They Didn't Ask Me (dr_phil_physics) wrote,
They Didn't Ask Me

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Rhapsodizing About Roger

After a very long day for both my wife and myself, with separate extracurricular activities into the evening -- she got to see Margaret Atwood speak in Grand Rapids, while I served pizza to freshmen engineers following a talk by a NASA engineer about the Columbia investigation that I didn't get to attend -- I ended up catching most of a truly lovely film.

Four Minutes (ESPN)

Part Chariots of Fire, part Double Helix and all beautifully filmed, this is the story of Roger Bannister's assault on the Four Minute Mile. Written by Frank Duford, Sports Illustrated and NPR commentator, this isn't played out as your usual sports hero movie.

For one thing, our "hero" is an English medical student, whose research is in the area of human performance. Today we think nothing of seeing top athletes on treadmills and wearing masks to monitor air intake and oxygen consumption. I didn't see the first 20-30 minutes, so I don't know if Dr. Bannister strictly invented this technique, but he had his own training regimen and raced the races he wanted, which annoyed the powers-that-be in British athletics.

Bannister and everyone else assumed he would win the gold medal at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. When that didn't happen, the four minute mile took on new significance. Like the afore mentioned Double Helix, it was a worldwide "race."

A Mile A Minute

Some great achievements in human history are accidents of our culture. The first human vehicle to achieve "a mile a minute" -- 60 mph -- was a train called the Antelope in 1848. Now I grant you that this is fast and quite a technical achievement, but the real significance of the speed was in an accidental alliteration of the English language and English system of units.

Likewise the four minute mile is an accident of English units -- seemingly possible yet for a long time unobtainable. Frank Duford's script makes interesting comparisons to the conquering of Mt. Everest.

The four minute mile had to be a frustrating and elusive goal. At one point Roger is being congratulated for running 4:11. The track mile is four laps of 440 yards each. Shave just 2-1/4 seconds off each lap and you're at four minutes flat.


It seems I've always known Roger Bannister broke the four minute barrier -- about not quite a decade after it happened. It was around when I was ten that I first heard, though, that he didn't do it alone. Although other runners competed, two teammates ran as "rabbits", runners designed to set a fast pace -- one they themselves couldn't keep up for a full mile.

At the time, I remember thinking this was dirty pool -- cheating even. But in retrospect it makes a great deal of sense. Many races, human and horse, seem to employ such early leaders, either by design or circumstance.


Four Minutes looks grand -- a window into an era of gentlemen runners and upright stances. It is, however, worth noting that simpler times were both simple and more complex that we sometimes give them credit for.

Dr. Phil

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