Sad to learn about Roger Bannister’s passing. Sharing his story and how his innovation, being the first human to run a mile in under four minutes, influenced my research on innovation and book The Innovation Biome. (amzn.com/B077H64QJM).
On a windy day in May 1954, one of the biggest barriers in sports, a feat that was considered by many as physiologically unattainable, was broken at Oxford University’s Iffley Road track. Roger Bannister, a medical student, ran a mile in under four minutes for the first time on record.
A gifted runner, Bannister participated in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki but returned home after a lackluster performance. Once he was back in England, he set a new goal. He wanted to be the first human to run a mile in under four minutes, the most coveted goal by middle-distance runners. Many were chasing this elusive goal, and a few elite runners were even closing in, but it appeared to always be just out of reach.
Bannister started to prepare. He established an unconventional and atypical training routine that included more rest days and harder running intervals on the days he did run. He learned techniques from the Swedish running greats of the time, Gunder Hägg and Arne Andersson. The Swedes used a training method called fartlek (speed play), a technique that mixes hard runs, easy runs, hill runs, and sprints almost randomly and with no fixed regimen. Each interval is different from the other.
Bannister believed in his heart that the four-minute-mile barrier could be broken. He believed he needed to split up the entire 1600-meter distance into four separate 400-meter races (four laps) and run each one in under a minute in order to achieve his goal. During his training, he learned through trial and error that rest days gave him stronger legs and that harder intervals better prepared his body for the race.
Bannister even planned out his running environment to optimize for the environmental factors he considered instrumental to breaking the four-minute mile: the right track, no wind, and reasonably warm weather. He trained with his two talented pacemakers under the watchful eye of his Austrian coach, Franz Stampfl.
Finally, race day came. After five days of rest, Bannister was ready for the run. However, as is the case with almost every breakthrough, things didn’t go according to plan, and Bannister had to work through the obstacles. It turned out to be a blustery day. Bannister almost pulled out, thinking that the conditions were not right for his attempt and that he should conserve his energy for another time. Bannister did not think he would reach his goal under these conditions, as he would have to run the equivalent of a sub-3.56-minute mile to overcome the negative effect of the wind. On the other hand, he thought that if he passed up this opportunity, he might never get another chance where his body, mind, partners, and even the crowd waiting for him were so perfectly primed for the race.
Shortly before the race, Bannister decided to have a go at it. Aided by his two training partners and pacemakers, he ran the first of the four laps in 57.5 seconds. He crossed the halfway point in 1 minute 58 seconds. The third lap was slower, at a couple of seconds over a minute, and he needed to break the one-minute mark for the final lap.
The difference between a very good runner and an elite runner is the kick, the ability to increase your finishing speed to a whole new level of sprint. Either you have it, or you don’t. Bannister did, and he ran the final lap in just under 59 seconds.
A month and a half after Bannister achieved this goal, his time was eclipsed by Australian runner John Landy. Soon, many other runners joined in breaking the four-minute-mile barrier.
There is no doubt that Roger Bannister’s achievement was a breakthrough. This brief account of his story contains all the elements of creating breakthroughs in any endeavor. It has the primed and prepared mind and body of Roger Bannister. It has disbelief and skepticism from the community. It happened only because of a network of knowledge transfer and improvement processes, and an interconnected system that included his coach and two outstanding pacemakers working together. The timing and environment was just right, notwithstanding the sudden hiccup in weather. Once this milestone was achieved, it became easier for others to do the same. And like many other great innovations, if it hadn’t been Bannister, someone else would have achieved it for all the same reasons.
The factors that Bannister faced are no different than those faced by any breakthrough innovation. It is exactly these factors that are necessary for any individual or organization trying to innovate. Your best bet for success is to understand the attributes or principles required for innovation (just as Bannister did, perhaps subconsciously) and ensure that these conditions are present in your organization.
And once the principles of innovation are woven into the fabric of an organization, the process of innovation becomes sustained and independent of any individual or technique. Only then can innovation become institutionalized; your organization can attain the elite and enviable level of sustained value creation and gain the rewards that go along with being a company that releases one great innovation after another.