What’s Your 4-Minute Mile?

“At one point, Landy said [about breaking the four-minute barrier in the mile]: ‘It’s like a brick wall. I’m not going to attempt it again.’ I, as a medical student, knew there wasn’t a brick wall. If you could run it in 4 minutes and 2.2 seconds, then you would find somebody else somewhere who trained a little better, had better conditions on the day, was able to use the pace judgment better, and they could do it. That was the frame of mind in which I approached it.”NY Times 2014

Roger Bannister, who later had a long career in neurology and is now 86-years old, went on to become the first man to run a mile in under four minutes in 1954. A deed once deemed impossible and even dangerous has since been lowered by almost 17 seconds and is now the standard of all male professional middle distance runners. In fact, New Zealand’s John Walker, the first man to run the mile under 3:50, managed to run 135 sub-four-minute miles during his career. In 60 years of time, we have gone from impossible and dangerous to doable and ‘Good job, John.’

The human body and mind have stored up reserves that are accessible when the situation calls for it and when the conditions are right. Our beliefs regarding our abilities seem to matter as well. In a study conducted at the University of Turin in 2008, researchers found that subjects who were given a placebo but told it was caffeine were able to lift more weight than those who were really given caffeine. Furthermore, Carol Dweck’s decades-long research at Stanford proposes that our willpower is mediated by our beliefs. In their studies Dweck and her team found that those participants who believed their willpower is limited and fixed were more likely to give up than those who believe that willpower is self-renewing (Dweck & Walton, 2010; see also this NY Times piece). This does not mean that our strength is limitless but it does demonstrate that our capacities aren not set in stone and are in fact flexible (unless we believe the opposite that is, as Dweck and Walton’s study proposes).

If we never challenge ourselves we will not know how far we can go.

For example, most marathoners report experiencing the so-called “wall” around the 20th mile of the marathon. During a recent marathon (which I btw. totally blew because of poor pacing) I experienced my first ever true wall (in the ultra running circles it’s called bonking). The worst part? The ‘bonkyness’ began already at mile 12 when I still had 14 more to go. It was brutal, I was destroyed and for the first time, I was 99% sure I would call it quits. However, I  did cross the finish line, and so do about 98-99% of all marathoners in race events. Even though I PW’d (got my personal worst time), it was a major accomplishment. I hung in there and endured way beyond what I thought was possible in that moment. Having said this, all extreme efforts (and our sisu) should be informed by reason. As important it is to challenge ourselves and be tough, it is to know when to stop, turn away and back off.

Kathrine Switzenr marathon
Seventy years into Boston Marathon, women were not allowed to run as they were deemed “too fragile to run”. This is an image of the courageous Kathrine Switzer breaking barriers in 1967. Not physical ones but sociocultural ones and those related to patriarchy, therefore blazing the trail on so many levels for hundreds of millions of other women in the decades to come.

We are capable of extraordinary things. The problem, in my opinion, is that we simply do not aim high enough, or we aim high but set our sights on things that aren’t truly us. As a result, we fail to remain consistent when the going gets tough. Too often in our quest for validation and acceptance we, in fact, end up chasing other people’s dreams. Or we get entangled with the totally arbitrary (and often harmful) standards and expectations set by our surrounding culture.

Great goals are grounded in self-reflection, self-knowledge and they carry deep, personal meaning to you.

Think for a moment. What is your personal  ‘4-minute mile’?

What is that something that calls to you but feels way too hard to reach. Do you have a book in you, do you play with the idea of a career change, or taking on a physical endurance challenge? Is it perhaps changing your lifestyle, the country you live in, or leaving a dysfunctional relationship, or saying ‘yes’ to new love? 

Now think what’s one step you can take this weekend to get closer to achieving your dream. Then execute. Take the first step, and then the next, and the next.

Our future is made of nothing more complex than the little micro-actions we take on a daily basis. Ordinary humans are capable of extraordinary things and this truth follows the formula of relentless, incremental forward movement.

I have dreamed of becoming an ultrarunner for over 15 years. For whatever reson it has has called to me even though I don’t come from an athletic family (no one set the example) and don’t have a solid history in sports beyond a couple of random marathons. However, last November I set my sights on running 1,500 miles/over 2000km (50+ marathons in 50 days) across the length of New Zealand in 2017. The reason I was able to do so was that I found a what I call a deep ‘why’ . I found a purpose so big that I knew it would help carry me across the proverbial and literal mountains of training, fundraising and the ultra run itself… and here it is: Sisu not Silence.

Something magical happened during the first days and weeks into my training. Ever since I stretched my mind with this crazy goal, other things that used to feel huge have become nearly mundane. Like, let’s say running a marathon as a random Sunday training run.

Our perspective changes when we surpass old barriers and turn them intro frontiers.

Now, would have I guessed I could do this? No. Am I particularly talented or experienced as a runner? Nope. (Experienced I will be soon, oh yes 8 ) Am I now living what once was an impossible dream? Yes. (Full disclosure: It’s fun on some days and not so fun on others. Meaning gives us a sense of purpose way beyond feeling happy. Having ‘fun’ being all ‘wo hoo’ every moment of the journey is not necessarily what happiness is. For more thoughts, I warmly recommend this article on the Atlantic by the amazing Emily Esfahani Smith.)

Go out there. Find out what lights you up and begin taking the necessary steps. The first one is the hardest but if you spend enough time figuring the trickly purpose stuff out, I have no doubt that you will find the momentum to carry on. Lastly, surround yourself with people (and stories of people) who inspire you and show you the extent of the human spirit.

They are the Roger Bannisters and Kathrine Switzers the world who show us that there are few true “brick walls”, and if there are, most of them still have a door hidden somewhere. Btw. the lovely Bannister himself is now coping with the effects of Parkinson’s. As humans, we are forever weaved into the fabric of adversity and challenges and are invited again and again to reinvent ourselves and exceed our previously presumed limitations. In fact, it’s the one thing I believe connects every single human on this Earth.

I dare you to dream big, and then some.

And practice. Practice, practice, practice.

Limits? Don’t set any beforehand. I guarantee you’ll organically find out what they are for you at a given moment. You will also discover that they’re not solid but keep transforming and changing based on your resources, practice and perhaps even beliefs.

Yours in sisu, Emilia

Image: Bannister’s 4-minute mile shoes that were sold at auction last year to an anonymous buyer for $409,000.

6 thoughts on “What’s Your 4-Minute Mile?

  1. “If we never challenge ourself we will not know how far we can go. Take this.”

    YES! We don’t know our boundaries, before we work hard to see how far we can go. If we imagine a boundary, and don’t try to go beyond, our imagination has created a real boundary inside ourselves.

    Saying all this, all barriers are not made to broken, at least not at once. Because, it takes energy and effort, and these are limited. We need to make choices about barriers.

    And sometimes imaginary is all there is, when it comes to boundary. It requires only a light step, to go through, it is more act of faith, than act of a physical world.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this post and your research on sisu. It helped me to find an explanation on how I managed to finish my first 100 mile ultrarace :-)


    1. Hi there, ultra-mind : ) Wow, congrats on the amazing achievement! Out of curiosity, how many tries did it take you until making it through an entire 100-mile race? Or, gee, did you make it on your first try?

      Your feedback made my day. Thank you. Let’s keep hustling for well-being, love and better human future! Every mile, smile and action can matter.

      Keep on kicking ass! //Emilia

      Liked by 1 person

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