I was at a work conference in 2002, a few weeks before I ran the London Marathon. The conference conversation was so stimulating that I started chatting to a colleague about running. He looked me up and down, and said ‘I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you will never be a good runner. Your Q angle is too big.” A nice way to urinate on my fire. I still haven’t got a clue what such an angle is, but, regardless, I feel I have since managed to defy his ideas of what was possible for me and my big Q to achieve (as well as perhaps demonstrating his lack thereof of any high ‘I’ related ‘Q’). And I am sure many of you have been in the same boat. Others place limits on what they think you can do, or maybe you cripple yourself with self doubt about what you think you are capable of. Your bar is set limbo-esque low, rather than being pole vault high. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. So, is it our body or is it our mind that places the greatest limitation on performance?
I believe it’s often the latter. This conviction was cemented during a meeting I had with a man who I deem to be one of the greatest athletes of all time. Sir Roger Bannister. Earlier this summer I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to have tea with Sir Roger, and his wife at their home in Oxford. To say I was excited was an understatement: my smile stretched from ear to ear. To say I was nervous is also understating my sweaty handed apprehension at being in such close proximity to this sporting legend (and the fear that I would drop the delicate china tea cup in customary Muppet fashion). And to say I was honoured, is to totally understate what an absolute privilege it was to share experiences, stories, ideas and views with a man who chose to pole vault instead of limbo; being the first person to run a mile, in wet and windy conditions, in under the magical 4 minute barrier.
At Birmingham University the sports center café was aptly named ‘Raising the Bar’. (although, at the time I focused more on trying to raise my non energy drink filled glass at said bar than focusing on reaching my sporting potential). Sir Roger rose – nay, annihilated – the sporting bar. He challenged convention and perceptions of human limitation, and in doing so trailblazed a more ambitious path for other’s to follow. The same can be said of Paula Radcliffe’s record setting 2hr15 marathon; of Hillary and Tensing’s summit of Mt Everest; of Armstrong’s landing on the moon; of Kathrine Schwitzer, the first female to run the Boston Marathon, or of Gertrude Ederle, who, in 1926, became the first woman to swim the English Channel, beating the fastest man’s existing record by nearly two hours and dispelling conventional wisdom about women as the “weaker sex”. All equivalents of running a four minute mile when all else deem it impossible.
But such performances are not only a reflection of physical prowess. It was not simply his training that set Sir Roger aside from Landy and his other competitors. By his own admission, it was in great part a result of mental fortitude, his own self belief, his unwillingness to be hamstrung and constrained by a false notion of what was possible and of course, his ability to work with others (the very capable pacemakers in Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher) to achieve his aim.
In his book the ‘Lore of Running’ Dr Tim Noakes, the South African physician and long distance runner, examines the limits of running performance and argues that, unlike his competitor, ‘Bannister was able to convince his brain that it could achieve what none had done before’. This is articulated most clearly by Sir Roger himself in his book ‘The First Four Minutes’, “I had a moment of joy and anguish, when my mind took over. It raced well ahead of my body and drew my body compellingly forward. … My body had long since exhausted all its energy, but it went on running just the same. The physical overdraft came from greater willpower”.
The key is that, to Bannister, no barrier to the 4minute mile even existed. I feel the same when race. Unwilling to accept the perceived limits of what an ironman or woman can supposedly do. This freedom from constraint liberates an athlete, enables them to break psychological limits and hopefully flicks a switch inside the minds’ of others about what they are capable of. Nowadays, scant notice is paid to a male athlete that runs a 4minute mile. Yes, scientific breakthroughs in training and equipment may have helped to engender such improvement, but it is the unwillingness to limbo under a low bar that is the greatest performance enhancer of all.
And this brings me to the Olympics. We are all glued to the action. Watching the world’s best compete on the biggest global sporting stage. Imbued with Bannister-esque self belief and indomitable will, we are seeing athlete’s pushing boundaries, not only in terms of the breaking of Olympic and World Records, but most importantly testing down their own limits of what they thought would be possible. So let’s raise an energy drink filled bottle to all those who are striving to raise the bar at London 2012, and let their efforts inspire us all to heights that we could never have imagined. ‘Citius, Altius and Fortius’!
(this article was originally published in 220 Magazine)