his body needed to be developed so it could respond to the intrinsic motivational coach in his own head.
Think of the famous Greek runner Pheidipiddes, who is attributed to running 26 miles from Marathon to Athens proclaiming a victory on the battle field.
This is why we run “Marathons”.
The Greek writer, Plutarch, mentions the Athenians needed a runner to send the news back to Athens. They specifically trained “runners” in battle for such things. Plutarch writes that a runner (possibly Pheidipiddes) —
…who ran in full armor, hot from the battle, and, bursting in at the doors of the first men of the State, could only say “Hail! We are victorious!” and straightaway expired [or died].
Pheidipiddes ran the “marathon” of his life…literally. I bring this up because no matter how mentally prepared you are for a challenge, your body has to meet you there.
To be successful in anything — be it writing a book, building a business, getting a Master’s Degree — you must physically prepare. There will be physical limitations that you push through and others you will lose, such as avoiding sleep. Bannister was a neurology student. He was very well aware of mental and physical abilities and how they both interconnected in achieving success.
Just ask Julia “Hurricane” Hawkins about physical preparation. She is 103 and just ran the 100-meter dash.
“To stay in shape, just keep active. Keep your weight down and exercise. Have a lot of passions, things that you are interested in. Keep interested in a lot of things to keep you busy and keep your mind busy.” — Julia “Hurricane” Hawkins
The final precursor for visualizing success successfully is obtaining an accountability partner. This could be an app on your phone that sends you reminders, it could be your spouse, or in Bannister’s case, a rival.
Australian runner, John Landy, had been chasing the same world record as Bannister. They both watched each other’s races closely. It was only a matter of time before one of them broke it. Bannister beat him to the record and, in theory, shattered Landy’s own mental barrier, one which catapulted the Australian to set a new record of 3:58 just forty-five days after Bannister.
Making for an epic showdown, Bannister took on Landy a few weeks later in what is now known as the “Miracle Mile”. Bannister came out victorious with a new personal record of 3:58:8.
This rivalry pushed these two men to greatness, while opening the doors of impossibility to the running world by setting the “Four-Minute” mile as a standard.
Human beings need accountability. We need someone to push us further because our own willpower can be depleted every time we use it. We can break the mental barrier, train rigorously for the physical, but if we don’t have someone watching us, it can all crumble.
Tethering ourselves to visualization is a major step towards victory. We need mental energy as much as physical energy. Experience the achieved goal in your mind first. Build a vivid image of what you want the positive experience to be like, then allow that to drive your preparation process. Create a training regimen and find some sort of accountability partner. There are online support groups for new parents, masterminds for entrepreneurs, and spiritual exercises for personal development. Whatever your challenge is, follow Bannister’s process towards visualizing success.
“However ordinary each of us may seem, we are all in some way special, and can do things that are extraordinary, perhaps until then…even thought impossible. Just because they say it’s impossible doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”
A post-lesson from Bannister: Be humble.
Once Roger Bannister finished school he humbly left the sports world to pursue his passion for neurology. At a time where he was known worldwide as Sports Illustrated’s first Sportsman of the Year and could have taken on the next Olympics, he humbly backed out. He had already visualized his next goal as a medical professional. Humility is the ultimate distinguisher of visualized success.
Watch Bannister Break the Record