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Impossible is Nothing
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May 6, 2004 20: 13 EST

Who's Bannister? asked a trainer at New Yorks biggest gym one of ExWeb's team members the other day. "Impossible is nothing" read a big commercial banner right at the entrance of that same gym. The trainer hadn't read that either. "You should check it out," we said. That's who Bannister was.

It was believed to be humanly impossible. His lungs would burst. His muscles would tear. He would crumble before he reached the finish line. Perhaps, even die. His friends, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, agreed to be the rabbits. Brasher led for two laps, then Chataway. With 200 yards left, Bannister kicked. His time of 3:59.4 smashed a world record that had stood nine years.

It was May 6, 1953 and Bannister took the record of Gunder Haegg "Gunder the Wonder", a Swedish runner famous for training his legs by running in deep snow. Gunders record was set in 1945 at 4:01.4.

"Chariots of Fire" is a famous movie about another distance runner; Harold Abrahams, the 1924 100 m Paris Olympic Gold medalist. Harold was in fact the chief timekeeper for Bannister. He said: "The announcer started to read “3minutes... and then the crowed cheered so high that no one could hear the rest ...59.4 seconds."

Sports Illustrated ranked Bannister's mile as the second-greatest sporting accomplishment of the 20th Century, trailing only the ascent of Mount Everest. Perhaps that's what prompted Bannister to promote the use of oxygen: At a medical conference later that year he said that if athletes could use oxygen "like the climbers of Everest" no records would be beyond grasp.

Close in age, Hillary (70) and Bannister (75) have a bit different approach to their achievements today. "We knocked the Bastard off" said Hillary of Everest. "While the 4 minute mile was important to me once," Bannister said, "it is now in the back of my mind. The race taught us we could do most things we turned our minds to in later life. And it made us (Brasher and Chataway) friends.

Today's the 50th anniversary of the achievement. Bannister did it the old fashioned way. He planned it, he set his mind to it, others wished they could do it, but he was determined. There were no workout programs for runners designed by specialists with college degrees, no sports psychologists to nurture peak performance by purging the mind of negative thoughts. After working at his job as a medical researcher at a London hospital, Bannister took the train to Oxford, where he had lunch and waited for the winds to soften just a bit, "a man in England can't wait for good weather" before he blazed around a track four times to become the first person to finish the mile run in less than 4 minutes.

But why? Why prepare so hard for something so seemingly pointless in the large picture of everything?

"England in those days was still suffering from the effects of war, and it took quite a long time for England to get over that, I think it was a lift to British morale" said another runner of the time.

But there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, no endorsement contracts or trips to Disney World. Bannister was not a full-time athlete. Bannister became a neurologist and track became the victim of diminished popularity. Corporate sponsorships and financial incentives spawned cheaters in search of a chemical edge. Skepticism clouded results. But Bannister didn't care.

George Mallory, who died on Mount Everest in 1924, said he was moved to the challenge "because it's there." Bannister understood.Just like reaching the North Pole, crossing the Antarctic and proving once and for all that the world is round. Bannister, like those before him, proved what man can accomplish if he doesn't give in to doubts and pain.

After Bannister came others. His record has been lowered 18 times since. The current record is 3:43.13. Then there are the modern Marathons. That's amazing, too. Only 35 seconds slower than Bannister ran, they're doing 26 of them. Bannister doesn't mind. He summarizes his achievement this way: "A man could, with his own two feet, overcome all difficulties to reach a pinnacle upon which he could declare, 'No one has ever done this before.'

Last year, 50 years after his and Tenzings climb of Everest, Hillary demanded that the mountain be closed to climbers. That same year, the mountain instead had it's own dream miles:

When Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa set out to set an Everest speed ascent record, he was delayed by the route not being fixed. That's when, coming from nowhere, Pemba Dorjie took the record at 12 hrs 45 min, beating late Babu’s record by an astonishing 4 hours.

When Babu’s record was set in 2000 everyone thought that it would never be touched, especially since he broke the previous record by over 3 hours. Imagine what everyone thought about Pemba’s new time. At over four hours faster than Babu’s record, Pemba’s feat was likened to Bannister’s sub 4-minute mile - or so everyone thought.

Shy and reserved, Lhakpa bided his time and named May 25th as the day. Then late evening that night, the news came – 10 hrs and 56 min. How could anyone ever have though back in 1998 when Kaji Sherpa set the first record at 20 hrs 24 min, that it would almost be chopped in half less than 7 years later. And who would have thought, back then in 1953, that only 50 years later Mount Everest would be scaled in a mere 10 hours.

The old times vs the new times. The old challenges vs the new ones. In an never-ending race for human achievement and new frontiers. That's what ExplorersWeb is all about.

As we left the NY gym we glanced back at the entrance. The banner "Impossible is nothing" was being replaced by one promoting a car brand. Remembering the trainer, we said to each other: "He won't get to see it". And then we flagged a yellow cab back to ExplorersWeb.

Compiled in parts from stories by AP, BuffaloNews and Bradenton.com.

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