All things are possible, as long as you don’t have to run
I looked at the track thoughtfully. It didn’t seem so hard
I would like to tell you about the first time I attempted the four-minute mile.
It was last Tuesday, and I was wandering around the city of Oxford and discovered, down a sidestreet off Iffley Road, a small cluster of buildings and a pretty little athletics track. Signs and plaques announced that on this track on May 6 1954 Roger Bannister first ran the mile in less than four minutes, finishing in 3:59.04.
I looked at the track thoughtfully. It didn’t seem so hard. Roger Bannister’s run was more a lesson in human psychology than an achievement in human physicality: before May 6 1954 no one had ever run a mile in less than four minutes; it only took another 46 days before someone did it again. Twenty days after that, two people did it in one race. The ironically named John Walker of New Zealand did it on 135 different occasions. It’s been done by high-school pupils and men over 40. Someone recently ran two miles in less than eight minutes. Human beings are followers: when something hasn’t been done it can’t be done; the moment it can be, it becomes commonplace.The track had a pleasing curve. An eight-year-old was skipping around wearing a pair of those sneakers with flashing lights in the heel. Some shot-putters were limbering up on the bright oval of grass in the middle. Over the far side of the track the tower of the church of St John the Evangelist was honey-coloured in the evening summer light.
“It doesn’t look so hard,” I said.
Of course, I knew I had to make allowances. I wasn’t wearing proper running shoes, for one thing. I don’t own running shoes, because I have never as an adult run anywhere. Running has always struck me as a fundamentally undignified thing for a grown person to do: all that jiggling and wobbling and thumping and sweating and wheezing. I was once on the verge of running through an airport to make my flight, but then I considered the possibility of running past someone I knew, and I wisely remembered that sooner or later there would be other flights.
I used to run a little when I was a teenager – not very much or very well, but quite easily. I had a languid rhythmic style, and if I found a suitably gentle pace I could go all day, always giving the impression that I had plenty in reserve and was just waiting for the final straight to unleash my devastating kick. I did not have a devastating kick, but no one needed to know that.
Some people, as they grow older, convince themselves that they can do less and less, but I have the opposite mental disorder: the further I get from the scene of my physical prime, the more convinced I become that I can do it better than ever before. When I played rugby as a 16-year-old the game happened too fast. I was flustered and rushed, but now I am wiser and calmer and more mentally prepared, so if I were to be called up tomorrow as an emergency replacement flyhalf for the Springboks, say, I am pretty sure I would do all right, so long as I didn’t have to tackle anyone.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” said my friend doubtfully. “When was the last time you ran?”
“It’s like riding a bike,” I said, windmilling my arms, like I’ve seen runners warm up on the TV.Famously, Roger Bannister was 25 years old and studying to be a doctor when he ran his mile. He took his studies so seriously that he only had 45 minutes a day in which to train. He later said that he thought this was an advantage – fewer miles under his belt meant he was fresher when the big moment came. By that measure I was 45 minutes a day fresher than Roger Bannister.
I took my place on the track where Roger took his start.
“I want you to make a sound like a bell at the three-minute mark,” I instructed. “Then I’ll know to start to my final kick.”
“Go,” said my friend, and I took off, as a Canadian Goose takes off from a placid lake.
It soon became apparent that in the years since last I ran, something has happened to my legs. They were still there, but something appeared to be interfering with their full functionality. They seemed to moving separately from the rest of my body, as though they belonged to a shorter, slower person lagging a little behind me. And what was up with my arms? They used to be the mighty pistons that drove the engine forward – now they appeared to flail and flap like the tiny vestigial limbs of a T-Rex. What do you do with your hands when you run? Do you leave them open and flapping? Clenched as fists? I tried to clench them as fists. I felt like one of the Golden Girls – Blanche or Rose, not Dorothy – doing her morning rumba class.
At the first bend, the eight-year-old in flashing shoes came skipping past on the outside. I don’t mean “skipping” metaphorically. She was literally skipping, and humming a little tune to herself. Is skipping allowed in the Olympics? If so, it must be outlawed. Skipping is cheating.I’d started poorly. Had I started off on the wrong foot? I couldn’t remember. I knew I needed to catch the eight-year-old if I wanted any chance at all of setting a good time. By the second bend I abandoned the four-minute target. That was, let’s be honest, always something of an ask. I mean, yes, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? – but maybe five minutes would be a more reasonable heaven.
But what’s that thing punching me in the chest? Is that my heart? Does it hate me? Why has my heart turned on me this way? What are these black spots in front of my eyes? And why is it that at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot drawing near?
“Ding-ding-ding,” shouted my friend, and it was time to turn on the after-burners. Do you remember in Chariots of Fire how they threw back their heads and ran in glorious, muscle-rippling slow-motion, as the strains of Vangelis swelled the heart and stirred the blood? That was me, especially the slow-motion part. I came pounding down the final straight like some magnificent seabird, and if I couldn’t seem to raise my knees to the level of my waist, no matter – it’s time that counts, not style.
I collapsed across the finish line and lay there like a pervert in a laundry basket: breathing in short pants.
“Four minutes, 38 seconds,” said my friend. “Give or take a couple of seconds – I pressed the wrong button when you started.”
Four thirty-eight! That’s not bad! That’s surely not bad! Imagine if I trained! Imagine if I had the proper shoes! Imagine if I hadn’t had to shoulder the eight-year-old out of the way on the last corner – that must have cost me some seconds. Four thirty-eight for the mile! That’s magnificent!
“Well, yes,” said my friend. “But you still have to run the other three laps.”