Mind over matter

When four-time Ironman World Champ and 220’s exclusive tri columnist met Sir Roger Bannister, she met a man who realised it was the mind that restrained achievement, not the body…

Sir Roger rose – nay, annihilated – the sporting bar. He challenged convention and perceptions of human limitation

A few weeks before I ran the 2002 London Marathon I was chatting to a work 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. Regardless, I feel that I’ve since managed to defy his ideas of what was possible for me and my big Q to achieve.

I’m 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. Your bar is set limbo low, rather than being pole-vault high. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 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 recent meeting I had with one of the greatest athletes of all time – Sir Roger Bannister. A few weeks ago 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. And to say I was honoured is to totally understate what a privilege it was to share experiences, stories, ideas and views with the first person to run a mile – in wet and windy conditions – in under the magical four-minute barrier.

Sir Roger rose – nay, annihilated – the sporting bar. He challenged convention and perceptions of human limitation, and in doing so trail-blazed a more ambitious path for others to follow. The same can be said of Paula Radcliffe’s record-setting 2:15hr marathon; of Hillary and Tenzing’s summit of Mount Everest; of Katharine 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 other competitors. By his own admission, it was in great part a result of mental fortitude, his own self belief, his unwillingness to be constrained by a false notion of what was possible and, of course, his ability to work with others (the pacemakers 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 “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 four-minute mile even existed. I feel the same when I race – unwilling to accept the perceived limits of what an Iron man or woman can supposedly do. This liberates an athlete, enables them to break psychological limits and hopefully flicks a switch inside the minds of others about what they’re capable of. Nowadays, scant notice is paid to a male athlete who runs a four-minute mile. Yes, breakthroughs in training and equipment may have helped to foster such improvement, but it’s the unwillingness to limbo under a low bar that’s the greatest performance enhancer of all.