15th August 2019
The Power of Pacemakers
“The announcement came from Norris McWhirter, delivered with a slow, clear diction: ‘Result of Event Eight: One mile. First, R. G. Bannister of Exeter and Merton Colleges, in a time which, subject to ratification, is a new Track Record, British Native Record, British All-Comers Record, European Record, Commonwealth Record and World Record… Three minutes…
“The rest was lost in the roar of excitement. I grabbed Brasher and Chataway and together we scampered round the track in a burst of happiness. We had done it, the three of us!”
Sir Roger Bannister
“You cannot train alone and expect to run a fast time. 100 per cent of me is nothing compared to one per cent of the team.”
Sixty-five years separate the breaking of the most famous athletics milestone of the 20th century and what could well prove to be its equivalent event of the 21st century.
The world has changed beyond recognition since Sir Roger Bannister became the first man to run a sub-four minute mile at Iffley Road, Oxford, on May 6 1954, and athletics has changed with it.
Indeed, there is no better demonstration of that change than the comparison of Bannister’s record-breaking run with Eliud Kipchoge’s own bid for history, the INEOS 1:59 Challenge which will take place in Vienna in October.
There were no digital clocks for Bannister in 1954, no scientifically engineered shoes and clothing, there weren’t even any full-time athletes (Bannister had to travel to Oxford for his date with destiny only after he had completed his shift at a London hospital). There were no nutritional experts or sport scientists. The list goes on.
But for all the differences between 1954 and 2019, the record attempts are, at their very core, the same: man against clock.
For Bannister 65 years ago, however, it was not just one man against the clock but three. Famously he had two celebrated pacemakers – Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher - who were with him for nearly three-and-a-half of the four laps that make up a mile on the track.
And for Kipchoge in 2019 the same will be true. He too will have a cast list of stellar pacemakers. However, there will be more than two of them to help. A final decision on the number of pacers brought in to aid Kipchoge’s effort is still to be made but it is likely as many as 30 could be involved, all star athletes in their own right.
Bannister’s sub four-minute mile was not the first use of pacemakers by any means – Bannister himself was reportedly spotted by coaches at Oxford University while pacing a mile race in 1947 - but it was certainly the first event to become synonymous with pacemaking.
Unlike today when pacemakers are identified as such prior to races, Bannister’s two pacers were not, in order to keep on the right side of the regulations of the day. The race where he broke the record was an AAA (Amateur Athletic Association) match versus Oxford University with seven runners entered.
The AAA team was made up of Bannister, Brasher and Chataway. Brasher, who would go on to win the Olympic 3000m steeplechase title two years later, and Chataway, who went on to break the world 5000m record later that summer, were world-class athletes in their own right, but the trio never had any intention of racing one another.
Instead, the race was the final part of a plan hatched by the trio and their coach Franz Stampfl that would help Bannister become the first man to break the four-minute barrier. And it was a plan that worked to perfection.
Brasher took to the front for the first two laps, or 800m, before peeling off and allowing Chataway to come through. With Bannister running in his slipstream, Chataway kept the record pace on track for the next 500m before he could do more and Bannister was left to finish the job over the final 300m.
The iconic final shot of Bannister, head thrown back, as he crossed the line in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds is now one of the most famous photographs in sporting history. But though he broke the tape on his own, Bannister himself was quick to acknowledge the help of his friends. For him, the record belonged to the team as much as it did to him individually.
Just like Bannister, Kipchoge recognises the importance of the team. Unlike many of the world’s best runners, he trains among a big group at the Global Sports Communication (GSC) group in Kaptagat, Kenya. He has spoken of how he believes the marathon will eventually go the same way as cycling and become a team discipline and one of his favourite quotes is “100 per cent of me is nothing compared to one percent of the team”.
The team that will be brought in to support Kipchoge will be made up of athletes he trains with every day from the GSC camp, past rivals and runners from all corners of the globe. It will be a team of running superstars, all united in a plan to keep Kipchoge on pace to break the barrier, just like Brasher and Chataway did 65 years ago.
These runners, some of whom will have competed at the World Championships just a week earlier, all want to be part of history. They recognise that this is a record that many did not think could be broken - at least not in 2019 – and they want to be part of something special.
And if Kipchoge does end up emulating Bannister then you can be sure that he will be equally as humble as the British middle-distance legend and the pacemaking team who helped make it possible will be treated as reverentially as Brasher and Chataway were in 1954 and have been ever since.
Pacemakers were actually described as ‘ghost runners’ when they were first introduced but Brasher and Chataway changed all that. Now you can you be sure that no one will forget the names of the men who helped Kipchoge if he were to write himself into mythology in Vienna this October.