Sir Roger Bannister, 88, died last week. The man who broke the four minute mile in 1954. Accolades have been flowing around the world, a familiar story told and retold: a sub 4-minute mile was impossible; doctors and sports trainers believed breaking the 4-minute barrier would kill the runner; Bannister, a great cross-country runner, refused to listen to any of it and simply ran his guts out one cool, overcast day and proved all of them wrong.

Good story, but not really true and, as these things usually go, not as good as the real story. One of the best articles I’ve read over the last week or so was by Malcolm Gladwell, The Ordinary Greatness of Roger Bannister. 

Ordinary Greatness. You see, Roger Bannister was not an elite runner when he did the ‘impossible.’ He was a very good cross-country runner and a competitive miler – mostly because he was tall, lanky, and had a great stride. He was running for a club, sporadically because his real job was full-time medical student. He trained during his lunch hour. After a particularly bad week of training he took off with a friend to hike in Scotland. On the face of it, Rudy showed more single-minded intensity over a longer period to make his 15 second appearance for the Fighting Irish than Bannister did in pursuit of sports immortality.

That would be wrong, though. Roger Bannister knew exactly what he was doing every step of the way to 3:59.4 for the simple reason he planned every step. Literally. As a good, solid runner, Bannister knew what it took to run a 4 minute mile. Any halfway decent runner, then and now, knows what it takes because every halfway decent runner can run a 4 minute pace for at least fifty yards.

A 4-minute mile is 15 miles per hour. The mile is symmetric, four laps around the track. At a minute each, you have a four minute mile. In between med school classes, Bannister planned it all out. He studied the effects of 15 mph on the body and made adjustments to his diet, breathing, stride; he redesigned his shoes (at the time the spikes alone weighed more than track shoes today) and figured out a greasy formula that kept track cinders (all tracks were cinder tracks then) from sticking and clotting his spikes.

Then he plotted the race. It wasn’t about running just under a minute, four times over, it was about not being exhausted at the end and being able to utilize his long stride and big kick to maximum advantage … which meant figuring out the precise, optimum time to do so.  Go too early, run out of gas at the end; go too late, finish over 4 minutes with wasted gas still in the tank.

There was also the matter of the first laps and keeping, without going too far over or too far under, that one minute or so pace. It was 1954, times were kept by hand-held stopwatches, there were no scoreboards showing the time in illuminated digits. How, then, to insure he kept the pace he settled on in the first laps? He solved that problem by using ‘rabbits’ – friends who would pace him before dropping off.

The rest, of course, is history. He executed his plan, replicated that success three months later in Vancouver against Australian John Landry. Bannister improved his time to 3:58.9, Landry, also broke the 4-minute mark for the second time. Bannister then retired from running to devote all his time to becoming a neurologist.

If you’ve been a client, or read my book, you know where I’m going with this – it’s all about planning. Especially legal issues. Though it may not seem it to someone facing a foreclosure, or in the middle of a contract dispute, or a contentious divorce, or … well, you get the picture, take a moment to sit back, breathe, and plan with your lawyer. The big picture – 3:59.4 – and the little things – keeping your cleats from clogging.

That way, we can all achieve ordinary greatness.

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