The #1 Thing I've Learned About Mindful Running

Why what happened on a gray, rainy day in England 66 years ago might change the way you see yourself

It was a sky filled with rainy squalls and gale-force winds that dawned on the morning of May 6, 1954 in the town of Oxford, England, where the photo above would be taken on the now-legendary Iffley Road track, whose story would shock the sporting world.

The man in the photo is 25-year-old Englishman Roger Bannister. Then a medical student at Oxford University, he’d finished his rounds earlier at the hospital and that day broke what was believed to be an impossible barrier: the 4-minute mile.

Years later, he would describe what it felt like to cross the finish line — he collapsed on the cinder track immediately afterward — and wait for the result to be announced, in his book The First Four Minutes:

“I felt like an exploded flashlight with no will to live; I just went on existing in the most passive physical state without being quite unconscious. Blood surged from my muscles and seemed to fell me. It was as if my limbs were caught in an ever-tightening vice.”

But moments later, when the announcer cried out to the 1,500-plus fans who’d gathered to watch Bannister and the other runners attempt to break the record that day, that his time began with the words, “THREE MINUTES...” everyone erupted in cheers, and even Bannister says he got up and was hopping around the track “in a burst of spontaneous joy.”

Why was Bannister able to achieve what legions of runners, sports fans and even doctors thought wasn’t possible, and perhaps even dangerous? It had been attempted over the years leading up to 1954 countless times by countless runners, all of whom ended up falling short.

The impossible becomes possible

Mackenzie L. Havey, in her book Mindful Running, gives us a glimpse: that Bannister, himself a medical student at the time who had enough knowledge of how the body works, was able in his own mind to push aside the doubts of those who said it couldn’t be done.

She illustrates with the story of John Landy, a middle-distance competitive runner and member of the 1952 Australian Olympic team, who at the time was attempting to become the first to break the 4-minute barrier himself.

Despite numerous attempts, Landy kept coming up short; between 1952 and 1954, he tried six times but couldn’t do better than 4 minutes, 2 seconds.

But six weeks after Bannister set the record, Landy became the second to break 4 minutes with a new record of 3 minutes, 58 seconds — crushing Bannister’s time of 3:59.4. Ever since then, the record has been repeatedly broken and now is held by the Moroccan runner Hachim El Garrouj, with a time of 3:43:13 back in 1999.

As Havey describes, what has unfolded since that rainy day on the Iffley Road track in Oxford more than 60 years ago has come to be known as the “Bannister effect” and it has transformed the way we understand athletic performance — and limits of really every kind:

“It is the idea that once someone sees something seemingly impossible is possible, they are then able to achieve it. How many of us harbor beliefs about our identities and abilities that place limits on our achievements?” 

Sounds easy enough, right?

Just kidding! Believing in yourself to accomplish something on the level that Bannister did — or even something that’s meaningful only to ourselves — may sound simple, but that’s far from saying it’s easy, of course.

When our minds rebel against us

I’ve become more and more interested in the ideas Havey explains in her book, as I find that she is able to label and explain in detail the things I’ve long felt, but didn’t really have a name for or understand.

For example, Havey talks about the importance of having a mantra when we run, to help our minds handle the difficulty of discomfort and pain when we’re going for a goal we haven’t achieved before, like higher mileage or longer times.

Those aren’t easy, and our minds often rebel against us, telling us to slow down or stop. “Let’s take a break and take it easy for a while,” I can hear a little voice on my shoulder saying.

But Havey reminds us that those little voices are actually the signal that we’re progressing — and that we should hear them, but not listen to them.

What does that mean? Havey says that it’s important not to push away painful thoughts, feelings or experiences; denying them won’t make them go away, and in fact will make them stronger.

Instead, what she recommends is allowing ourselves to notice and observe those thoughts, and to experience them without judging them. (Admittedly, this is a difficult thing to do — mindful running takes practice!)

She shares the story of Dean Karnazes, the legendary author of Ultramarathon Man who won the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon once in Death Valley temperatures approaching 120 degrees.

Karnazes told Havey that in distance running, pain and suffering are unavoidable:

“About ten years ago I started using this approach to deal with low points during races — those really difficult times when you just feel like you can’t go on.

I’ve tried using positive mantras and other things, but with pain, you can’t fake yourself out. Really tuning into the pain and embracing the struggle is more effective because it dissipates its impact.”

What I get from Karnazes — obviously, a much more accomplished runner than I’ll ever be! — is to accept that difficulty and pain are part of the process of getting better, rather than pushing them aside in my mind.

It does me no good to pretend they’re abnormal or an aberration — that something is “wrong” because I’m experiencing pain.

In fact, it’s healthier to accept that they’re part of the process of growing and getting better as a runner — and as a human being.

One last (really) interesting thing to note: the time in which Bannister broke the record was an amazing moment in history — less than a year earlier, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

Even though we feel like we know them, their stories still have so much to teach us.

I hope you guys all have a wonderful, restful weekend and get some great runs in — as always, keep in touch and let me know how they go!

Your friend,

— Terrell

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A song to run to today

Canyon Moon” from the album Fine Line by Harry Styles