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Breaking a Barrier: On Doing the Impossible

July 17, 2014

 

Breaking through barriers: we humans love it! Not necessarily putting ourselves at risk, but living vicariously through someone else, especially if we can do it far out of harm’s way.

 

Not so long ago, it was said that running a sub four-minute mile was impossible. After all, human endurance had its limits. The lungs and heart could only produce so much blood-rich oxygen, and the muscles could only metabolize what the lungs and heart could deliver.

 

For many years, a good number of athletes had tried to defy the presumed laws of human mechanics and squeak out a mile in less than 240 seconds. The net result was always the same: failure. Which is why nobody’s name comes to mind when we think of the almost four-minute mile crowd.

 

Then on May 6th, 1954, a tall unassuming lad from Great Britain named Roger Bannister came along and blew the impossible goal away with a time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. It made international news. He became an overnight sensation.

 

But here’s what’s interesting: although runners had tried and failed to clock that time for years, within 46 days Bannister’s feat had been duplicated, and then with fair regularity the mile record came down after that—two more times in the 1950’s alone.

 

So what happened? Why was there a rash of sub four-minute milers after Bannister, when for years no one seemed capable of either starting or joining this elite 239 second club?

 

Athletes in 1954 did not undergo some fundamental physical transformation. It’s now clear that many people actually had the raw ingredients necessary to break the four-minute mile record. What these four-minute wannabes lacked was the ability to see the mile record as truly obtainable. The barrier was mental.

 

This gulf between our capabilities and our mental assessment is one of the most profound disconnects in the human experience. When someone achieves beyond what we thought possible, we tend to elevate them above the rest of us, wondering what special quality allowed them to break those boundaries. We don’t always wonder what caused us to believe in those boundaries in the first place, or how real they ever were.

 

Bannister saw the goal as obtainable. His combination of preparation and perspiration is a basic winning formula for skill acquisition across a wide variety of enterprises, from math to music to athletic endeavors and beyond.

 

But those that followed in Bannister’s running steps are in some ways the real heroes. These athletes continue to push at the barriers for themselves—and for the rest of us.

 

“If they can do it, so can I,” is a mantra that has driven everything from learning to bake a cake to some of the most amazing technological advancements in human history.

 

“Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes,” as the medieval saying goes. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s much easier to see the possibilities of what lies ahead by capitalizing on the previous work of others.

 

When enough people do that, a barrier breaks under its own weight. The current mile record is held by Moroccan two-time Olympic gold medalist and “King of the Mile” Hicham El Guerrouj, at 3 minutes 34.13 seconds. El Guerrouj has held the honor since 1999, but if history is any predictor, it’s only a matter of time until the king is dethroned and the record is broken again—and again.

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