Bannister’s ability to handle the pressures in the final stages of a close race was obviously well shown in both the 4-minute mile and his race with Landy, but it was also shown in the 1,500-m final of the European Games:
Never did my finishing burst serve me so well. There was no longer any need to call on emotion to produce this ability to take an overdraft on my energy. There had been times in other races when I felt real fear as I tore down the finishing straight as if my life depended on it . This time it was differentI was calm . My mind remained quite cool and detached.
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It merely switched over the lever, and well-worn channels carried to my body the extra energy that my mind unleashed. (Bannister, 1955, p. 24)
The ability to produce a maximum effort even when beaten. Reading between the lines, I believe that one of Bannister’s learning experiences was the 1952 Olympic Games. Shortly before the Games it was announced that for the first time there would be semifinal heats in the 1,500-m race. This immediately put Bannister at a disadvantage that he knew was fatal, because he was not trained to run three hard races in 3 days. Then, at the Games, Bannister and Chataway saw the awesome running of Zatopek: “Zatopek isn’t human in his achievement . While he goes for a 20-mile training run on his only free day, we lie here panting and moaning that the Gods are unkind to us” (Bannister, 1955, p. 154). At the same Games Bannister experienced the special pressures of the Olympic Games: “Now with the whole athletic world concentrated in a few square miles all sense of perspective was lost. Around me every man was giving his bestfighting to the last gasp” (Bannister, 1955, p. 156). And in the emotional stresses that this produced, Bannister and the other British athletes “tied in knots with anxiety realized more about our weakness and strength as we wound up our minds for the trial” (Bannister, 1955, p. 157).
Bannister also realized that he had much to learn about his own self-control, a realization that almost certainly helped him in his later races.
Finally, after days of mental torture, Bannister went out to contest the 1,500m final:
I hardly had the strength to warm up. As I walked out in front of those 70,000 spectators, my step had no spring, my face no colour. The ruthless
Fighting of the semi-final, the worry and lack of sleep, had exhausted me. (Bannister, 1955, p. 158)
Despite this Bannister ran the best he could. Lying second at the last bend, he reached down for his finishing kick, but it was not there. “My legs were aching, and I had no strength left to force them faster. I had a sickening feeling of exhaustion and powerlessness as Barthel came past me, chased by McMillen” (Bannister, 1955, p. 159). Despite this, Bannister would finish in fourth place, only 0.8 seconds behind the winner.
The ability to learn from each race and to modify racing strategies accordingly. Bannister clearly stated his feelings on this topic:
Improvement in running depends on continuous self-discipline by the athlete himself, on acute observation of his reactions to races and training and above all on judgment, which he must learn for himself. The runner has to make his own decisions on the trackhe has no coach there to help him. If a man coaches himself then he has only himself to blame when he is beaten. (Bannister, 1955, p. 63)
Each race is an experiment. There are too many factors that cannot be completely controlled for two races to be the same, just as two similar scientific experiments seldom give exactly the same results. By learning, often unconsciously, from mistakes, I discovered my reactionboth desirable and undesirableto many of the situations I was likely to meet in big races. It was my aim to minimize the effect of the undesirable factors in my running which I could not entirely eliminate, so that my running in a big race would have the spontaneous joy I felt as a boy running wildly along the shore. I wanted to remove all uncertainty and worry except the great uncertainty of victory which is the main driving force. Only in this way could my whole being become absorbed in the struggle. (Bannister, 1955, p. 121)
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