I read an interesting article by Steve Magness awhile back. Through stats and based on other world events of the era, Magness uses Roger Bannister’s breaking of the 4-minute mile to debunk the long-held belief that this was some sort of magical barrier held in place by a strong psychological “It can’t be done” mentality. It’s an insightful read I highly recommend, so I won’t ruin it here, but I will highlight just a couple examples of what Magness conveys.
The first is that WWII created a huge vacuum in performances (in this case, on the track). Not only was most of the world at war, but men who would normally be training and racing were instead focused on the war effort. Some number of athletes lost their lives or never returned to running post-war. The second is that no such psychological barrier appeared to exist for events that resulted in odd timing thresholds. For example, did anyone view 3:43 for the 1,500m as a performance barrier (3:43 is very similar to running 4:00 for the mile)? Apparently not.
Give the article a read. Cool stuff.
In any case, it made me think back to my own athletic career. I was a competitive swimmer from age 5 through college. Swimming, like running, is a very objective, timed sport. But, unlike running, there is no holding back in swimming. Swimmers don’t swim just fast enough to win their events like what occurs in many non-sprint running events. While running (again, non-sprints) is about tactics and, more often than not, doing just enough to win the event, swimming is all about guns blazing and pedal-to-the-metal from the gun to the finish. Swimming is all about going faster and faster every time a swimmer enters the water.
There are definitive barriers in swimming events, many tied to a very 'clean' time value, but all subjective. Growing up, I looked at a notorious time barrier in my events and thought, “I’m going to crush that.” Barriers at different ages were goals, not deterrents. Those times were things I and my fellow swimmers strove to smash, not things from which we shied or feared. What we tended to shy away from was the daily bashings it took to achieve our goals. For once we set goals and strove to achieve them, the sport stopped being fun. I still enjoyed swimming, otherwise I would not have competed for as long as I did or gotten up at the ass crack of dawn year round. But the “fun factor” evaporated at a young age. Top-level sport is a grind.
The same can be said for events in other sports. Take, for example, the 40k time trial on the bike. Largely, the goal is to dip under an hour. 3 hours or 4 hours seem to be the most common time barriers to dip under for the marathon. For the Ironman, just about any round hour time barrier can be chosen. Why not 55:17 for the time trial, or 3:26 for the marathon, or 11:47 for the Ironman?
The reason, I think, that the 4-minute mile became romanticized and glorified is because it is one of the few events that has had a very even and neat barrier. Four minutes is very clean and easy to rationalize. Dipping below the “00” is a definitive mark that’s easy to quantify. So is 10 seconds for the 100m dash (for men). And, back when Banister ran, the world, especially Europe, needed something to support, something about which to get excited. How better to inject patriotism and a renewed sense of hope and optimism into a people than through an athlete striving to accomplish something that as yet had never been achieved? Who wouldn’t rally around that?
We’ve been programmed to buy-in to the concept of “breaking through” … something. If we’re not shattering preconceived notions of barriers, then we’re admitting we are ordinary creatures. That we are less awesome and valuable than the pedestal on which we place the human race and its capacity for greatness. The 4-minute barrier as a standalone metric is really nothing inherently special. Don’t get me wrong, anyone who can break four minutes for a mile -- or an hour for the 40km TT, or 3 hours for the marathon, or 10 hours for an Ironman -- is a very, very fast athlete.
But not mythical. And, it stands to reason that athletes who break certain times that society or the media or some other faction imposes as a barrier upon a certain measured distance of competition in a given sport, look upon those times not as barriers but rather as goals of achievement. It is these goals that get said athletes out of bed day after day after day to subject themselves to endless hours of gluttonous punishment.
Achievement. Because all of the blood, sweat and tears that athletes pore into their sports has to amount to something. Otherwise, why the heck do we subject ourselves to all the punishment?